When Christians use the word ‘world’

A word Christians often use to refer to anything that is absent of supposed ‘Christian values’ or that appears to bear no connection to ‘the people of God’ (that is: the church), is the word ‘world’.

Certain activities or actions are ‘worldly’. Christians, it is sometimes said, are to ‘be in the world but not of the world’.
The rationale often comes from verses such as this,
Do not conform to the pattern of this world… (Romans 12:2)
I’ll be honest, I don’t like the way we use the word ‘world’. 1) It often sounds tacky and regularly lacks any kind of nuance because there is no unified and agreed sense of otherness to God. 2) We cannot speak of the ‘world’ in a way that considers ‘worldliness’ some divinely imposed classification denoting sinfulness, it is a distinction that arises quite naturally from a profession of faith and the life choices that involves.
1) We need more specific and nuanced words. Anything Christians feel rubs against who they are or what they do will happen in a context. (Paul wrote the book of Romans to Romans, in Rome, who were doing Roman-y things – ‘worldliness’ in Paul meant something specific.) ‘Worldliness’ cannot and does not look the same in all times and places because there is no unified or agreed way of being ‘worldly’ amongst those who are not Christian (nor is there a unified or agreed way of thinking about what constitutes ‘worldliness’ amongst Christians).
In fact, often common usage of the word ‘world’ actually fails to recognize the amount of good present among those around who do not confess Jesus is Lord.
So what do you mean when you talk about ‘worldliness’ in Northern Ireland, do people know you mean that and with that in mind perhaps talk about those things specifically – give your words content.
2) ‘Worldliness’ is a free decision; it isn’t necessarily evil or bad. Consider world these by Stanley Hauerwas, which also provide a quote from John Howard Yoder,
The “world” as that opposed to God is not an ontological designation. Thus “world” is not inherently sinful; rather its sinful character is by its own free will. The only difference between church and world is the difference between agents. The distinction between church and the world is not between realms of reality, but “rather between the basic personal postures of men, some of whom confess and others of whom do not confess that Jesus is Lord. The distinction between church and world is not something that God has imposed upon the world by a prior metaphysical definition, nor is it only something which timid or pharisaical Christians have built up around themselves. It is all of that in creation that has taken the freedom not yet to believe.”[1]
When Christians perhaps say things like ‘don’t be of the world’ we need to think about what is operating in a phrase like that – ‘why are saying it?’, ‘what is it saying about God?’ and ‘what is it saying about ‘us’ and ‘them’?’
The conduct of Christian and the church has to operate within a different register than the categories of the ‘world’/society/people/neighbours around them – being people who represent God’s kingdom demands this. Certain practices will no longer be acceptable to Christians because they are citizens of another place that takes up residence in the world in a different manner. Christians should experience a feeling of discontinuity with the world around them – but this will be specific and contextual.
Christians should operate differently to ”all of that in creation that has taken the freedom not yet to believe.” Our conduct will often be very different, personal postures set the directions for the nature of our behaviour. However, the assumptions that work in a phrase like ‘don’t be of the world’ sometimes fail to appreciate this kind of dynamic – that the ‘world’ does not designate thoroughgoing-ly sinful, it designates people who have made particular decisions about God.
I don’t disagree that Christian use of the word ‘world’ might at times denote something important, I simply think the usage it often experiences (e.g. ‘worldly’/’of the world’) because of some fails to convey that the word actually has content and that all kinds of important distinctions about what it means to be ‘the church and the world’ need to be appreciated along with it.

[1] Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 101
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