toward an understanding of worldliness – pt. 1

What is worldliness?

On that question hangs a good deal of the debate in Christian circles about which practices are acceptable and appropriate for Christians and which are not. We are surrounded by a mass of Christian relativism that creates great confusion. For some Christians, it seems to have come down to Scriptural prohibitions as the only definition of right and wrong. Almost anything goes. Who is to say what is right and wrong about any lifestyle or practice if it is not specifically prohibited in Scripture?

For example, many Christians today are quite comfortable justifying social drinking. It used to be a major taboo in Bible-believing Christian circles, but is becoming acceptable as long as you don’t get drunk. You see, drunkenness is seen as clearly prohibited by the Bible, so we can’t go that far! But something less than drunkenness is acceptable and shouldn’t be considered worldly.

Well, what is worldliness? I wrote about godliness in an earlier post. Is worldliness an opposite of godliness? What about the Biblical term, ‘ungodliness’? How are ungodliness and worldliness related and what should the Christian do about it?

One difficulty in coming to an understanding of this is that ‘worldliness’ isn’t exactly a Biblical term. You won’t find it in the KJV, the NASB, or the ESV. They all have the term ‘worldly’ (and the NAS has ‘worldly-minded’) but none of them have the term ‘worldliness’.

‘Worldly’ in Biblical usage:

Interestingly, it is the KJV that is the most rigid in the use of the term ‘worldly’. It is used twice, both times to translate kosmikos in Titus 2.12 and Heb 9.1. The word kosmikos is from the word kosmos, ‘world’ and means ‘worldly’ or ‘earthly’. These are the only occurrences of kosmikos in the New Testament.

The NAS also translates another word with ‘worldly’, babelos, an adjective meaning unhallowed. It is used to describe fables (1 Tim 4.7) and chatter (1 Tim 6.20, 2 Tim 2.16). The NAS also gives us ‘worldly-minded’ for psukikos in Jude 19, a word meaning ‘natural, of the soul or of the mind’, that is, the natural mind.

The ESV will translate sarx, usually translated ‘flesh’, with worldly. It does that in these verses: 1 Cor 1.26, 1 Cor 7.28. It also will translate the genitive of ‘world’ (i.e., ‘of the world’) as ‘worldly’ in these places: 1 Cor 7.33-34 and 2 Cor 7.10. It seems that in the 1 Cor 7 passages ‘of the world’ means ‘earthly’ as opposed to ‘heavenly’ or ‘spiritual’. They refer to the preoccupation of the married with the things ‘of the world’. The 2 Cor 7.10 reference, however may add some insight speaks of ‘the of the world sorrow’ as opposed to ‘the according to God sorrow’ (translated ‘godly grief’ in the ESV).

The kosmikos passages

Of the two, the Heb 9.1 passage adds little help to our understanding. It speaks of the kosmikos sanctuary [the tabernacle] which is a figure for the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands that exists in the heavens. Thus, the meaning here seems more in line with ‘earthly’ because it was a literal structure on this earth. It isn’t ‘world-like’ in the sense of ‘this evil world system’; rather, it is ‘world-like’ in the sense of ‘physical, natural’.

The other kosmikos passage is Titus 2.12:

NAU  Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age,

This passage looks promising. We’ll look at it in detail in part 2. But first, let’s consider the meaning of ‘worldly’ here. The KJV translates this ‘worldly lusts’. The term ‘lusts’ has a negative connotation today. A few years earlier than the translation of the KJV, the term ‘lusts’ had a neutral connotation.1 The term was simply a reference to ‘desires’, so the NAU translation is an appropriate one.

Just as the ‘earthly’ or ‘worldly’ tabernacle is opposed to the ‘spiritual’ or ‘heavenly’ tabernacle, so too we can oppose ‘worldly desires’ with ‘spiritual desires’ or ‘heavenly desires’. Worldly desires, then are desires which are set on earthly things which, given the other terms in our verse are ungodly, not sensible (sane), righteous or godly.

Defining ‘worldly’

With all this information, I think we can come to a conclusion about the meaning of ‘worldly’.

