Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

4 Oct 2013

Should Believers Be Different from Unbelievers?

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Christian Life Centre - Globe - Bristol Road, Selly Oak As often happens with discussions of worldliness among Christians, Pearson’s post yesterday sparked a bit of disagreement (much of which confirmed the first paragraph of the post). As Pearson noted beforehand, the debate typically includes what it means to love the world. In each of the questions Pearson provided, he encouraged believers to consider whether or not what they love, what they tolerate, and what they prioritize are different from unbelievers. Some concluded that these questions showed a flawed understanding of worldliness. Do they? Should believers be different from unbelievers if they are to avoid worldliness?

Let me begin by noting why some may be concerned with the questions. At times, Christians have defined worldliness in such a way that leads people to think anything an unbeliever does is worldly. A bit of reflection reveals the foolishness of that definition. Unbelievers eat, sleep, drive cars, talk in English, etc., and the Bible is certainly not warning believers to avoid those things. But, does that mean it is wrong to urge Christians to be different from unbelievers?

Both James and John see friendship with the world or love of the world as antithetical to love for God (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15). Why are the two mutually exclusive? The biblical picture of the world points to an underlying order dominated by Satan that opposes God (John 12:31; 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4). The world’s greatest sin is its failure to accept the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 5:36; 10:25–38; 12:37, 47–50; 15:22–24; 16:9).

Thus, believers and the world are set in stark contrast. Believers live under the lordship of Christ, submitting to his will, while the world lives in opposition to Christ, submitting to its own sinful desires. Since unbelievers by definition do not submit to the lordship of Christ, they are worldly. They do not order their actions and affections according to the Bible—which is the heart of worldliness.

Why do believers no longer live controlled by their own desires? They have been transformed through the work of regeneration. Man is spiritually dead, and, thus, can never love and serve God without being given spiritual life (Eph 2:1–5). The only way to remove worldliness from the heart of a person is for the person to get a new heart. Regeneration enables believers to be distinct from the world, for “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4). The believer is no longer “of the world” because Christ “chose [him] out of the world” (John 15:19). This new birth produces characteristics in believers that set them in opposition to the world.

So, should believers be different from unbelievers? Yes! That’s why Paul exhorts the Corinthians not to be “yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14). Believers are different from unbelievers, and that difference should be reflected in what they love, what they tolerate, and what they prioritize. To argue otherwise is to deny the truth of regeneration. If unbelievers lived in submission to Christ, the Bible would have no need to warn against worldliness—it would not exist.

The Bible is clear. Unbelievers are worldly, because they do not submit to Christ. Since believers must submit to Christ, their lives should be distinct from those who do not.

8 Responses

  1. PhilipT

    I don’t know of a single Orthodox Evangelical Christian who would disagree with the points given above. The problem is with the reasoning that only a small segment of “separatists” hold to this. The only difference is whether the differences between believers and the world should be biblically derived or artificially contrived.

  2. Steve Newman


    I don’t agree with you at all. Evangelical Christians show worldliness in unequal yokes with the unsaved in marriage, society, and in purposely putting themselves in “mixed multitudes” with unbelievers in ecumenical situations such as ministerial associations, parachurch ministries, and political causes. Do I need to go on? Maybe you wouldn’t say they are “orthodox”, but then I don’t know very many “orthodox” evangelicals under that definition.

  3. Bill T.

    Christ deals with “worldliness” in Matthew 6.

    Mat 6:19-21 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: (20) But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: (21) For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

    Mat 6:31-34 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (32) (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. (33) But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (34) Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

    Worldliness is simply being consumed with the things of this world more than the “kingdom of God”.

    Our heart is given to this temporal world instead of the kingdom of God and hence the adultery of James 4.

    We must not seek the things the “Gentiles seek”. That is where the difference lies between the saved and unsaved. Christ obviously teaches and sees a difference that should be evident especially of the heart.

    I may be simplistic in my thinking and understanding, but the Word of God is quite clear. We muddy the waters for various reasons.

    The questions Pearson asks are quite legit in light of Matthew 6 IMHO.

  4. PhilipT

    You’re absolutely right. Being consumed with temporal things is at the core of worldliness. It is a sin which every believer struggles with and every orthodox evangelical pastor preaches against. There’s nothing muddy about it whatsoever. The only muddy thing about it is that some believers think that they have the corner of the market on this teaching.


    To know for certain the change that takes place at conversion, conversion must have been experienced.

  6. Philip T,

    I agree that this is not a unique emphasis of fundamentalism. It is also clear, however, that this does not seem to be an emphasis of the community that self identifies as broadly “evangelical”.

    It would be most helpful if you would define “orthodox evangelical” as you understand it.

  7. PhilipT


    Orthodox (in an Evangelical Context): Those who ascribe belief in the deity and humanity of Christ (including His virgin birth and bodily resurrection), the doctrine of the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, the return of Christ, the Resurrection of the dead, eternal life, and the eternal states of Heaven and Hell.

    Evangelical: Though difficult to define with precision, the most universally agreed-upon definition was provided by David Bebbington in 1989 as involving the marks of biblicism (Bible as sole authority), crucicentrism (focus on the work of Christ), conversionism (need for personal conversion based on this work), and activism (that this conversion bears fruit).

    It is that final mark which applies most appropriately to the discussion at hand. If you don’t believe that a converted soul results in the fruit described in authoritative Scripture (and seeking God instead of temporal things is certainly one of them), then you’re not really an evangelical.

    The reality is that self-identified separatists struggle in this area just as much as self-identified evangelicals. The struggle in individual believers just shows up in different ways. I’m sure most separatists have dozens of supposed examples of evangelical worldliness, but they may be reluctant to see their own tendencies towards worldliness.

    For example, the hangup regarding what to wear to church is actually quite worldly. It exhibits a passion for temporal things rather than eternal things. It often elevates cultural norms of the 1940’s above other biblical commands (i.e., it is the current equivalent of giving the well-dressed guy the front seat and the regular guy the back seat in our worship). In essence, the pressure put on believers to dress certain ways in worship can be absolutely worldly because we’ve elevated things to a higher level than God. But most separatists are not interested in this sort of self-critique. They often prefer to jab their fingers at their evangelical brothers who also fall prey to the same sin in different ways.

    In the end, I’m not saying everyone will do this perfectly. I am saying that it is a struggle for *every* believer, and *every* truly evangelical and orthodox Christian leader will push back against this vice and towards Gospel holiness in appropriate ways. We would do well to critique our *own* hearts on this matter and ferret out the depravity of our *own* ways here before we begin speaking about Christian leaders who supposedly don’t do the same. Perhaps a little soul-searching will reveal that self-identified separatists really aren’t that much better in this area than other believers. Who knows…