Worldliness

and Otherworldliness

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Israel's world affirming outlook, God is creator and ruler of this world, was reinforced by incarnation of the ideal in flesh, in Jesus Christ. He rejected the austerities of the Baptist and proclaimed the rule of God in this world. Nevertheless, he sharply criticized his "evil and adulterous generation": disciples must be different ("it shall not be so among you") yet must love their neighbor. So Peter and Paul exhorted converts to protective "separation" from the world, while stressing involvement in human needs and the mission to save the world. John was uncompromisingly world renouncing: society organized against God "lies in the evil one"; love of the world contradicts love for the Father; yet Christ, the Savior of the world God loves, dies for the world (I John 2:2).

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Tension grew between world affirming ministry and world renouncing concentration upon the world above (mysticism) or upon the world to come (adventism), as Christians resisted the theaters, games, and debauchery rampant in the Roman world yet cared for the world's unwanted. Separation strengthened into rejection of the world and ultimately into escape, as anchorites and monastics despised marriage, cleanliness, and all human comforts, in an otherworldly search for deeper truth and the vision of God. Simultaneously, the conversion of Rome fostered a new kind of worldliness, ambition for all the rewards of power. Two types of Christians emerged, the religious, withdrawn from the world, and the lay, active in the world.

Augustine held Christians should use but not enjoy the world; Aquinas would impose natural law upon it. Luther's "kingdom of grace" (the church) was paralleled by "the kingdom of God's left hand," the secular world, ruled by law: Christians live within both. Calvin would restore the world to God's rule by discipline, making the world one vast monastery. For Puritans, the world is Vanity Fair, to be traveled through toward the Celestial City, not dwelt in. Yet not the world but worldliness is sinful, the desire for the world's ways and prizes when the heart's true loyalties lie elsewhere.

Nineteenth century social gospel reformers, firmly rooted in the kingdom (Maurice), in compassion (Gladden), or in a liturgical vision of God's glory (Holland, Temple), strove to embody their spiritual vision within the everyday world of wages, houses, work, and peace. But Bonhoeffer insisted that the world is already spiritual, reconciled, needing "religionless," unseparated Christians to plunge into its life to prove it is not godless.

In the tensions of such unworldly worldliness the Christian ever lives, not of the world, redeemed from it, independent of it, but sent back to minister to it, living within it in the power of the world to come, knowing that the world is God's.

R E O White
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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