And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Romans 12:2
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 1 John 2:15
These two verses are often quoted by those who call themselves Anabaptists in support of the doctrine of non-conformity to the world. But there is a subtle difference in the meaning of these two verses that I fear is often missed.
Let me explain. World in 1 John 2:15 is kosmos, the physical universe, the earth and its riches, the people of the world, especially those without God. World in Romans 12:2 is aion, the age or period of time we live in, the spirit and values that are highly esteemed in a particular epoch. Note that the verse says this world. French translations say the present age.
1 John 2:15 is cautioning us not to fall in love with the things of the world. Romans 12:2 is cautioning us not to allow our thoughts to be shaped by the spirit and values that are held dear by the world in the time and place that we live. In other words, it is possible to identify certain things and actions as worldly, and scrupulously avoid them, yet be entirely worldly-minded.
Buttons were originally hand-made from clam shells, metal, porcelain and other materials. These buttons were valued for their ornamental function and were priced beyond the reach of the common people. Most buttons today are mass-produced out of plastic and cost only pennies, yet there are folks today who call themselves anabaptists who refuse to wear buttons because they were used for ornamental purposes three hundred years ago.
I don’t mean to ridicule such people, buttons are not essential to a happy and fulfilling life. Yet there is a danger that in focussing on avoiding something that was a temptation to pride three centuries ago they may miss more immediate and pressing temptations.
In 1697, Gerrit Roosen, elder of the Mennonite church at Hamburg-Altona in Germany, wrote a letter to Mennonites in Alsace from which I will append some excerpts. The advice he gives concerns clothing, but could be applied to many other areas of life. He regards luxury, pride, high-mindedness, fleshly lusts, and stubbornness as being our greatest threats and points out that the objects of our pride and fleshly lusts will vary from country to country and epoch to epoch.
“Moreover, I am heartily sorry that you have been so disturbed by some that think highly of themselves and make laws about things that are not required in the Gospel. Had the apostolic writings stated how and wherewith a believer should clothe himself, and a person travelling in other countries would find people living contrary to these rules, then this stand might be valid. But to contradict the Gospel in binding the conscience to a certain form in hats, clothes, shoes, stockings or hair, which forms differ from country to country, and to take upon himself to bann those who will not accept such rules; also to cast out of the Church as leaven those who will not avoid such, is something that neither the Lord Jesus in the Gospels, nor the holy apostles have commanded, to be bound by these outward things, and have given neither laws nor rules in this matter . . .
“In all of Paul’s letters we do not find a single word that he has given commandments to believers what form or style of clothing they should have, but rather he admonishes to condescend to men of low estate in all humility. I consider it to be proper and right to conduct oneself like the customs of the country in which you sojourn. But it is reasonable and just that all luxury, pride, high-mindedness and fleshly lusts be avoided (1 John 2), and not quickly accept new styles of clothing nor alter them to conform to fashion. That is something to be disciplined. But where it has become common usage in a country it is honourable and proper to accept such usage, but to walk in humility. Thanks be to God, I do not want lust of the eyes nor pride of this world, but have always worn nearly the same pattern of clothing; but if I put on another style, according to the common usage of the country, should I have been banned because of it? That would have been unreasonable and contrary to Scripture. The Lord has, of course, ordained that there should be discipline in the Church of God for stubborn members and such as resist the law of God in the Gospel. Therein it must arise whether that which we intend to bind will also be bound there, or is commanded to be bound.
“The Holy Scriptures must be our measuring standard. To them we must submit; not run ahead but follow them; not too rashly, but in carefulness, fear and affliction; for it is a perilous thing in the judgement of God, to bind that which is not bound in heaven.” (From a letter of Gerrit Roosen, dated December 21, 1697.)