If you grew up in a Christian household or attended church, you likely frequently heard that Christians are supposed to be “in the world, not of the world.”
Well-meaning youth pastor or concerned parents often brought out this phrase to caution against listening to “secular” music or watching R-rated movies.
After all, it kind of makes sense, right? The idea seems like it’s a sort of veiled warning to be engaged with culture without being too involved it in.
But, where is the line between being “in” the world but not “of” it? Can we hang out at bars? Go to parties? Be involved in politics? What does the phrase really mean, and where does it even appear in the Bible?
What if there’s a bigger meaning we’ve been missing?
What the Bible Actually Says
Though the concept of being “in the world, not of the world” is referenced throughout the Gospels, the phrase itself isn’t actually part of a Bible verse.
Leading up to His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus uses the idea as a way of explaining to the disciples what is coming, and to prepare them for the Great Commission. In John, Jesus tells His followers, “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19). He also says the disciples “are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:16).
In Romans 12, Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Neither of these instances is about making decisions about engaging in culture or trying to decide what kind of activities should be considered morally acceptable. There’s actually a lot more at stake when it comes to Christians’ relationship with things “of the world.”
A New Way
The message of the Gospel predicates on the idea that the world is a broken place, and that Jesus can fix it. (Obviously, that’s an extreme simplification, but you get the idea.) We are taught that through Jesus’ salvation and grace, we can receive new life. As Paul explains, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
But it doesn’t stop there. Yes, the Gospel is about turning individuals to Christ, but it’s also about applying Jesus’ teachings to actually change the world. Jesus instructs His followers to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” He has chosen us (the Church) to be instruments of change that can actually bring the patterns of the world into alignment with His principles.
And that’s why it’s so critical to have a more full understanding of being “in the world” not “of” it.
Patterns of This World
Yes, we are encouraged to pursue righteousness and think about things that are “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8), but our relationship with the world isn’t simply about trying to avoid certain things in culture we find objectionable.
Being “in” the world means that we are supposed to recognize the things that are wrong with it—not so we can simply try to stay away from them, but so that we can help fix them. That’s what praying “on earth as it is in heaven” is all about.
In Matthew, Jesus presents a parable about what this Kingdom that is to come will look like. In the parable, several groups of workers are hired by a landowner at different times to work at his vineyard. At the end of the day, he pays all of them full wages—even the ones that only worked for an hour.
The workers that had worked an entire day were enraged that those hired later would receive the same reward. The landowner challenged them, asking, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus said this was the message of His parable: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
It’s a subversive message. It’s one that challenges our idea of how we think the world should work. It posits generosity over “fairness.” Grace over “correctness.” It shows that God (in this metaphor, the landowner), is the one in charge—and His ways are not our ways. They are even better.
In Jesus’ Kingdom, the widow who donates her last dime has given more than the rich man who hands over fortunes. In His Kingdom, the meek inherit the earth, not the rich, famous and powerful.
His Kingdom operates differently than the world: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
James says that true religion isn’t about who looks the holiest—it’s about who is putting Christ’s message into action: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
There, “being polluted by the world” (being “of” the world) is put directly beside instructions of how we are to live “in” it.
Being “in the world not of it” isn’t simply sin avoidance: It’s living out the message of Christ by teaching His truth and serving the marginalized, those suffering from injustice, the refugee, the poor, the sick, those in prison, our enemies and “the least of these.”
The way of the world is broken, but Christ has shown us our role in how we can help fix it: All we have to do is to decide to be “in” the world enough to recognize the injustice, yet choose a path that is not “of” it. Instead, it is something better.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.