The title of this essay is drawn from 2 Cor 6:17, where Paul encourages the Corinthian gathering to separate themselves from the “unclean things” of the world (2 Cor 6:14-18). The statement is from a quote from the Greek translation of Isaiah (52:11). One also runs across a similar idea of separation from the world in the Gospel of John attributed to Jesus. In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father:
They1 do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world (John 17:14, 16, NRSV).
Earlier (John 8:23) in a debate with “the Judahites,” contrasting himself with them, Jesus asserts: “you are of this world; I am not of this world.”2
Paul’s statement effectively calls his followers out of the world and sets them apart from “the world.” The idea that Jesus and his followers do not belong to the world, i.e., that they are separate from the world leads them into a kind of world denial, found in ancient Cynicism3 Such an attitude has encouraged many sorts of separations from the “world” through history, from religious hermits4 to asceticism.5 It has also encouraged other forms of religious withdrawal from the world that some choose as a vocation in the modern world, such as coenobitic monasticism.6
The truth of the matter, however, is that Paul, Jesus, and their disciples do belong to the world. They were “made” for the world, as all human beings are: they breathed oxygen, and their bodies required sustenance for energy and life. Their hearts circulated blood and their bodies were comprised of the same star-stuff of which our species is made (dust thou art and to dust you shall return, Gen 3:19). They voided like the other animals of the planet. They had the ability to sense objects tactically and visually. They used their brains and experienced emotions, as we all do. They even participated in the “world” to a point: attended social functions (like weddings, dinner parties, feasts, synagogues, the Judean Temple, etc.), enjoyed libations, engaged religious leaders in debate, aided the suffering, etc. Thus, to say that they were not “of the world” did not mean there was no involvement in society; it rather suggests an attitude they held about themselves and everyone else, although there is no denying the mystical implications of the statement attributed to Jesus about himself.
The author of John uses the term “world” in different ways. For example, world can refer to the physical creation (John 1:10; 17:24; 21:25; compare 3:31). World can refer to other people who are a part of the world order (3:16), while in John 17:14, 16 world appears to comprise an oppositional spiritual realm that has a ruler (14:30; 12:31), referred to as “the evil one” (17:15). This evil empire is alien to Jesus who came “from above” (6:38; 8:23) in order to pass judgment on the ruler and his empire (9:39; 12:31) and to cast out its ruler, the prince of this world (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). In the world Jesus’ disciples are exposed to evil (17:15), but Jesus prays that they may be made holy (17:16-19).
This kind of mythical complex seems quite different from the potentially ethical lapses that many contemporary Christians associate with negative aspects of living in the world: gambling, bar hopping, “houses of ill repute,” etc. For example, in my teen age years I was reared in the church, where I was encouraged to be “in the world,” but not to be “of the world.” What this meant practically was that I should avoid certain kinds of activities that were deemed religiously unacceptable for Christian folk, like smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, dancing, and watching movies, etc. There are sound health reasons for avoiding some of these activities and no good reason for avoiding others. The neighborhood of the average teenager is much more dangerous today.
The bottom line of this essay is that if one is to be a positive influence in the world, one must be part of the world. Religious people in my view should not separate themselves for religious reasons from aspects of the world to which they object. I know a man, for example, who practiced what he called a “bar ministry.” Although he himself was not a drinker of alcoholic beverages, he was there in the bar to provide a positive influence within a setting generally frowned upon by the church. According to Mark, Jesus also attended dinner parties, and was accused of being a heavy drinker.7
If one thinks of oneself as a follower of Jesus, one must ask oneself should there be parts of the world that are left devoid of the comforting ministry of presence in the form of followers of Jesus. Military chaplains of all faiths, for example, join the army to render spiritual comfort to soldiers in garrison, and to wounded and dying soldiers on the battlefield. To do that they must be part of the soldiers’ world.
Missouri State University
1That is to say: those the Father gave Jesus “from the world,” i.e., his disciples (John 17:6, 12).
2John is highly suspect as a historical source; see Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 151-63. Thus, this statement attributed to Jesus may simply be a case of the author of John’s Gospel overriding history with his own brand of religious faith.
7One finds the accusation that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard in the early hypothetical source Q, Luke 7:33-34 = Matt11:18-19. And there is also to consider the infamous incident in John, where the host at a wedding ran out of wine and Jesus turned water into wine for the guests, whom the chief steward accused of being drunk (John 2:1-11).