As Christians, we are to be “in the world but not of it.” But what does that mean exactly? It can actually be a pretty confusing concept if we don’t give it some careful thought. Does being “in the world” mean that we hang out at bars and watch seedy movies? Does not being “of the world” mean that we avoid contact with non-Christians or watch only Christian-produced movies?
First, we have to decide what “the world” means. On the one hand, we know that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). But John also warns us: “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15–16).
So which is it? Well, it all depends on what is meant by “the world.” The Bible uses the term “world” in at least three ways.
- “The world” can refer to the physical world that God created. God loves that world, and he called it good at every step of its creation. Though it has been tainted by sin, it will ultimately be freed from its “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21). “The world” is good, God loves it and cares for it, so we should too.
- “The world” can also refer to the people in the world. God loves them too. That’s what John 3:16 is getting at. God loves the people he created and sent his Son to redeem them. We should love “the world” as God loved the world.
- But “the world” can also refer to the evil world system that is ultimately empowered by Satan. This is what John was referring to when he told us not to love the world. He makes that clear by defining it as “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:15–16). God doesn’t love “the world,” and neither should we.
When Jesus prayed for his followers in John 17, he said that we are “not of the world.” And yet he also said that he sent us “into the world,” just as the Father sent him into the world. How does that work? How can we be in the world but not of it? Jesus’ prayer actually addresses that specifically. He prays,
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (v. 15).
Now we’re getting closer to an answer. It seems that we’re in “the world” (in God’s creation and amongst the people he created), but we are to stay away from the evil one (“the world” in the sense of the evil world system).
So being in the world but not of it means that we will be where people are. We’ll be in the midst of culture. We’ll walk with them through God’s world. And yet we will not be worldly. We will refuse to love the evil we inevitably encounter. This is what many Christians mean by the phrase “engaging culture.” We are there in the midst of the world, interacting with the world and the people that God made. But we think critically, and we refuse to take part in the works of evil.
Some Christians have become so concerned about the evil in the world that they have tried to distance themselves from all secular culture. But this is actually a dangerous move. Steve Turner explains:
“Some strict fundamentalist sects show disdain toward creation and culture, and yet in doing so become proud, arrogant and uncaring. They therefore become worldly in the very way the Bible condemns and yet are not worldly enough in the way the Bible commands. We are told to be in the world but not of it. People like this are often of the world but not in it” (Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Downers Grove: IVP, 2001, 43, italitcs added.)
So which are you? Do you love the world in the ways the Bible commands? Do you refuse to love the world in the ways the Bible forbids? Being in the world in the right sense matters. Jesus doesn’t want us pulled out the world. He wants us in there. He sent us in there. But we have to be careful about how we do it.