“Worldliness” According to Paul

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.

23 thoughts on ““Worldliness” According to Paul

  1. Jason Zastrow

    I always appreciate your thoughts and keenness towards the text. I am reflecting on Jn 14 this week and the same ideas are consistently present. Paul’s and Jesus’ solutions are the same – dwell in and with the Triune God to produce the peace which God through Christ in the Spirit has already made. In 14.27, John uses the same language of Jesus’ peace versus the world’s peace — which is no peace at all! Paul goes on in 1 Cor 3.10-23 and wastes away the foundation of Paul, Apollos and Cephas only to replace it with the already laid foundation of our intimate unity with and in the Spirit, Son and Father.

    My question is this: How is this robust unity in God communicated in a way that God’s people will rightly respond and live out? It is easy to state the problem and seemingly easy to communicate the answer: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3.11) or “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14.15). Yet American evangelicalism remains vastly tribalized. I want to jump into the intricacies of perichoresis, but that may just leave people dazed and confused. As Jesus goes on in Jn 15, the answer resides in abiding and dwelling. In our “culture of doing” this “art of being” can be an extremely difficult concept to grasp. What have you found to be helpful?

    I may or may not be preaching on Jn 14 this weekend, so any help in communication is appreciated 🙂

    1. timgombis

      Good question, Jason.

      In John, loving one another is abiding in Christ, inhabiting him, so exhorting people to love and put into practice all sorts of behaviors that embody that is a huge start. But Paul also points in hopeful directions by advocating appreciate deference toward all other ministers and ministries. Honor them, don’t tear down, pray for them–you could actually creatively come up with loads of practices and postures towards other churches & ministries that embody the sort of relationship that Paul is advocating, building on Jesus’ call to love one another.

      Look at your church and your local setting–what sorts of dynamics exist that are potentially divisive? How can you envision replacing them with life-giving, gospel-oriented dynamics?

  2. Ryan M. Mahoney

    As a former American Evangelical, I must say you couldn’t be more right. Does Paul use that term elsewhere and is he consistent with its usage?

  3. Dan Jr.

    This is so true – “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.”

    The actual relational life of the community as the primary context for Holiness is such a neglected study. Our shared life and love is intended to be “separate” or intensely different. I think the quality of our shared life is the conduit for mission in the world. A little post I did on this> http://danwhitejr.blogspot.com/2012/06/being-missional-without-being-healthy.html

  4. Bill C

    1cor 3 not 4 and worldly doesn’t convey the sense of being undeveloped that the text conveys. Otherwise u seem right on!

  5. S Wu

    Do you mean 1 Cor 3:1-4? Some years ago I was working on the Spirit-flesh contrasts in Paul, and I came across this passage. It’s true, isn’t it? We tend to behave not as Spirit-people, but people of the flesh – ie. worldly people. No wonder Paul goes on to say that we – the community of Christ – are God’s temple, where God’s Spirit dwells (3:16). The irony is that we think that we are “spiritual” when we follow our “superstars” – the so-called spiritual giants. It is precisely when we do that we are not behaving as Spirit-people.

    Thanks Tim, for your insights.

    1. timgombis

      That’s the way we’re deceived into walking–lifting ourselves up as “more spiritual” than others because of our identification with this or that figure. The faithful way is that of love and deference toward others, as Paul commends in 1 Cor.

  6. thebareden

    Taking this entry together with your last one, the question that keeps coming to mind for me is how the average congregation then goes about making decisions for itself? If unity is the goal, but a “my vision above yours” flesh-agenda gets in the way, how do we best go about being bodies of believers who do good work in this world? If we recognize there will be impasse in terms of vision, and pursue unity above fleshly desires, how do we best go about making an actual impasse decision at the flesh/spirit fork of the road? Specifically, I’m wondering how you go about being a unity/spirit congregation without living in constant, mind-numbing impasse masquerading as love for another.

    1. timgombis

      Good question, and I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer, but it seems to me that it begins by everyone in the community understanding that the ultimate end of the community must be the commitment to one another and not to some abstracted “vision” or “direction.”

      It may be that part of a community growing in unity and mutual commitment involves someone speaking clearly and plainly about the frustration created by the persistent failures to make decisions or be clear about community dynamics. That can be done in a way that is redemptive and brings about the growth of the community.

      But each community needs to figure that out for themselves. What Paul is ruling out is going the route of giving up on a community, causing division or destruction.

      But silent frustration over indecision is NOT how unity is embodied.

