learning the words: worldly

myley cyrus

Today’s guest post is from Melissa, a reader who grew up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, but eventually left it with her husband. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

Worldly – perhaps no word is quite so “fundamental” to the way hyper-fundamentalists view how they should or should not live as this one.  During my upbringing in the independent fundamentalist Baptist movement (church, school, college), I heard this word used countless times, and always in a highly negative sense.

Simply put, worldly is defined by Webster’s as “of, relating to, or devoted to the temporal world: not religious or spiritual.”  In our lingo, however, it was further defined as describing the things “the world” did and, conversely, things which “we” did not do.  “The world,” by the way, is anyone outside of the IFB mindset.  In short, wordly = bad, sinful, the opposite of Godly.  The less worldly one is, the better, closer to God, more spiritual one is.  The idea is based on Bible verses that say things like, “come out from among them and be ye separate,” and that Christians are “a peculiar people.” [Editor’s note: that particular example is a form of Dominionism, a common fundamentalist heresy.]

Almost anything could garner the adjective “worldly,” depending on who was talking about it, and what his or her personal beliefs were.  I have heard the word applied to the following: clothing, hairstyles, music, amusement parks, malls, movies and movie theaters, TV and TV shows, education, government, books, jewelry, games, make-up, hobbies, jokes, magazines, and probably a few others I can’t remember right now.  In utter defiance of Webster, worldly was also used to describe decidedly spiritual things like churches, Christians, preachers, and Bible translations other than ye olde KJV 1611.

Worldly was used to distinguish the “sinful” forms of these items from the “Godly” ones.  For example, there were “worldly hairstyles” and “Godly hairstyles” – long hair on a man was worldly, as was extremely short hair on a woman.  I remember the handbook for my Christian school containing a picture of a “Godly” male student’s hairstyle, which looked remarkably like the hair of all of the male characters on “Leave It to Beaver.”  Jesus, apparently, could not have attended our school.

Many rules were created to keep us from becoming worldly.  Flip-flops represented the hippie movement, so they were worldly. (I believe this led to rules about girls having to wear socks or hose—it makes it harder to wear hippie footwear!)  Wire-rimmed glasses were worldly because John Lennon wore them.  Black lipstick/nail polish was associated with the worldly Goths.  Can’t use a standard deck of cards, even for solitaire, because that’s what worldly gamblers use.  And worldly music, even Christian music . . .  well I don’t even have time to get into that can o’ worms!

The avoidance of all things worldly, quite naturally led to some practical problems, such as where the line between worldly and godly should be drawn.  I remember a friend in my church had never been to an amusement park, and had only been to a mall once or twice because, according to her father, those “are things the world does.”  Even as steeped as I was in the IFB ideology at the time, I remember thinking, “but ‘the world’ also goes to grocery stores and eats food and drives cars, and we don’t think those things are wrong.”  Another major problem, of course, is pride.  Because so many worldly things were visible, we could tell at a glance how spiritual someone was.  And because worldly = ungodly, the more worldly items we avoided, the more we could congratulate ourselves on how much better we were than “the world,” including those “worldly Christians.”

The first time I encountered the word worldly used in a positive light was just before graduating from my IFB college.  I was with a guy (who is now my husband) at a bookstore and came across a slim volume in a black and gold dust jacket with the title Worldly Virtues by Johannes A. Gaertner.


It seemed like an extreme oxymoron, akin to saying “holy devil” or something.  We were intrigued and each picked up a copy and started reading right there in the store.  The book is filled with one-page reflections on various aspects of being human.  It covers such worldly traits as tact, perseverance, and commitment.  From it I learned:

  • that worry is “an eminently healthy, normal, and human trait.”
  • that fear can be positive because “the person who knows no fear…is either incredibly stupid or harbors a secret death wish.”
  • that discernment is a way to prevent “being manipulated day in, day out, virtually every waking hour of the day.”

We each bought a copy, and from that day I began to understand Webster’s second definition of worldly: “sophisticated or cosmopolitan.”  Kind of like that most worldly of movie heroes, “Bond–James Bond.”  Mr. Gaertner actually helped me reclaim a number of words that hyper-fundamentalists had perverted for their own use.  Now, the label of worldly doesn’t make me cringe – it’s a label I strive to live up to.

