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How (Not) to Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the 'Earthly City'

How (Not) to Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the 'Earthly City'

What the ancient phrase can teach today's Christians about our attempts at cultural transformation.

I often hope that my office is haunted. You see, I inhabit a humble corner of cinder-blocked space, with a tiny sliver of window, that was once home to one of my role models: Rich Mouw. Longtime president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Rich made his mark on evangelical social thought while teaching philosophy at Calvin College. It was during that time that he penned a series of small books that not only changed my mind; they redirected the shape of American evangelical cultural engagement. So you can see why I sort of hope that my office is—well, if not haunted, perhaps enchanted. I keep hoping that some of Rich's passion and wisdom could seep into me as I inhabit the same space, an heir to his thought and indebted to his example.

In books like Political Evangelism (1973) and When the Kings Come Marching In (1983), Mouw challenged the apolitical, otherworldliness of evangelicals by persistently pointing to two themes in Scripture: (1) God's affirmation of the "very-goodness" of creation (Gen. 1:31), including the commissioning of human beings to undertake cultural labor in this world; and (2) the biblical vision of shalom as our true eschatological hope—a creation renewed and restored and flourishing in accord with God's desires. From beginning to end, Mouw emphasized, the Bible enjoins us to join God's mission of renewing all things (Col. 1:15-19). So, as he provocatively put it in his 1980 book, rather than looking for a divine escape hatch out of this world, we are Called to Holy Worldliness.

If that phrase gives you pause, you aren't alone. Isn't worldliness a bad thing? Aren't we supposed to resist the world (per James 4:4-5)? Isn't the "whole world" under the sway of the evil one (1 John 5:19)? Here we hit upon the multivalence of biblical language. Scripture can both loudly proclaim that "God so loved the world" and that we should "love not the world" (1 John 2:15). Context means everything here. As Mouw qualified it, what God delights in is a holy worldliness—a rightly ordered investment in God's creation with a view to fostering its flourishing. It's a "worldliness" in the sense that it is not "otherworldly"; it is holy insofar as it encourages mundane, domestic, cultural life lived under the lordship of Christ.

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J Thomas

August 27, 2012  1:37pm

We should be pragmatic about "the world". But first we need to define what "the world" is. It is a collection of fallen people, their systems of culture and government, and all of their fragmented senses of good and evil. Their social systems come mainly through non-Christian attempts at keeping societal order. Fortunately for us in America, our founding fathers saw the importance of placing God above the government. So they subjected the law to restriction, confining it and keeping it out of the church. They banned it from breaching the door. That is incredibly rare, and what a gift it was to us. They wanted us to build our culture for ourselves, not to dictate it from a government throne on high. So the responsibility falls on each of us individually to allow ourselves to become vessels for Christ to the world...our immediate world. Otherwise the world will never know Christ, and we won't be doing our part to fulfill the great commission.

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