dumbing worldliness down?

Within fundamentalism, ongoing discussion of our views and practices inevitably leads to a discussion of worldliness. Traditionally fundamentalism has called for a separation not only from false teachers and modernism but also for a separation from the world. Fundamentalism has spoken out against an attitude of worldliness developing in the church.

In Dave Doran’s recent presentations concerning separation, he touched on the area of worldliness, some of which I objected to earlier. He continues this discussion by putting into writing a good deal of the material he covered in the presentations. This article deals with worldliness.

Dave starts off with a reasonable definition of worldliness:

Worldliness is having a heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values so that we engage in its sinful pleasures and pursue earthly treasures.

So far, so good. You can read any number of articles on worldliness and come up with similar definitions.

But it is the expansion of this definition that I find … what? Curious? Unusual? Discordant? Troubling? Perhaps all of the above…

In expanding the phrase, ‘we engage in its sinful pleasures’, Dave says that it is possible to trivialize worldliness “by treating it as if it means something like ‘popular among lost people.’” He says that popularity does not equal sinful. He suggests that the popularity of a particular hairstyle or style of clothing isn’t sinful simply because a lot of lost people like them. These styles can be questioned if they are immodest – popularity is irrelevant.1

Dave then goes on to say this:

The consistent witness of the NT is on the sinfulness, not popularity, of any particular practice. Just after instructing the Ephesians in 4:17-24 about not living like those who don’t know Christ, the Apostle Paul provides practical instruction about what that means in 4:25-5:14. The contrast he draws is between vice and virtue—don’t lie, but speak the truth; don’t steal, but work and share; don’t use unwholesome words, but those which edify. He focuses on matters like immorality, impurity, greed, and filthy talk. In the same way, Peter marks off the difference in terms of vices like sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries (1 Peter 4:3).

Churches that are serious about resisting worldliness, then, will be serious about dealing with sin.

Let’s attempt to be clear about what is being said:

  • Worldliness is to have a heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values so that we engage in its sinful pleasures.
  • The NT issue is not whether a practice is popular or not, but whether it is sinful or not.
  • The apostles instruct us ‘Don’t do sinful things’.
  • Churches that resist worldliness deal with sin.

I think that is a correct understanding of Dave’s description. I am happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood him.

Dave goes on to expand on the second phrase of his definition, ‘pursue earthly treasures’:

Temporal, material preoccupation is clearly a sign of worldliness and must be resisted by believers and congregations. Frankly, assessing this aspect of worldliness has always been difficult since there is nothing inherently evil about material prosperity and it can be tricky to spot the line between having things and them having you. This is even more difficult when we apply it to congregational life. We all probably have our own views on when the line is crossed, but we’re not talking about disagreements or things we find objectionable. We’re talking about matters which cast doubt on one’s profession to be “seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).

So, let’s see if we can sum this up:

  • Materialism is a sign of worldliness and must be resisted.
  • It is difficult to know when someone has crossed the line here.
  • The line is crossed at the point where someone’s profession of faith is in doubt because of their materialism.

Would it be fair to say that the way Dave is describing worldliness is to say that worldliness = sinfulness or a certain level of materialism?

Maybe these thoughts describe a certain amount of worldliness, but I am left asking, ‘Is that all?’

For example, let me give you another definition of worldliness:

Worldliness is not so much a matter of activity as of attitude. It is possible for a Christian to stay away from questionable amusements and doubtful places and still love the world, for worldliness is a matter of the heart. To the extent that a Christian loves the world system and the things in it, he does not love the Father.

Worldliness not only affects your response to the love of God; it also affects your response to the will of God. “The world passeth away… but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever” (1 John 2:17).

Doing the will of God is a joy for those living in the love of God. “If ye love Me, keep My commandments.” But when a believer loses his enjoyment of the Father’s love, he finds it hard to obey the Father’s will.

When you put these two factors together, you have a practical definition of worldliness: anything in a Christian’s life that causes him to lose his enjoyment of the Father’s love or his desire to do the Father’s will is worldly and must be avoided. Responding to the Father’s love (your personal devotional life), and doing the Father’s will (your daily conduct)—these are two tests of worldliness.2

Note this line: “Worldliness is not so much a matter of activity as of attitude.

It seems that most of Dave’s definition is limited to activity, certainly the part he expands on the most deals with activities, not attitudes. Warren Wiersbe’s definition puts the matter squarely in the area of attitude. In fact, he says, worldliness can very well be present when all the activities are blameless. Worldliness is a matter of the heart and its loves.

I don’t suppose I need to note that Wiersbe is not a fundamentalist.

Here’s another non-fundamentalist’s definition:

Wordliness (2:15–17). Given the nature of “world” in the N.T., worldliness is not a matter of some list of do’s and don’ts. It is adopting the perspectives (cravings), the values (lust of the eyes), and attitudes (the boasting of status) of man’s society rather than the perspective, values, and attitudes of God.3

You see, it’s not a list of do’s and don’ts. Worldliness is heart issues.

