Are Christ-followers to be for the world … or must we take a stand against it? Like many either/or questions, perhaps the best answer is Yes.
The term world can be a tricky one. In the Bible, it can refer to the physical planet, or the realm of creation, or humanity. It can also mean something like “human life organized and lived apart from God.” So it is true that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) and that we are called to “love not the world” (1 John 2:15). God loves Creation and humanity, but we must guard against falling in love with a way of life apart from God.
I think the proper posture for the Christ community is paradoxical: we are for the world by being against the world. It’s hard to find the right equilibrium point between our for-ness and our against-ness, and we must confess that we have often gotten this delicate balance tragically wrong. Too often we have too closely allied and aligned ourselves with the world’s means and values; too often we have ignored and neglected the world to the harm of our neighbors. We easily become “worldly,” that is, we think and live just like our neighbors who aren’t Christians. Or, we become too “other-worldly,” and end up denying that God has much interest or involvement in what happens day by day on planet Earth. We get co-opted and corrupted by both our own sinful propensities and dispositions, and by the blandishments of the “world” that denies that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The call to love our neighbors is a call to be for the world. To love our neighbors means that we desire their well-being, their flourishing, their shalom. We should care about and tend to all that shalom entails: the physical environment; healthy marriages and families; decent government and laws; life-giving arts and culture; the cultivation of true virtue within all levels of human society; and much more along these lines. Our neighbors who are not Christians should see Christians as friends, good neighbors, seekers of the common good. The human world is always very much in a terrible mess: poverty, oppression, injustice, violence, corruption, and dehumanizing ideologies and “-isms” of all kinds. We can be for the true flourishing of our neighbors and communities precisely by standing against the dehumanizing ideas and forces that haunt the planet and stalk our societies.
“Don’t be surprised if the world hates you,” Jesus told us; “keep in mind that they hated me first” (John 15:18). If we are for the world, seeking its good and the flourishing of our neighbors, why the hate?
The “world” (human life lived without reference or regard to God) is happy for us to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, so long as we do so according to the world’s ways and means and goals. We can do our “good deeds,” so long as we keep quiet about the reasons we do them. One of the ways we are for the world by standing against it should be connecting dots that the world doesn’t want to see connected.
Christian faithfulness requires both good deeds that contribute to the benefit of our neighbors and communities, and bearing witness to the Good News of Jesus. The world does not wish to know that the real causes and sources of the world’s miseries lie in the sinfulness of all of our hearts. The world does not wish to know that it needs a Savior, or that the world’s true Lord is not Caesar, Science, Economics, Progress, Technology or Reason or any other member of the modern pantheon of gods—the world’s true Lord is Jesus, whom we crucified. The world does not like to be reminded that the ultimate judge is not appointed or elected, nor that we will each and all need to give an account, not to ourselves, our friends, or our neighbors, but to God.
The world will hate Christians, at least much of the time, if we are being faithful: “Woe to you when all speak well of you!” But we are not allowed to hate the world. We are commanded to stand against it, to bear witness to its illusions, delusions and idolatries, while at the same time facing how deeply those illusions, delusions and idolatries have infected those of us who bear the Name of Jesus. We are for the world because we can learn to recognize our common lot with all of humanity: we are many things, but first and foremost, we are sinners.
Perhaps the best question isn’t the one the world puts to us, “Are you for us or against us?” We should follow Jesus’ lead: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me, scatters” (Luke 11:23). The fundamental issue is not “the church” or “the world,” it is not “us” or “them”; the fundamental matter is Jesus. Are we for and with him, or for and with ourselves? Are we gathered around Jesus as Center and Circumference, or have we been scattered among the trinkets and false promises of a world that has lost its way and therefore lost its mind?