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  • Totally true. This perfectly describes the Gothard lifestyle (which I spent time in) and even more so, the Dominionist-influenced Jonathan Lindvall group that my wife suffered under. Looking back now, I am struck by the fact that “worldly” applied, not to non-Christians in general, but the “secular humanist” variety. After all, many of the rules are strikingly similar to those imposed by radical Islam, but that never bothered us. They weren’t “the world” as defined by fundamentalism.

    The key quote:

    Because so many worldly things were visible, we could tell at a glance how spiritual someone was. And because worldly = ungodly, the more worldly items we avoided, the more we could congratulate ourselves on how much better we were than “the world,” including those “worldly Christians.”

    Exactly. It was and is a way to feel that God likes us more than those “worldly” people.

    “I thank God that I am not like other men.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Until more and more is forbidden, until most everything is forbidden and what is not Forbidden becomes Absolutely Compulsory. Kind of like North Korea. (Been there, done that, still got the scars. Whenever you hear the words “shepherding” or “discipling”, put your guard up.)

  • I think fiddlrts has it exactly right. Fundamentalism is worldly. Fundamentalism denies the incarnation and the power of God’s love manifested through His suffering on the cross. Fundamentalism says God is too high and holy and mighty and powerful to condescend Himself to visit humankind. Paul said the natural mind hates the foolishness, the weakness of God, and – as Moltmann said – the natural man is incurably religious.The cross is more offensive to him than it is to the people of the world.

  • For God so loved the world…..I suppose I shouldn’t kick that hornet’s nest.

    Let me know if you like my essays on the word “Bitter” and another on the word “Role.”

    If you like them, you can reblog them here.

    • I love both of those posts! I think I’ve linked to both of them at some point… they’re definitely worth bringing more attention to.

  • Kathy Gayheart

    Has the word submission been discussed?

    Kathy Gayheart Sent from my iPad

    • No, it hasn’t!

      You’re welcome to send it to me (in any format you’d like) at:


    • notleia

      I’d be interested in seeing a compare/contrast of “submission” and “obedience,” because I’ve seen them used and presented in a similar way, though “submission” has its mountain of gender baggage. Or should I write that essay myself?

  • Rebecca W

    Hello. 🙂 I have recently been following this blog and this series with interest. The wrong headed notions of what you were taught as being central to Christian living makes me sad ..and mad frankly.

    Worldliness isnt about the external things (where you go, what you do) as much as it is about love and desire. It is about having a disordered view of the good things here on earth, putting them above God and finding supreme worth and ultimate meaning in the material.

    “The evil is in the stuff” is part of the ancient heresy gnosticism. They thought the material was ultimately bad and worthless and only the spiritual ultimately mattered.

    This little article seems to present a good overview of what worldliness really is ..


    So sorry for your bad experiences with a false representation of Christianity. . 🙁

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      I would like to point out that “Gnosticism” is a very generic term that covers a LOT of ground. The word “Gnostic” originally meant “He Who KNOWS Things”, and Gnosticism per se revolved around an Inner Ring with Speshul Sekrit Knowledge which only The Illuminated Few (i.e. US) could grasp.

      This also dovetails with the original meaning of “The Occult”, i.e. Hidden Secrets, again available only to the Speshul Few who KNOW Things.

      • Rebecca W

        Absolutely. That’s why I clarified that “material = bad & spiritual = good” is part of gnosticism (not the whole deal 🙂

  • In the early 1970s, I had just graduated high school. Skirt and dress styles were creeping several inches above the knee and my pastor was constantly warning the many girls in our church to not dress in worldly fashions.

    Suddenly, maxi-dresses became popular. They were floor length. I was ecstatic! Now our girls could wear modest maxis and not be embarrassed with their old fashioned knee-length dresses that no one else wore.

    Guess what! Our pastor warned from the pulpit that he had better not catch any of our girls wearing those worldly maxi styles. Go figure…