In my last post, Two Dangers: Danger One I stated: In the early years of my faith I was warned to avoid two dangers to my spiritual life and ministry. Those two dangers were being fleshly and being worldly. I could not agree more and I completely disagree. Let me explain.
In that post I discussed how inadequate the traditional definition of “being fleshly” was. In this post I’d like to discuss the idea of being “worldly” that many of us have. I was raised that this was “being worldly”: having long hair, wearing the current youthful fashion (a suit and tie was OK), using the current slang and other such “worldly” behavior.
I think that misses the point entirely. I don’t think our hair style, our clothing and speech habits (as long as they are gracious and modest) have anything to do with worldliness. But there is such a thing as worldliness and it is very dangerous to our spiritual lives. Actually there are four very pointed passages about worldliness in Galatians and Colossians.
So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. (Gal. 4:3)
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! (Gal. 4:8-10)
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:8)
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? (Col. 2:20-21)
In the context Paul is saying that going back to the structure and logic of Jewish religion was worldly and looking at reality through Greek philosophy was worldly. See the context here Gal. 4 and Col. 2. The Galatians were trying to become more godly through following Jewish religious rules. The Colossians were succumbing to some Greek philosophical thinking, probably a form of early Gnosticism.
So what do Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion have to do with each other? Why are these both examples of the hollow and deceptive, weak and miserable principles of the world which lead us to slavery? They are both attempts of humans to accomplish their goals by human effort. Greek philosophy whether Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic or Epicurean was based on one simple idea: We can make our life better by figuring things out by our own human wisdom and effort, our own “philosophy.” Philosophy, after all, means love of wisdom.
But why did Paul single out Hebrew religion. Wasn’t Hebrew religion instituted by God? Wouldn’t it therefore be good? Not exactly. Hebrew religion was based on a covenant God made with Israel. That covenant was the Law. In essence it was humans trying to live for God by keeping the rules in their own effort. According to the writer of Hebrews there was something wrong with this covenant which required God to give a new one. And the new covenant was superior and made the old one obsolete (Heb. 8:6-13). The old covenant of the Law was based on men striving to please God with their own human effort. The new covenant was based on living in the power of the Spirit under the direction of the Spirit.
So what Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion have in common is men achieving their goals through human ability, wisdom and effort. In other words, “we can do it ourselves.” That’s the basic, foundational principle the world. It is a theme that started in Gen. 3 and weaves its way through every chapter of the Bible from then on. The theological name for this is sin. It expresses itself in ideas like this: Those with the most power should have more respect. The richer the better. Fame and attention are important. When dealing with leaders, salute the flag (i.e. do whatever they say).
With that in mind, think about how we try to accomplish ministry by utilizing current American business practice. Isn’t that succumbing to the foundational principles of the world? What about setting up leadership structures based on hierarchy just like the world does? What about viewing our faith through the current philosophical lens be it modernism or postmodernism (both based on Greek philosophy)? Are we really as free from the taint of the world as we imagine ourselves? I develop these themes in more detail in my book Viral Jesus.
- Is the modern Church any better off than the Galatians with their human religious practices or the Colossians with their fascination with living the Christian life based on the current worldview?
- Why do you think we tend to define worldliness on surface issues like clothing rather than foundational issues like human striving?
- Do you think it is possible to be completely free of the world system?
- What do you think Christianity would be like if it wasn’t worldly? Would it be more or less effective?