In recent years, I’ve attended denominational meetings where believers discussed—sometimes passionately—about how to engage the culture most faithfully. I‘ve often heard a common refrain that goes something like this:
Christian A: “We need to be clear about XYZ issue because the world is watching.”
Christian B: “What does it matter what the world thinks? What matters is what God thinks.”
Maybe you’ve witnessed similar debates. They not only happen in public gatherings, but they are quite common on social media. Both definitions and motivations are relevant to this discussion.
Defining “the World”
If you’ve spent much time studying the Scriptures, you know that “the world” can mean different things depending upon context. The phrase can simply mean the physical creation—everything that is created by God and thus not God (John 1:9; Acts 17:24, Rom 8:20). This is like when we say, “Look at the beautiful world around us.”
Also, the phrase can refer to all the peoples of the world or humans-in-general (Psa 96:14; John 3:16; Rev 12:9). This is like when we say, “The whole world was affected by the global pandemic.”
In some contexts, “the world” refers to humans-as-fallen and in rebellion against God, as well as the systems that have been corrupted by sin (John 7:7; John 15:18-19; Rom 12:2; Gal 6:14; 1 John 5:4-5; 2 Pet 1:4). This is like when we say, “The world doesn’t understand the Bible’s vision for human flourishing.”
The upshot is that sometimes well-meaning believers are talking past each other. For example, Christian A says “the world is watching” and what she actually means is “people are watching us and what we do has an impact.” But what Christian B thinks he hears is “we have to assuage or impress unbelievers by doing XYZ.” These two believers are using the same vocabulary but have different dictionaries.
It’s important that Christian A is clear in what she communicates. It’s also important that Christian B gives Christian A the benefit of the doubt and asks questions if things seem unclear or troubling. But let’s say that Christian A actually does mean the same thing as Christian B when she speaks of the world. This is where motivations come in.
Let’s say the issue is combatting human sex trafficking. If Christian A says “the world is watching” and she means “we need to oppose human sex trafficking because that will curry favor with the unbelieving world,” I’d contend she is headed down the wrong trail. I’d push back on her argument, even though I agree with her that the desired action is good. We should combat human sex trafficking because it is a grave moral evil, the victims are created in God’s image, and God calls us to love our neighbors and serve those in need.
The world stands in opposition to God, his ways, and his people. Unbelievers might appreciate that Christians are pushing back against a horrific form of modern slavery. But the encouragement of the world stops at the foot of the cross. Christian advocacy against human sex trafficking will never cause unbelievers to praise God and bow the knee to Christ’s rule over all things. Only the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the gospel can do that.
But even in this case, though Christian A’s motivations are disordered, it’s nevertheless true that the world is watching. And as Scripture makes clear, that matters.
Let Your Light Shine
Jesus teaches that the world is watching us, so our actions and words matter. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount he says,
You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16, CSB).
Our words and deeds are a public witness. The world is watching.
Or, consider the words of Jesus in his High Priestly prayer,
I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me (John 17:20-23, CSB).
Our visible unity is a public witness. The world is watching.
Consider also Paul’s words to Timothy addressing the qualifications of elders/pastors: “Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap” (1 Tim 3:7, CSB).
A potential pastor needs to have a good reputation with unbelievers. The world is watching.
We need to make sure everyone is on the same page when we discuss “the world.” We need to make sure we have the right motivations. And we need to be patient with each other, ask good questions, and give others the benefit of the doubt. But we don’t have the luxury of pretending like the world isn’t watching—or worse, not care.
Our words and our actions matter. The world is watching. Our witness, as well as the reputation of our King, is on the line. Christians will debate how best to engage the culture until Christ returns. Those debates are important. But what a tragedy it would be to win the debate but compromise our witness before the watching world.