In the Bible, the word `world’ can have different meanings. This leads to some apparent contradictions. For example, John tells us in his gospel that God loves the world (John 3:16), but then says in his first letter that we are on no account to do so! (I John 2:15-17)
The world that God created is inherently good, because it originated from God (Genesis 1:31). It is therefore right and proper for Christians to enjoy the good things that God has made (such as marriage and food); asceticism is not part of the Christian gospel (I Timothy 4:1-5). And we are commanded to love the people in the world, all of whom are our neighbours (Luke 10:25-37).
The `world’ that we are to reject is the value system of the society in which we live, which is under Satan’s rule and is in many ways opposed to God’s values (I John 5:19). The human race transferred its allegiance to the devil way back in the Garden of Eden, and has been in his thrall ever since. He has distorted and perverted human creativity for his own ends, so that human philosophy and culture is directed not towards God but away from Him. There is still much ‘good stuff’ in the world, because many individuals are aware that there is something better to strive for; but it always tends to get corrupted in the end.
Salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16)
But we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and we are no longer part of the world. We must reject its standards (or rather the lack of them), its values (largely materialistic) and its goals (self-centred and godless). “We are not to be like a chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings” (John Stott); we are meant to be different, to stand out from our surroundings (Leviticus 18:3,4; Romans 12:1,2). If the Church cannot be distinguished from the surrounding culture, then we are not fulfilling our calling to be the salt of the earth; we have lost our ‘saltiness’ (Matthew 5:13). Yet we are under constant pressure to conform to the kingdom of the world. To make things even more difficult, the values of the surrounding culture have a tendency to seep into the Church itself. This subtle influence is in some ways harder to withstand than outright hostility, because it comes in ‘under the radar’ and we are usually completely unaware of it. Yet it affects everything that we think and do – even the way we read and interpret Scripture. To some extent we cannot avoid being part of our contemporary culture; but we have to learn to critique it.
Warning: rejecting the values of the world does not mean avoiding contact with the people of the world! (I Corinthians 5:9,10; Luke 5:29-32) We have to love the people (as God does) while at the same time living in a way that glorifies Jesus. It can be a difficult balancing act, and different Christians will have different ways of working it out. How do we know if we are getting it right? Perhaps one way to tell is by how the world relates to us. In various times and places, Christians have been persecuted for being ‘different’ from the rest of society (John 15:18,19). If we never provoke any negative reaction, we must ask ourselves if we are being ‘different’ enough (Luke 6:26).
Christians and culture
How much cultural engagement is appropriate for Christians? The answer to this question depends to some extent on the culture (both inside and outside the Church). A century ago, many churches in the West frowned upon activities that today would be considered pretty innocuous: drinking alcohol, dancing, going to the cinema, wearing make-up… These issues no longer seem contentious, but others have taken their place. Should Christians read the Harry Potter books? Should Christian couples use contraception? Should churches engage with social media such as Facebook and Twitter? Should we celebrate Hallowe’en?
The Bible is virtually silent on such matters, and consequently there is little or no consensus; sincere believers are to be found on both sides of every argument. At one extreme, some Christians are so ‘engaged’ with contemporary society that they are indistinguishable from unbelievers; at the other, Christians are hunkering down in church bunkers, committed to a ‘ghetto’ mentality that paralyses their witness. Surely the ideal position is somewhere in the middle – but that still leaves a lot of scope for variation.
So we should be wary of criticising those who disagree with us. We can only go by what the apostle Paul says: “Each should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:5) Whatever we have decided to do, we must be able to justify it before God. We must be able to do it with a clear conscience, for “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23) And our actions (or inactions) must be honouring to God (I Corinthians 10:31).