Something is worldly when

  • It is common or profane – ‘babelos’, “worldly fables, worldly chatter”
  • It is not spiritual, but is natural – ‘psukikos’, worldly-minded (natural minded) Jude 19
  • It is oriented towards life in the flesh, humanity – ‘worldly troubles’ [‘according to the flesh’]
  • It is oriented towards concerns that are of this world as opposed to concerns of heaven – ‘worldly things’ [‘of this world’ things]
  • It is self-centered rather than God-centered – ‘worldly sorrow’ [‘sorrow of this world’ — as opposed to ‘godly sorrow’]
  • It is earthly rather than heavenly – ‘the worldly tabernacle’

A working definition:

Something is worldly when it belongs to the affairs of life on this earth, especially as opposed to the life of the spirit or of heaven.

‘Worldly’ is not necessarily evil, but when we think of it as opposed to the life of the spirit or of heaven, then it is something that is evil.

‘Worldly’ describes things-in-the-world that have the quality of the world about them.

We will look in some detail at Titus 2.12 in part 2 and will become more specific about what makes worldly things have the negative aspect described in that passage.


Before closing this post I’d like to note that I have revised my definition of godliness slightly:

Godliness is a manner of life dominated by reverence for God displayed in respect for others that is visible to outside observers and is not confused with worldliness.

More to come. We are working through this inductively in our Bible study time at church.



  1. See William Tyndale’s use of the term in his introduction to Romans. []


  1. Thanks for this very profitable article!

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the kind words. This is proving to be an interesting study. I come to it with preconceptions, some of which are being adjusted, some confirmed.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Question about your comment “… the preoccupation of the married with the things ‘of the world’” and 1 Corinthians 7:32-34.

    Having been married for 35+ years, I have some experience here.

    I don’t see (and perhaps I misunderstand the text) that “car[ing] about the things of the world—how he may please his wife” and the companion teaching on the wife – “But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband” – is viewed negatively by Paul.

    Am I viewing this incorrectly?

    There are a lot of very mundane issues that are dealt with in life. Last week we had a lock broken on our house – unable to lock the door! My “worldly” endeavor was to research a locksmith, work from home that day so I could greet him, select and agree on a price for the replacement lock, etc.

    Of course there are a myriad of other examples of carrying for a wife and home!

    So my question is this: Is “car[ing] about the things of the world” in the 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 sense to be viewed negatively?


    • Hi Jim

      The whole 1 Cor 7 passage is worth a whole explanation all by itself — I don’t think Paul actually means to view marriage itself negatively, but that he is advising the single to seriously consider singleness for the purpose of better service for the Lord.

      As for the term ‘worldly’, there is a sense in which the term ‘worldly’ is neutral – just things having to do with this world, or existing in this world. The ‘earthly’ tabernacle reference in Hebrews is a key clue. It isn’t evil because it is ‘worldly’, but it is ‘worldly’ because it is ‘in the world’, or ‘of the world’. I need to get up part 2, where I have a ‘working definition’ of ‘worldly’. I think that will help clarify this point.

      More later.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Jim Henderson says:

    I don’t understand why you use the consumption of alcohol to demonstrate worldliness. It seems that the Bible universally accepts the proper use of alcohol (eg wine being representative of celebration, use in sacrificial system, Jesus’ miracle at Cana, etc.). It is the excess in alcohol that is warned against and condemned.
    How do we avoid falling off either side of the imperative to be in the world and not of the world? Wouldn’t an example of the proper use of alcohol be more in keeping with the commands of scripture rather than total abstention?
    As a side note, as a student of history, it is interesting to me to observe that abstention is not the general position of the historical church. The connection between teetotalism and the church has roots in anti-Catholicism and Women’s Temperance Societies as recently as the 1820’s. Given the long history of the church accepting the use of alcohol even in the administration of the Lord’s supper, I tend to be suspicious of even conservative innovation away from the rule of the historical church. Please advise.

    • Jim, I think there are many reasons why we can argue against the use of alcohol for Christians today. Please see my posts under the category of alcohol (check my archives page). The introductory illustration in this article isn’t exactly intended to say that drinking = worldliness, but it often is worldly, in my opinion. But you will have to wait and read all my articles in this series to get an understanding of the meaning of worldly and worldliness.

      There are motivations for drinking that aren’t worldly, but they are also almost always wrong, in my opinion. But you’ll have to read my other posts to get the reasons why. I’m not going to go into that here.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3