What is Worldly?

Here is a question for you: Where is worldliness? Is it in the world? Or is it somewhere else?

That is a huge question and how you answer it will determine your Christian worldview: how you view and practice life as a Christian.

I propose to you that worldliness is not primarily external, in the world itself. Once upon a time I thought it was so and the logical outworking of my belief was to draw lines between me and my culture, separation from my culture. Oddly enough I did not learn this from Jesus. Jesus embedded himself in his culture.

Should I draw lines? I think so. But where should I draw them? That is the question.

And the answer to that question has changed for me over the years. Where I used to draw a line between me and my culture I now draw the line between me and my heart. I have since relocated worldliness not so much in my culture as in my heart. I get this from my re-understanding of worldliness according to 1 John 2:15-16. John, the beloved Christian, seems to locate worldliness not in the world, but in the heart or as he defines worldliness, i.e. desires, lust and pride.

1Jn 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

1Jn 2:16 For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world.

Desires, lusts and pride are, in the Bible, synonyms for heart attitudes, the inside of a person. John tells us not to love the world nor the things in the world. And then he sets out to describe what is in the world. He does this by talking about pride, lusts and desires. For John, this is what is in the world. This is how worldliness is described and/or defined for him. John is not teaching me that I should draw a line primarily between me and where I go, what I wear, who I hang with, what I say, what I eat or drink and the like. And if I draw the line primarily based on external factors then I could unnecessarily alienate folks from me, which is unnecessary and, even worse, unbiblical and anti-Gospel: Christ came to/into/penetrated the world.

So how should I dress and where should I go and who should I associate myself?

Here are a couple of thoughts to think about:

#1—We are our brother’s keeper; the bible is clear. This is the point Paul was making in 1 Corinthians 8. If there is a weaker brother that is easily offended by things that are permissible, then the “mature” Christian should refrain from such things within reason. These weak Christians thought it was a sin to eat meat and Paul warned those Christians who knew that “external” meat eating was not a big deal and they should be careful not to flaunt their accurate biblical knowledge in front of them.

Therefore, I may draw a line between me and “meat eating” if it is a stumbling block for a weaker brother. I’m not drawing a line between me and meat eating because meat eating is a sin, it is not. I’m drawing a line because of my temptation to be proud (John’s descriptor of worldliness) and ignore my weaker brother and not love him in his weakness.

Major Caveat: be careful not to guard against everything that can possibly offend a weaker brother or sister. If you try that then you would probably never leave your house, turn on a TV, launch the Internet, go to a restaurant and most anything else because a legalistic Christian culture can be easily offended about most anything.

#2—Another area that would be “worldly” for many is to dress in such a way as to impress others or be esteemed by others. This is drawing your approval or acceptance from “men” rather than from God.

John says, in essence, worldliness is in the heart, not in my clothes (the external). I think it is better to be culturally relevant than to wear clothes from a bygone era. However, in the wearing of those clothes it is important they are “modest” in that they don’t tempt someone to sin (to be worldly, i.e. lust). For a woman that would mean to dress modestly so that you don’t reveal or semi-reveal body parts that can tempt someone to sin.

And I should not dress in such a way to draw attention to myself, which could be over-modest, i.e. wearing culottes in the ocean. The worldly temtpation here could be self-righteousness by NOT looking like my culture. Jesus was culturally relevant and modest.

I think these two points can help you “draw the lines” in reasonable places. You can be relevant and reach your culture without caving to the immodesty of our culture. However, I must guard my heart from the temptation of thinking that the external is sinful. It is my heart that must be guarded. It is my sinful lust, desires and pride that make me worldly not whether I drive cars like pagans or go to the same restaurant that pagans attend or whether my wife wears pants similar to what pagans wear.

This is what John was getting at in that worldliness is defined in the heart not in the culture primarily. When we examine our hearts and offer grace to our friends, we are beginning in a better place. We are attacking worldliness.

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Christian, Worldly, Gnostic?

I was sitting with a friend a few years ago in a parking lot after lunch. We were chatting. He was telling me about a certain music style that was “worldly”. At that point I asked him to define worldly for me and he basically said it was the style that made it worldly. From this understanding of worldly I would say that he has an interpretation that worldliness begins with the external rather than internal therefore, he has determined that certain styles—as opposed to all styles—are worldly.

