The Irony of Worldly Wisdom and the Church

Notice, please, what Paul writes in Colossians 2:20-23:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules:

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?

These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Throughout the movie, The Princess Bride, Sicilian boss Vizzini repeatedly describes the unfolding events as “inconceivable.” After Vizzini attempts to cut the rope that the Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing, he states that it was “inconceivable” that the pirate did not fall. The swordsman, Inigo Montoya, then tells Vizzini, “You keep on using that world but I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The word “worldliness” is that sort of word. It does not mean what most people think it means. They imagine it has something to do with running amok. Sermonizing pastors have waxed eloquent denouncing the worldliness of Christians and others. In fact, worldliness and sin are usually viewed as synonyms. There is a focus on condemning lust, illicit sex and maybe twerking.

And yet, sinful pandemonium is not at all what Paul or the Bible actually mean by “the way of the world” or “worldliness.”

Instead, as the passage from Colossians above makes clear, the wisdom of this world, or worldliness is exactly the opposite of running amok. Worldliness is, in point of fact, being concerned with rules and regulations; worldliness is a focus on legalisms and legalism. The way of the world is to never to run amok. You want to see worldliness in action? Go to the DMV. Visit Congress. Stand in a courtroom. The way of the world is to follow rules, to interpret rules, to believe that making another rule, creating another regulation, passing another bit of legislation, is accomplishing something significant and making the world a better place. Worldliness is to reward bureaucrats on the basis of their performance in following proper procedure. Worldliness is to make lists and check them off one by one; worldliness is to check to make sure all the blanks on the form have been filled in.

Worldliness sends you to the back of the line and makes you start over because you didn’t get the document stamped first. Worldliness suspends a student who gave her classmate, gasping for breath in a life-threatening asthma attack, a puff on her inhaler–because sharing drugs like that is against the rules. Better to let someone die than to ignore a regulation. Respect for the law trumps all.

Worldliness believes more laws will fix what ails us. Every nation on Earth, every tribe, every people, every business from the beginning of time until now has been dominated by rules. Rules are the way of the world. And in point of fact, following the rules often becomes more important than actually doing what’s right. The rules trump justice, mercy and love.

Legalists are the most worldly people there are.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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