  7. Andrew T.

    I certainly agree with your comments and your sentiment here. There is an equally disturbing trend that reflects the other side of the coin.

    Some seem to understand the Christian ‘church’ as syncretism in the name of unity, and the second (greatest) commandment as humanism in the name of piety.

    The problem is how to solve one without realizing the other. Somehow that silly coin must stand on its edge.

  8. Andrew T.

    Incidentally, do you happen to know the Greek origins of the English word ‘church’, meaning ‘the Lord’s’ (κυριακός kyriakos G2960)?

    If the English word ‘church’ means the same as, and derives from the Greek word κυριακός, it kind of makes you wonder why translation has imparted that translation to some other word which had its own meaning, and whether that word’s meaning has become eclipsed.

    Sorry. I probably shouldn’t ask questions like that.

  9. Patrick

    My preacher has picked up on an expression of Jesus that fits perfectly with this view. (my inaccurate paraphrase) “When the world sees you love one another as I love you, then it knows you are mine”.

    Paul said, “we belong to each other”.

    The way I’ve been taught to see this “unity” theme is we all should be unified around commonality(Nicene creed, etc). I don’t care what church you go to or tradition or if you are a liberal or con , literalist or a hermeneutic that says everything BUT Jesus is a metaphor.

    I have a special affinity for you if you believe Jesus of biblical fame is the Son of God. If we disagree on 10,000 other ideas, let us discuss them with respect and virtue love OR don’t bring up those things.

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  11. Matt Henry

    Tim: Good post. What relationship do you see with the idea of divisions and the mind set of this current age? Do you think they are vitally connected? My point is simply, when Paul uses the term ‘worldly’ is he speaking of having a value system and passion that is conformed to this age rather than the one to come? I am thinking of linking your post to my blog and discussing this a bit but thought you might have good input for me.

    1. timgombis

      Hey Matt,
      It seems to me that Paul’s conception of “the spirit of this age” has to do with ideologies, mindsets, and attendant patterns of behavior that work against God’s design for humanity. So, division, manipulation, domination of others, oppression, greed, immorality, unfaithfulness, etc., all are part and parcel of that. So, when Paul sees in Corinth the breaking up into cliques and hijacking early church leaders as ‘names’ to rally around, he sees it as ‘worldly’–flowing directly from the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of Jesus, who would foster humility, love, deference, unity, reconciliation, etc.

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  13. Jen

    Hi Tim,

    Thank you for your post for it speaks deep into my heart. I believe that Jesus calls us to love one another, forgive and reconcile with everyone. My oldest brother and his wife do not speak to my parents, nor my other brother and his wife because of an argument/hurt feelings. I have heard that they say “God told them not to have contact” with my parents. This goes against everything I understand and believe about Jesus’ call on our lives. This speaks division to me and how can that be of God? There is perhaps more to the story, as my brother’s wife has been called a “prophetess” by her family. And perhaps there are elements of control, or jealousy but I don’t know this for sure. I am trying to make sense of the situation. For some reason, they have contact with me and I want to talk to them about division, love and forgiveness but I know they will come back at me with verses like Mt 10:35-36 and Mt 19:5 amongst others. Any help with further biblical insight into division and on the other hand, loving one another would be very appreciated.


  14. Joe Rutherford

    Great article. To understand the problem, one must know that the falling away began a long time ago in the earlier times of the Church. Men rose up who wanted to be “the leader” and people wanted “a leader”, as you pointed out with Pauls letter to the Corinthians. This problem was never permenantly corrected. Jesus is the leader of the Church, but some people thru history have wanted to be “the leader”. In a sense, they were (are) having a stand off with God. Of course no one will prevail against God. Things will be done His way or else. Lots of people are still disobeying God. I do feel compasion fo the dear people who believe in the Lord, but have been so ill effected by the falling away. They think they are doing good, not knowing about the changes needed so as to be compliant to the commandments of the Lord. I have looked all thru the world to try and find someone who understands these things needed, in order for people to be right with God. There are people with knowledge about some things, but for the chaos to be ended for the Church, much change is needed. It must begin with the pure knowledge and correct application of the foundational princibles of Christ. For this to happen there needs to be a John the baptist type ministry for the preaching of repentance to the Church, not for condemnation, but for blessings. Jesus is the way. His word is the only word. It will only be as He has spoken. Honestly, I’ve never witnessed such chaos in all my days. Major events must happen for the Church to be helped and purified. God will deliver His people. Only He can. We are saved because of His great love for us. I’m glad you wrote this article.

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