Christian Worldview: What Does It Mean to Be “In the World” but Not “Of the World”?

J. Warner Wallace
J. Warner Wallace
2017 21 Jul

Some time ago, my wife and I watched an episode of a comedy series hosted on Netflix. Within a few minutes we became increasingly uncomfortable with the language and content of the humor. Don’t get me wrong, it was hilarious, and as a cop, crude, vulgar humor has been a part of my everyday experience for over two decades. But as we sat there watching this particular episode, we both had a growing sense that the show was somehow “desensitizing our sensibilities”. We started to feel… “dirty”. We turned off the laptop; watching any further only demonstrated our tacit approval and we wanted to stop before our worldview had been permanently altered.

I immediately thought about the all too familiar expression many of us quote as scripture: We are called to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. This notion is consistent with the teaching of the New Testament, even if it isn’t a direct quote:

John 15:19
If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.

John 17:14-16
I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

It seems that Jesus understood the tension we would experience as Christians living in a hostile ideological environment. The authors of the New Testament also encouraged us to continue our relationships with the world around us, but to be careful to live in a way that pleases God, not the culture:

1 John 2:15
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

1 Corinthians 5:9-10
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.

Romans 12:2
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

James 1:27
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

So what does it really mean to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world? How do we decide which shows we ought to watch, which environments we ought to avoid or which activities are “out of bounds”? It may be helpful to examine these questions from the perspective of location and information:

“In” the World: It’s Our Point of Location
Paul was right when he said that we would have to leave the world altogether if we wanted to truly separate ourselves from immoral, “worldly” people. That’s not what God is asking us to do. The fact that you might be in a location where your Christian worldview is being challenged is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, God may have placed you there so you can have a positive impact on those who don’t yet know Jesus, or at least learn more about the culture so you can influence it later. So, while my wife and I were located in front of our laptop watching the sitcom, this was not the issue that concerned me.

“Of” the World: It’s Our Source of Information
My concern was simply that the repeated exposure to the worldview expressed in the show was having an impact on my worldview as a Christian. It was starting to change the way I think. That isn’t always the case for me, but there are definitely times when I’ve caught myself repeating some objectionable phrase (or embracing some ungodly concept) simply because I heard (or saw) it repeatedly in some movie, cable show or series of conversations at work. It’s one thing to be located in these environments; it’s another thing to draw from them as a source for information and behavior.

I’m less concerned with my point of location than I am with my source of information. I often place myself in locations where non-Christian cultural worldviews are strong. My career forces me into situations that are challenging and I am still curious and adventurous enough to choose locations that are unfriendly to Christianity. I step away only when I recognize the environment is starting to change the way I think. I back off when I realize my point of location has become my source of information.

J.Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.

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