I’ve been busy the last four weeks teaching summer intensive courses on NT Biblical Theology and the Letter of Ephesians.
I’m struck again by the priority the NT places on the unity of God’s people.
In fact, this is one of the unique features of the church. God’s people are “holy”—unlike the world—and their holiness is constituted largely by their pursuit of unity and love for one another. The church is the gathered people who gain skills in practices of restoration, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
This New Testament vision of the church determines Paul’s language of “worldliness”—when churches fail to manifest their character as God’s people and instead conform to patterns of community life that are just like any other group of people.
But the rhetoric of “worldliness,” like other biblical language, is often misused. It is typically taken out of its context(s) and used according to what this or that Christian community likes or doesn’t like. In evangelical culture of the last century, “worldliness” had come to signify entertainment or lifestyle choices with which many conservative Christians weren’t comfortable.
When Paul, however, accuses the Corinthians for their “worldliness,” he has in mind the divisions in their community. They have broken up into competing groups that have turned early church leaders into “superstars” around which various groups are rallying and finding their identity.
Paul hears about this and calls it “worldly.”
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)?
It seems to me that the parallels between the “worldly” Corinthian community dynamics and contemporary American tribalized evangelicalism are endless.