With this basic understanding you have to discriminate based on stylistic issues rather than some other criteria. It is true that we as Christians should discriminate, but the question is how do you discriminate and/or what is the criteria for discrimination? My friend could look at a person based on their style and determine if that person was “worldly” or not. Maybe you can. Personally, I think that is a dangerous approach and can get a bit tricky. I think that most people agree that Jesus looked like his culture. I don’t think he had that sparkling white robe that we have seen in some pictures and everybody else’s is off-white or earth tones. I think it would be hard to pick Jesus out of a crowd.

In some instances folks had to ask who Jesus was rather than easily identifying him. External observation is needful, but not always accurate. External observation can be somewhat of a “Gnostic approach” to assessment. The Gnostics believed, in part, that the world was bad and knowledge was good. They didn’t like the things of the earth and put a precedent on the internal, the “Gnosis” (knowledge). Therefore, they stayed away from the earthly because it would defile. This is similar to the fundamentalist in some respects. They determine what is bad and they stay away from it. In some cases they not only stay away from the bad, but they stay away from the person or thing that is “next” to the bad in order not to be contaminated by the bad through association with the one (or thing) that is next to the bad. This is second and third degree separation as it has been called.

It not only sets a Pharisaical hedge around the bad, but puts a hedge around the hedge and more. This creates a culture of folks who can be noted for their spirituality by the number of hedges they set-up. Thus you get into severe asceticism that at some point has to breakdown.

For example, you will have ladies that won’t wear pants around other Christians, but will wear them in other venues, like around the house or walking or in the gym, etc. Others won’t go to a movie theater, but will rent a video or watch a movie on TV. Still others would not dare drink wine, but are obese and/or gossips. Again, whenever you set-up a false paradigm there has to be inconsistencies somewhere, at some point. You cannot live in our world and have those kinds of anti-cultural customs. It doesn’t make sense.

What is sad about this is that we now have a Christian culture that is ripe for insecure people with a bent toward legalism (we all have that bent, btw) and it is a nice way to keep yourself away from things that make you uncomfortable. As a fundamentalist relative said to me three years ago, “I have no ‘lost’ friends.” How sad. Jesus had many lost friends.

Thanks be to God that he did not separate from me. He pursued me, loved me and in time saved me.

The Flaw in the Fundamentalist’s Fabric

The major flaw in the fabric of fundamentalism is the motive for what they do. For many fundamentalists their motive can be driven more by fear of man (peer pressure) than Scripture, or to be more precise, the gospel. Because there is such an emphasis on the external there is a strong temptation to judge one another based on external observations. I don’t think many would own up to this type of “external judging”, but it happens. I know pastors who will not go to a movie theater in Greenville because they don’t want to be seen in one by another Christian. This one pastor went to Charlotte to see “It’s a Beautiful Mind”. They really don’t care if they are seen by someone who doesn’t go to church, but not by a Christian. This is really odd. They (or he in this case) is more guarded about his activity in front of a Christian than a non-Christian. It seems the folks we should be presenting ourselves to are non-Christians and our “presentation” in front of Christians should not be a problem.

However, I understand that Paul had this same problem in 1 Corinthians 8 where there were new believers who thought it was a sin to eat meat. They had been taught all their lives that eating meat sacrificed to idols is a sin and you do not do it. When they became Christians they were seeing other Christians eat meat and they were “stumbling” over this in their hearts. Therefore, Paul told the Christians who were eating meat not to do it in front of the newer Christians because it would cause them to sin against their conscience. In this case Paul was concerned what other Christians thought. However, there are some differences between what Paul was dealing with and what we have to navigate through in fundamentalism.

For example, Paul was concerned about new converts to Christianity rather than converts who have been saved for many years. These new converts had an “excuse” so to speak in that they had not had the opportunity to “try out” this new religion and therefore were in a major learning curve in which their conscience was weak due to a bad religion. They were immature.

Similarly, these converts came out of a wrong religion where fundamentalists are supposedly in the right religion. Paul was teaching Christians how to deal with new Christians who did not know any better rather than teaching Christians how to deal with Christians who have been Christians most of their lives and in many cases are second and third generation Christians. This is a major difference between 1 Corinthians 8 and today.

The fundy, as they are affectionately called, has zeroed in on something that Paul is trying to combat and they have created a false dichotomy between the secular and the sacred to such a degree that some fundy pastors have to go out of town just to enjoy a movie in a theater. This is quite odd to me now even though there was a time when I embraced that kind of thinking and practice.

Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a term to describe a group of Christian people. The term and/or group have changed over the years. Historically it referred to a group of people who believed (correctly) that the church as a whole was drifting into liberalism. This would have been shortly after the turn of the 20th century. They wanted to define what historical Christianity has always believed, codify it and then teach and live by this “adjusted” teaching, the fundamentals of the faith. It was a good idea and I think necessary to define ourselves again as a way of reminding ourselves who we are, what we believe and bringing on-going clarity to our generation as well as the next.

In the 1920’s fundamentalism began to take up cultural causes like prohibition and began preaching against the abuse of alcohol. America at that time was scaling up in its pursuit of hedonism in ways that previous generations had not known. What was traditionally secret, taboo or hidden was being bandied about in the public arena. There was less shame about “sin” and the lines between right and wrong were being blured and needed to be drawn to clarity in the estimation of the fundamentalists. The Christian felt his world collapsing and a stand needed to be made. There needed to be a difference articulated between right and wrong. (I’m well aware I’m simplifying 100 years of fundamentalist’s teaching and application.)

Therefore, in the 40’s and 50’s fundamentalism began taking hard turns from teaching the fundamentals to teaching how we should behave in our world. I don’t think they ever left the fundamentals of the faith, but the point of emphasis changed with the advent of TV, movies and more explicit hedonistic lifestyles. It is as though the teaching (fundamentals) were assumed and the behavior was not so they lightened up on the doctrine and began to draw hard lines on how to live. The danger here is the lines on behavior can drift, much like they did for the Pharisees. The Pharisees held strongly to the law and was so afraid they would offend the law that they created a hedge around the law and lived by that standard rather than the law. In years they erected a second hedge around the first hedge and began to live by that standard and after several generations of this there were laws that had little connection to the bible and the generations that came after were not as schooled in history or the bible so this hedge became the law in their minds and they, too, desiring to be careful created their own set of rules. After many years of this “law morphing” you have things that people believe and practice, but are only faintly tethered to the bible if at all. This is what has happened in fundamentalism. One other major note about fundamentalists is they are some of the most sincere and honest people you would ever want to meet. Many times their character is not the issue. It’s their lifestyle. They have a standard in many areas that the Bible does not necessarily support and the public generally speaking does not understand. This conflict is unnecessary in my view.

Dr. Sightler Stories

Dr. Sightler did preach a lot all over the South. He received an honorary doctorate from Bob Jones University. He was a peer with Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. He was also friends with Jack Hyles.

Jack asked him to come to his church in Indiana to preach. The next week Dr. Sightler was back home and he shared how Hyles had blessed him with so much monetary kindness while he was preaching for him. He said Dr. Hyles bought him a suit, had flowers in his hotel room, gave him $1000, some chocolate covered peanuts, which were his favorites and two rolls of quarters for the drink machine in the hotel lobby. Dr. Sighter said he didn’t care anything about the flowers. He did eat the peanuts, but he didn’t use any of the money.

He always stated and believed that he was paid a salary by his congregation and would not take money for personal use—except for travel expenses—whenever he was preaching abroad. He placed the two rolls of quarters on the pulpit and told the head of the children’s home to get it and buy all the little kids some ice cream the next day. He said the reason he preached so much outside of TBC was because he believed the next pastor of TBC would not have as many opportunities and there may come a time when the children’s home would need financial support.

Therefore, all the monies he made on his trips was put in a fund for the children’s home. It had over $1, 000,000 in the fund in the late ‘80’s. This is how he viewed the ministry: you give everything you have for the cause of Christ, the church was first. You leave your brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers would be an interpretation that meant if you focus on God’s work, he will take care of your family.

Dr. Sightler’s grandson, Benny, was on staff at TBC. We became friends early on. He was graduating as I was coming in. Benny was under his granddads shadow and granddaddy had aspirations for his only preaching son/grandson. He dressed in ‘40’s apparel: fedora and bowtie and black and white two tone shoes with double-breasted suits. He was a throwback to another era.

It was not unusual for Fundamentalists to hold strongly to the past. The present day can be viewed by some as an evil time and the past has some special memory of how things ought to be therefore there was an affinity for the past, in their minds, though hardly any of them lived in the past in reality as far as no TV’s, old cars, Internet, credit cards, DVDS, etc. That is why, in part, the older “saints” were revered because they came from a time when God was considered “more active” and revival was always imminent. Today we can mimic the past with our props like “revival meetings” which are not really revivals. It is merely in name only. Benny was a present day “picture” of the past. He dressed like it. He would practice preaching in front of a mirror and trained his voice to mimic Oliver B. Greene a once-upon-a-time “evangelist” who was revered in that circle.