In Wiersbe’s lengthy comment on 1 Jn 2.15ff., partially quoted above, he emphasizes the tests of the devotional life and the daily conduct – responding to the Father’s love and doing the Father’s will (see above). He goes on to say this:

Many things in this world are definitely wrong and God’s Word identifies them as sins. It is wrong to steal and to lie (Eph. 4:25, 28). Sexual sins are wrong (Eph. 5:1–3). About these and many other actions, Christians can have little or no debate. But there are areas of Christian conduct that are not so clear and about which even the best Christians disagree. In such cases, each believer must apply the test to his own life and be scrupulously honest in his self-examination, remembering that even a good thing may rob a believer of his enjoyment of God’s love and his desire to do God’s will.4

Notice that Wiersbe goes to the same passage in Ephesians that Dave cited. He says there is no debate over these sins. They are categorically wrong. Then he says, “but”. It appears that in his mind there is a difference in category between doing something that is clearly and categorically wrong and things that may be harder to discern and require an application of his two tests. In analyzing these things, he calls for an analysis of the heart – the area where worldliness resides.

It seems that worldliness isn’t so much sinful practices as it is heart attitudes. No doubt heart attitudes may express themselves in sinful practices, but these may not be overtly seen as lying, stealing, etc, the things condemned in Eph 4. Wiersbe illustrates by telling of a fine young man preparing for the ministry whose preaching and personal life seemed to decline – no obvious sin, just less zeal and obvious distraction of some kind. The end of the story is that the young man realized he was so focusing on his impending marriage that he almost was wishing for the Lord not to come back before he got married. His heart was on the things of the world, not the things of the Lord.

Thayer gives this as one of the definitions of kosmos:

worldly affairs; the aggregate of things earthly; the whole circle of earthly goods, endowments, riches, advantages, pleasures, etc., which, although hollow and frail and fleeting, stir desire, seduce from God and are obstacles to the cause of Christ5

Worldliness occurs when desires are stirred and the heart is pulled from God and obstacles are thus put in the way of serving Christ.

A few more comments on worldliness and then I will close:

Too often Christians in the evangelical community have rejected the overt acts of worldliness but have retained the attitude of worldliness. Both worship and worldliness in their opposite spheres are more representative of attitudes than of acts. A person can go through all the motions of worship (and millions probably do each week) and yet have a heart that is completely out of touch with God and therefore unable to worship. At the same time, a person could meticulously avoid all acts of worldliness and still have a heart full of pharisaical hypocrisy, criticism of other Christians, jealousy, bitterness, and anger.

One obvious example of worldliness in church work is the Madison Avenue gimmickry which goes on in the name of evangelism or church education. If churches have to use Bozo the clown to attract children to Sunday school, they reflect not only cultural slobbism but also a very high degree of compatibility with the systems of this world.6

Or  how about this one about rock music used in the church. Is that an example of worldliness?

Contrary to the shallow viewpoint of the marketing advocates, rock music is far more than a life-style choice. It embodies and establishes a culture loaded with meaning and values, and the culture of rock music is antithetical, not neutral, to Christlike living. The fact that it can be embraced within the church for worship purposes is a tell-tale sign of contemporary evangelicalism’s inability to sense its own worldliness.7

Perhaps I am missing something, but it does seem to me that worldliness is more than overt sin or materialism. It also seems to me that if we can’t be clear on what it is, we have failed to align the compass of our next generation of Christian leaders.

I invite correction on these points and would be glad to know that I am misunderstanding Dave’s full view of worldliness. It does seem to me that we need to be thorough in our understanding and preaching in this area especially if we are going to make the issue part and parcel of the separation discussion.



  1. Is modesty the only standard? … but my question digresses from the topic []
  2. Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996, c1989), 1 Jn 2:15 . []
  3. Larry Richards, The Bible Reader’s Companion, (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1991), 893. []
  4. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 1 Jn 2:15. [I highly recommend Wiersbe’s comments on 1 Jn 2.15 – there is much more than I quoted here and it is very good, in my opinion.] []
  5. Thayer, Lexicon, s.v. ‘kosmos’. []
  6. Kenneth O. Gangel, “Christian Higher Education at the End of the Twentieth Century — Part 4: Christian Higher Education and Contemporary Culture: Isolation or Penetration?”, Bibliotheca Sacra, (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1978; 2002), 135:301. []
  7. David M. Doran, “Market-Driven Ministry: Blessing Or Curse? Part Two”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal. (Detroit Baptist Seminary, 1996; 2003), 1:218. []


  1. Don,

    I also read the Doran series with slight dismay. One of my favorite quotes on the matter is from Chuck Phelps: “A church that fails to define worldliness is helpless to defend against it.” I think we can also say that a church that defines worldliness incorrectly is helpless to defend against it.

    Dr. Doran used up a lot of ink without getting to the heart of the matter. That is rather disconcerting to me. His thoughts border on the “if it’s not specifically forbidden, it’s A-OK” arguments I am too familiar with hearing.

    We need to nail this definition today. Worldliness is too prevalent and too destructive in our churches; we’ve got to be certain people understand what it is!

    You’ve done a good job with it here. Thank you for making these observations.


    • Hi Chris

      Well, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I think that perhaps Dave hasn’t said all he means about worldliness. Partly he is making a certain case about separation and wasn’t making a case about worldliness. I personally think this was the weakest part of his presentation concerning separation, but perhaps there are things I am missing.

      I don’t want to be wishy washy here, but I do think the way things have been stated need to be questioned for clarity at least. I am quite happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood what was said.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Keith says:

    Improper attitudes are specifically prohibited. Of course, these attitudes can be attached to anything: Work, home maintenance, sports, evangelistic visitation, Preaching, etc. So, there is no list of “things” that can be defined beyond specific sins. Certain “attitudes” are worldly and sinful. They can be defined and discussed.