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How Shall We Live in the World?

Josh Hunt

Historic Christian orthodoxy has always understood the role of Christians in the world as one of engaging, reforming and redeeming our planet. God's creation has been deeply impacted by the Fall but it remains a marvelous creation. From the beginning, vibrant Christianity has consistently cited the early words of Genesis to make this point.

So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (NRSV, Genesis 1:27-28).

Let me say candidly that there are no easy options here. Anyway you go at it, it will involve saying good-bye to some friends so you can befriend people who are not yet friends with Jesus. This is inherently difficult. But, I do have some ideas that will make it a little easier.

Contemporary evangelicals desperately need to recover this mandate to “have dominion.” It is an emphasis virtually muted in the present. Our problem is that our most respected Christian leaders have repeatedly told us that spiritual things are holy and important, but physical things are unholy and unimportant. Why then should Christians care about the world? It's decaying, dying and will be eventually destroyed like an old piece of wasted junk. Aren't we to focus on our inheritance in heaven and leave this world to the evil men and women who have no hope of heaven? Well, no, not if we are living a healthy, robust Christian life. Let me explain.

Much of the problem lies in an almost complete misunderstanding of the Bible's use of the word “world.” The Bible makes some broad sweeping condemnations of the world and regularly warns believers to remain unspotted by the world. John the apostle writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world” (1 John 2:15). And James asks rhetorically, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes and enemy of God” (James 4:4). And it was our Lord who taught his disciples about this world by saying: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

So, how are we to “have dominion” over the world when we are clearly told to shun it, even to hate it. How can we love this world, and the things in the world, and still love God? Multitudes of evangelicals have simplistically taught that we are to hate the created world. This hatred, we are assured, will be the very instrument God uses to show non-Christians what we really believe. The reality is this—most unbelievers see our hated of the world and everything in it, including them. What went wrong?

The place for us to begin is in reconsidering what the Bible really means by the term “world.” How are we to understand the injunctions that we are not to love the world when these few texts are put alongside the multitude of texts that tell us we are the earthly stewards of God's creation? How are we to love and serve people in this present world while hating the world? How, indeed, are we to receive, with thanksgiving, all that God has given to us for our enjoyment in this present age while at the same time avoiding that which is “of the world”?

The answer to these questions demands that we define the word “world” far more carefully. Henry Van Til, in his classic book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, argued that the world refers to “the mass of mankind alienated through sin.” When you see the word “world” used negatively in the Bible think philosophical ideas. When used negatively it refers then to fallen human value systems. The moral darkness the Bible notes as being part of this present world (age) is the result of sinful minds and hearts. The world, or cosmos (created order), is not evil. To think in this manner is to embrace the ancient heresies of dualism and Platonism. Sadly, several generations of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were reared on ideas that have less in common with real Christianity than ancient errors. Most of us were taught to “touch not, taste not” when it came certain kinds of recreation, drink, beauty, art or film. The list varied from geographical region to region but each group had its “approved list.” In the process we forgot all about the moral law, which dealt with things like destroying another's reputation, taking another's wife, and misusing the name of our Holy God. We replaced God's law with our own.

Am I saying Christians can go anywhere they want, drink whatever they please and as much as they please, gaze intently on pornography with unchecked lust, and watch porno flicks to their heart's content? No, not at all. The very commandments of God show us the parameters of his holy law. Paul reasons that some things are to be used in moderation, some not at all (Philippians 4:5). The wise Christian will seek to obey God, not man. The faithful follower of Christ will also recognize that there is liberty in regard to much that we have fought over in our sub-cultural Christian ghettos. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Romans 14:4).

The word “world” as used in Romans 12:2, an important text to our thinking here, is the Greek word schema. The word is best translated by the English word “pattern.” Henry Van Til is again helpful when he writes:

Christians are not to pattern their lives after the cultural patterns of this world. Their lovemaking may not follow the pattern set by Hollywood; their moneymaking may not be patterned after the rugged individualism of an unconscionable Capitalism. And this pattern lies not so much in the material that is used or the cut of one's hair or suit but in the spiritual. God, the Lord, who has committed all authority to the Son, through whom he rules all things, has given direction for our love life and our economic life and for the juridical, social, biological, and physical aspects of everyday existence” (The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 208).

What we must avoid is seduction by the patterns of worldly thinking and living. The world has several philosophies about life and how to get ahead. Christians have an entirely different view of things. Our lives are to show the difference. We were created to enjoy all of God's gifts with sheer joy. This means any form of asceticism (“touch not, taste not”) is immediately suspicious, if not positively wrong.

Where did this nonbiblical view of living in this world come from? Most agree that it originated with Plato. It was then embraced by some of the early Christian writers and has remained part of our thinking and living since shortly after the second or third centuries. We know for sure that Origen, an early Christian writer, embraced Greek dualism and came to conclude that the “real world” was spiritual and this earthly one, the physical world, should be avoided as alien to followers of Christ. Add to this kind of philosophy the reaction of fundamentalists to liberalism in the American denominations at the end of the 19th century and you get to our present confusion. Modern conservatives are often more Platonic than Christian. Sadly the average conservative Christian does not see the serious flaws in this pattern of thinking. What complicates this is that such Christians are utterly convinced that they embrace the truth of the Bible without compromise.

Question: Are the challenges, attractions and cultural insights of our time to be entirely avoided or received with thanksgiving and careful discernment? Your answer will tell you whether or not you are a Platonist ascetic or a healthy God-centered Christian who loves the world as God intended. If your piety will not allow you to “enjoy” this world it is not a biblical piety, it is Gnostic. Don't you think it is time to rethink our concept of “worldliness” so that we might live in this world with joy before our gracious Creator. Come to think of it, if we begin to live this way we will likely be afforded numerous opportunities to challenge the false philosophies of life embraced by our unbelieving friends without ever having to leave them to form our own separated ghettos of Gnostic religion. Then, and only then, will we truly be “in the world, but not of the world.”

John H. Armstrong, a noted evangelical leader, is president of Reformation and Revival Minitries. He can be reached via www.reformationrevival.com.


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