I believe evangelical Christians largely do not care about what those in the world think of them. That is a problem. If evangelicals truly care about the ministry of Jesus Christ, they should care deeply about what non-Christians think of them. Part of the reason they don’t care about what non-Christians think is that non-Christians are “of the world”.
If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have probably heard the statement “…be in the world not of it.” This idea is based loosely on passages like James 4:4 and John 17: 13-19.
“You adulterous people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
These passages seem prescriptive (a direct command). And it was for the time in which it was written. However, over time it has become descriptive (describing an event or idea) as we no longer live in the same type of world the early Christians did. The failure of evangelical theology to have mechanisms in place to appreciate this type of historical evolution is, ironically, a direct result of the lack of cultural relativism that exists within their worldview. In other words, because they believe we are not to be of the world, that the world is this evil place, they don’t allow for culture to influence theology. This lack of cultural relativism is reflected in many of the beliefs that progressives and evangelicals argue over. In fact, one of the primary complaints lodged at progressives is that they are too “worldly”.
This idea of “worldliness” as sin is also heavily connected to the belief that the Kingdom of God is in the heavenly realms; therefore, things of this world are meaningless. However, this understanding of the Kingdom is flawed. Revelation 21 states that the Kingdom of God will be physical (although there may be some spiritual version of it currently). Therefore, we should care about things of this world not only because it has value in being part of God’s creation, but it also affects the ministry that Christians have while still here on Earth (Numbers 35:33-34, Romans 3:20). Did not God create the world and call it good?
These passages and the ideas surrounding them are based upon a Roman-ruled world – the context in which much of the New Testament was written. However, at least some aspects of society are better today than they were during the Roman conquest. Most of these improvements were not driven by the Church, but rather “worldly” cultural evolutions and movements that often conflicted with the priorities of the Church at the time. So, what if the worldly ones are driving positive changes in the world? What if being “in the world” means progress toward equal human rights?
The reason there is so much written in the New Testament about helping the poor, the role of women, sexuality, etc. is because the Roman world was a terrible place to live. When Jesus speaks out against the world he is speaking out against Rome – and other places like it. I contend that the world today is different in many ways than Rome was.
What was Rome Like?
So, what was life actually like in Ancient Rome?
It was a man’s world: Men ruled the roost. It did not matter what class they were a part of; their children and spouse were his property. Therefore, laws were applied differently depending on one’s role within the family. Needless to say, women had few rights – especially compared to their male counterparts.
This is the context for why writers like Paul and Peter provide instructions on the roles of women. Jesus had no restrictions for women and allowed them to even be disciples. So, when Jesus died, women were eager to participate in the community of Christ-followers, just as they did when he was alive. It was Paul and Peter specifically who reminded women of their place in Roman society so that they did not raise Roman suspicion and get persecuted.
In American culture today, this hierarchical structure has been corrected in some ways and Christians should be at the forefront of these movements. However, misogyny still lingers – be it subtly or overtly – in the church today. The main reason for this is a lack of cultural relativism.
Cultural movements are leading the way toward gender equality. Here is a great example of times when Christians should follow the culture – be in the world and of it. When Christians don’t follow the example of the culture and continue to subjugate women, they live as the Romans did and not like Jesus and early Church leaders encouraged them to live. Ideas like complementarianism are flawed because it follows the Roman household codes for family and is not the more inclusive version that many cultures support today.
Treating the poor with contempt: The poor were treated terribly in Rome. There did not exist social services to help alleviate the burden of the poor because it was believed that the gods were responsible for creating social statuses. Moreover, those who had disabilities were cast aside to live in poverty or be slaves – that was their lot in life. The Jews imitated the same social structure they saw the Romans participating in. The reason this was such an important issue to Jesus was that poverty was ubiquitous (Luke 4:14-19). The Jews were living “worldly” (like the Romans) and not with Kingdom values. So, when Jesus says don’t be of the world, this is what he is speaking about.
To be of the world means that we treat the poor with respect and do what we can to alleviate their burden. This also means that we might at times need to support people who can change laws to also help the poor. To be of the world means that we act socially responsible.
Oppression: Oppression was probably the most significant idea that Jesus repudiated. Oppression is often directed at the poor and marginalized. However, it also includes abuse of power in any form. This includes owners of slaves, women, children, etc. Jesus saw severe oppression, not only in the Roman Empire but also amongst the Jews and he preached against it. In fact, it could be argued that Jesus made this his primary issue. And, in an ironic twist, Jesus even died by submitting himself to the same oppression he fought against.
To be of the world in today’s context means that we stand up for the oppressed. It means we stand up for anyone who is having their human rights violated. It should also mean that we support legislation that helps to eliminate oppression on every level.
A Concluding Thought
When we are told to not be like the world, that is not a universal statement for every culture in world history. There are times throughout history when culture IS acting by Kingdom standards and is doing good. I would argue that in many ways today’s day and age are one of those times. There is a lot to be dismayed about in our culture, but there are good strides toward correcting some of our “Roman” behavior. Jesus was not antithetical to the world; he was antithetical to the religious elite and, by extension, Rome. Christians should not only be participating in these cultural movements but leading the way to empower positive change in the world.
Now when an evangelical complains that you are worldly, you can kindly say, “thank you”!