We have seen in the previous article that worldliness is not always as identifiable as we might think. There are cultural difficulties, hidden motives, and we have seen that progressive sanctification is, as it says, progressive and not instant. We have also seen that what might appear worldly is not always so and what appears conservative is often worldly! We are to be slow to judge therefore loving and gracious in our speech. We need to aim more at the growth of grace in the inner man rather than the immediate conformity to a particular or prescribed form of non-worldliness. To help us do this let us consider some of the difficulties in identifying worldliness.
One of the problems with identifying worldliness is that it is, like the tumbleweed, loosely rooted in the shifting sands of the culture. It is like finding an image in the clouds—in a few minutes it has passed over and gone. Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he spoke of “this present evil world” (Galatians 1:4, emphasis added). There are things that would be inappropriate now that were not 500 years ago. There was a time when men wore dresses, had long, curly hair, puffed sleeves and frills on their shirts (have you ever seen pictures of Henry VIII, John Owen, or Jonathan Edwards?).
There was a time when tattoos were only for the aristocracy—the rich were the only ones who could afford them. As body painting became more affordable and the rich lost interest, tattoos became associated with another demographic and became symbols of rebellion and anarchy. Bikers, rockers, and gang members were the customers of the tattoo artists. Today, however, as a recent BBC news item shows, “getting inked” is common among all sorts of professionals—lawyers, university professors, surgeons, etc. In today’s culture—whatever else may be problematic with tattoos—they are not always a symbol of rebellion and not everyone who wears a tattoo is an anarchist.
What man has not had a beard at one time or another? It grows naturally on his face. Indeed, not to have a beard demands constant work and daily personal grooming. Some men even have to groom the beard for an evening event when the proverbial “five-o’clock shadow” appears. C. H. Spurgeon once said, “Growing a beard is a habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial.” To many teenagers, it is a sign of manliness, the emotional bar mitzvah announcing adulthood and maturity. In my late teens or early twenties (in the early 1990s) I grew a beard. I was admonished by a brother that my stubble was “throughother”—a Scots-Irish term meaning disorderly and unkempt. When my beard began to fill out and one of my elders realized that I intended to keep it, he rebuked me, telling me that is was worldly and a “sign of rebellious youth.” Ironically, I was told at that time that in North America the beard was an informal symbol of membership in the Reformed community (it still is, it seems in certain circles). Young men in Reformed churches were more and more sprouting whiskers, watered by their growing interest in the theology of the Reformers and Puritans.
So tell me, what is wrong with the beard? Is it a sign of worldliness and youthful rebellion as I was told as a young Christian? It is as innocuous as being “throughother” or is it as biblical and beneficial as Mr. Spurgeon said it is? Is hair on my chin as desirable as that which would identify me as a Reformed Christian? The fact is, it is none of these things. It is simply, organic, homegrown hair on my male chin.
As indicated already, worldliness is also very often geographically defined. There are things that are counted worldly in certain parts of the world that are not in other parts. In the 1970s and 80s worldliness looked different in Britain than it did in North America, and it still does today. Consider men’s hairstyles or ladies’ cosmetic makeup for an example. In the 1970s men in Britain wore their hair longer than they do today, often covering their shirt collars. In North American churches this was shameful and in some colleges it was forbidden to wear the hair touching the ears or shirt collar. In the 1970s also, conservative Christian ladies in Britain shunned cosmetics as worldly while their North American counterparts painted it on in abundance, encouraged by one of their leaders, Bob Jones, Sr., who famously said, “If the barn door needs painting, paint it.” So tell me, what is worldly—the American model or the British?
To add another twist to the problem, what about the woman who was converted in the British church and who shunned makeup and hair dye as worldly but later began to use it when she emigrated to North America—is this woman backslidden and worldly as some would say? Is it possible that her sanctification has “progressed,” and brought her out of a particular denominational subculture of non-worldliness and into a deeper and more biblical understanding of what this illusive “worldliness” actually is? Is it possible that, rather than being backslidden, she knows her Lord’s grace more now than before and has a deeper understanding of the liberty of the gospel and the simplicity that is in Christ Jesus? Should we judge this lady’s heart by what she has on her face?
This dichotomy between North America and Britain is evident also in the church. In those churches that practice head covering, for example, the differences are clear to those who watch the webcast services on either side of the Atlantic. In Britain there is a lot more fashion consciousness than in North America. I have heard North Americans look at the British church and censure their flamboyant, stylish, Royal Ascot-like appearance. On the other hand, there are British Christians who would look at their North American brothers and sisters and condemn them as casual, drab, and indifferent in their church wear.
You see the difficulty when we try to define worldliness by our own standards, opinions, or preferences. We become bigots when we judge an individual merely on the basis of cultural mores or outward appearance. We make our own denominational subculture of non-worldliness the measure and not sound biblical principles. Here again, defining worldliness eludes our grasp!