Benny was fun to be with. He was smart and had charisma as well as a leadership gift. I’m glad we were friends.

Harold B. Sightler

That first summer in Greenville was fun and non-eventful. I attended Tabernacle Baptist Church, met some new friends and began settling in.

Tabernacle was planted in the ‘50’s by a man named Harold B. Sightler. Dr. Sightler was a “legend” in these parts among a certain people group. Most of the people around here and the world at large had never heard of him. But to those who had he was one of the most famous preachers of our time.

He boasted that he had preached more than any preacher in his time. I doubt that, but in the little world of Independent Baptists it was not under dispute. He did preach a lot. For 30+ years, I suppose, he would preach at Tabernacle on Sunday morning and Sunday night and then leave either on Sunday night or Monday morning for a week long revival meeting that would go through either Friday night or Saturday.

He would have a driver to take him to these meetings, which was at times a singer who would sing prior to the preaching part of the meeting. They were a duo. A special singer was a person who would sing a “special” just after the congregational singing and offering and just before the preaching.

The story goes that Dr. Sightler was gone for a week of meetings one time and he was pulling out of the Tabernacle parking lot to go to more meetings when he met his son as he was pulling in. They chatted briefly and he went on to his meeting. He was a busy man.

I have seen him pull in to his parking space and pull himself out of his car, which was a chore in that he was a big man and quite old when I knew him. He ran hard for the “gospel’s sake”. I would hear him say, “You take care of God’s business and He would take care of yours.”

We would walk by his car or his office and speak in reverent terms. We would rarely approach him for this or that. He was an isolated man to me. He was not an approachable figure. He was one to be respected and feared at the same time. It was hard to tell if he was in a good mood or not. He rarely smiled unless it was before a church meeting and he was standing on the lower step that led up to the platform of the main auditorium, called a sanctuary. I’m not sure if I’ve seen him smile outside of that context, maybe in class.

He was sober, very serious and singularly focused. I loved and respected him. Dr. Sightler was one of my heroes. I received a photo copied version of his Bible with all his preaching notes scribbled over the text. I called it “Elijah’s Mantle.”

First Year in Greenville

The first year went rather smoothly considering all the changes. We moved across state lines. We lived in an apartment initially and then moved into a larger home. We enrolled the kids into school and/or day care. We both got new jobs. I began going to college at night full-time. We begin working with a guy named Richard Blanchett in a nursing home ministry. It was his last year. We took it over the next year. We met a lot of folks our age. These were our classmates.

Al Helms from Monroe, NC; Randy Smith from Farmville, NC; Eddie Robertson from Hattiesburg, MS; Ken Smith from Thomasville, GA (I think); Bill South; Shannon Harrell; Darrell Wilkins; Rex Wright; Terry Williams; Glenn Jones; Christopher Emory; Bobby VanGiller and many, many more. It was a good group. We had fun. We had a blast. We were young, dumb, zealous and full of love for the Savior. We were fulfilling the call that God had placed on our lives. (I would say it another way today, but that is the way we looked at things back then.) We were living the good times.

At Tabernacle Baptist Bible College there were about 65 of us who enrolled that first semester. There may have been 25 or so who graduated four years later. Some left with a three year degree. Others fell out and went back home or just hung around Greenville. We could never have imagined how our lives were going to change. Rex committed suicide some years later. Jess Rivas died around 40 of some disease. Eddie left the ministry bitter and has floundered in his own way ever since. He, too, was divorced. Terry never gained traction in much any way and is still single and living somewhere in G’ville today. We divorced after my fourth year, separated at the end of our second year. It was hard times. That first year, however, was the best for all of us. We had a blast.

Work went well. The “mom and pop” that hired me sold the business to Alcoa Corporation the first summer and I became an employee with Alcoa Recycling Company after about two months. I heard a rumor of this from the guy I replaced, a fourth year student. They came in and I got a raise and benefits, both of which he did not have. The workload was about the same, though it did increase over the years.

Penny got a job with Liberty Life Insurance Company and has stayed there for 20 years now. She is probably doing okay. She is on her third marriage and may have settled in from her young and restless days. The smoke has cleared and I’m really amazed at what God has done these 20 years. There is no way I could have predicted this. It is way too odd for my simple imagination.