I have had quite a few conversations, both in person and online, about the meaning of the world. I have seen people very concerned about the world in the sense of the things that are worldly. This is a valid concern as we read: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15 ESV) I have seen people recently being critical of Christians celebrating Christmas. Not just Santa Claus, but even celebrating the birth of Jesus through nativity scenes and Christmas musicals, as it a cultural tradition and not something commanded us by the Bible. Others have argued that all entertainment, such as sports and television/movies are sinful as they are worldly. Christians are agreed that being worldly is wrong but there seems to be something vague in the definition. Most often, the world seems to be defined as anything secular.
After I came to faith, I attended a church that was very sensitive to issues of worldliness. This was put deep within my early concept of Christianity. I remember feeling guilty about reading a book on Roman history, as it was not Christian. I even felt guilty about buying a Billy Graham book, because it was not the Bible. I got rid of all my rock albums (records in those days) as it was pushed at how bad secular music was.
Is this what John was arguing? Was he teaching that we have to avoid all things secular and only be involved in activities that are explicitly Christian? One of the problems with this is that there was no secular-religious divide in the first century. There was no Christian industry producing Christian versions of all the things in the secular world. The way many people today define the world would not even be recognizable to John or any of his readers. In fact, the idea of anything secular, or even something religious in the sense of being separate from the rest of culture is a very modern concept. There are scholars who argue that what we call religion is actually a recent innovation as for most of history, spirituality was firmly integrated into the rest of culture.
So if being worldly is not about being involved in secular activities or enjoy secular entertainment, what is it? It is not hard to explain as John gives us the definition in the next verse. “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.” (1 John 2:16 ESV) The world is not that which is secular but the attitudes and desires that are opposed to the virtues of the kingdom of God. It is possible to be worldly while fully involved in Christian culture and to be godly while involved in secular culture.
Let me make things clear. I am not suggesting that everyone should participate in all secular culture or entertainment. There is an important place for discernment. There is a lot of good out there and a lot of bad as well. However, we should be reluctant to condemn people for enjoying forms of music, television, holidays or whatever, just because we don’t like it. Reject the concept of world=secular and go deeper into understanding what the Bible says worldly values really are.