A Churchy World or a Worldly Church?

The English pastor and theologian Griffith Thomas was once asked if he thought the world was becoming a little churchy, to which he replied, “It’s true that the world is becoming a little churchy; but the church is becoming immensely worldly.”

D. L. Moody, the 19th-century American evangelist, was quoted as saying, “The churches are full of men and women who have no power at all.  Where did they lose it? It was when they formed an alliance with the world. I would rather be alone with God than be with the whole world without God.”

William Wordsworth, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1843 to 1850, wrote: “The world is too much with us: late and soon; getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours.”

John the Apostle, in his first general epistle, admonished 1st-century readers to “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (I John 2:15)

The world (“cosmos”) has been defined as that which, in the context of what John said in I John 2:15, is the civilization, social order, custom, government, education, entertainment, culture, etc. The “things” of the world, which John said we should not love, are politics, luxury, pleasure, arts, entertainment, eating and drinking, financial pursuits, and on and on—anything that is part of our everyday life that appeals to what we would like to do, or pursue, while blunting our ardor for God. John Stott, I believe, put it this way: “Only when prostituted to the selfish purposes of man, to the exclusion of God, do the these become wrong. How do you use them?”

James addresses the root cause of worldliness: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not…Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy with God.” (James 4:1-4)

Some of you will remember when the United States Treasury minted the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Designed as a durable, lightweight alternative to the paper dollar, it never succeeded and finally fell completely out of circulation because it was easily confused with the quarter.  So is the Christian whose life cannot be distinguished from his unbelieving neighbor’s life. When the believer adopts the world-view of the culture in which he lives, his testimony is muted, and his witness becomes of no effect.  The 19th-century naturalist Henry Thoreau once went to jail for refusing to pay his poll tax because it would go, in part, to supporting slavery. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and, peering through the bars, said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?” It does matter where we go, what we say, what we do, and how we are perceived by the world around us.  Christians can have a love affair with the world. Poet Robert Frost once admitted that “I have a lover’s quarrel with the world. When I look at our (America’s) wealth and power and how it is being used, I may still have a quarrel with America, but I hope it will always be a ‘lover’s quarrel.’”

The late J. Vernon McGee said that “We do not become pilgrims until we become strangers.” Peter urged, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.”  (I Peter 2:11-12) Adopting a worldly life style and mindset does not lend itself to the “stranger/pilgrim” model for either 1st century or 21st century saints.

The UPI once published a sad story about a 9-year-old girl who had been raised in a barn-yard with pigs in the Chinese province of Liaoning.  The girl had been suckled and raised from infancy by a peasant family’s pigs, because her disabled parents supposedly could not care for her. Rescued in time, the child was taught to abandoned pig-like behavior. It was a difficult task, for the little girl had—from her earliest days—crawled like a pig and imitated other piggish actions. She wanted to be left in solitude. That is sad, to be sure. But what about believers who have learned the ways of this world, and who gravitate often to worldliness, so that they have become indistinguishable from the pagans whose spiritual habitat is the pigpen of this world? Jesus knew of the lifelong struggle that His own would have when He petitioned His heavenly Father: “I have given them Thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world even as I am not of the world. I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14-16)

English poet T.S. Eliot captured the Christian’s (and the world’s) dilemma in a poem entitled “The Rock.” I close with this powerful poetic reminder:

“O weariness of men who turn from God to the grandeur of your mind and the glory of your action,

To arts and inventions and daring enterprises, to schemes of human greatness thoroughly discredited,

Binding the earth and the water to your service, exploiting the seas and developing the mountains,

Dividing the stars into common and preferred, engaged in devising the perfect refrigerator,

Engaged in working out a rational morality, engaged in printing as many books as possible,

Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles, turning from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm

For nation or race or what you call humanity; though you forgot the way to the Temple,

There is One who remembers the way to your door; Life may evade you, but Death shall not.

You shall not deny the Stranger.” (T.S. Eliot, 1888-1965)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world…For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” (I John 2:15, 16)

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