Many of you are familiar with the metaphor Paul uses in Rom 12:2 when he encourages the Romans not to allow the world to press them into its mold. Instead, and as the body of Christ, God calls us (corporately and individually) to be transformed.
We’re usually really good at spotting conformity when it comes to moral issues—it’s the more insidious forms of conformity that should concern us. In fact, I’d argue that when churches are struggling with rampant and overt immorality in its midst, it’s because it conformed in more subtle ways long ago.
I offer these thoughts with humility and a nagging consciousness that I struggle with them in my personal life as much as anyone. I hope these points stir you up to examine yourself (2 Cor 13:5).
The church has conformed:
1. When she plays politics.
How are important decisions made in your church? How do things “get done” in your congregation? In some churches, leaders make decisions based on what will help them protect their power. I’ve actually sat in on elders meetings where a moral decision was made based on how it would affect that congregation’s budget situation. Some leaders also intentionally choose successors that were made in their image, instead of seeking a diversity of talents and personalities that honors Christ they perpetuate a model of leadership that they have set, even if it is ineffective or, worse, ungodly. Flattery, deceit, quid pro quo, back room scheming, powerful families… These things may belong in D.C. or The Godfather movies, but they should never be named among the people of God.
On the other hand, a transformed church will
- value speaking God’s truth in God’s love (Eph 4:15), even when it hurts, because God’s reality is the only one worth living in.
- treat everyone equally as a special person made in God’s image, regardless of race, ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, etc.
- conduct church business with honesty and transparency, because God loves light, while Satan loves darkness.
2. When she motivates primarily by fear.
I know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). But John also says that perfect love casts out fear. Some churches motivate their members and keep them in line with unbiblical, unholy, ungodly fear-tactics. I’m not saying churches should never discipline its members. But there is a world of difference between discipline meant to restore and discipline meant to humiliate. When members are fearful of asking questions or voicing holy dissent, that church has conformed. If leaders encourage members to keep certain things “hush hush” and not rock the boat, that church has conformed. A transformed church, however, will create an atmosphere in which reverence for authority mixes with a passion for truth and justice, and thus allows members to ask questions and voice concerns in a healthy way.
3. When she ONLY talks about what’s wrong with the world.
Christ came to save the world from sin and death and Satan, and he sent us into the world to spread his message of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. Some churches have unquestionably strayed from this by their unwillingness to call a spade a spade. But others have gone to the other extreme by talking so much about the sin of the world that they never present the alternative: the glory and transcendent holiness of God.
It’s an undeniable truth in life that we gravitate toward whatever we focus on, even if we despise that very thing. You become what you loathe if you focus on it long enough. Exhibit A? Hyper-conservative churches convince their youth that the worst things in the world are drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll, and then scratch their heads in bewilderment when their kids leave the church and embrace a culture of…wait for it…drugs, sex, and rock-in-roll. Some of the most conservative churches I know have the highest rate of drug abuse and illegitimate births. I’m not an expert in statistics, but Dad taught me that there is often fire where there is smoke.
It’s human nature to be blind to our own problems. When a church talks about the sins of the world, Satan finds it easier to get us to ignore our own struggles. Remember all the sermons Jesus preached on the rampant immorality in the Roman Empire? Neither do I. Paul calls attention to the sins of the Gentiles in his letters (e.g. Rom 1:18–32), but spends much more of his time addressing the issues OF THAT PARTICULAR CONGREGATION. Preach against the sins of the world, but also be honest about your own. Churches once warned against drugs, sex, and rock and roll, but remained silent on tobacco, divorce, and country music. Their kids called them on their hypocrisy, and the rest is history.
My only intent here is to offer a humble reminder of what God expects of us when it comes to sin. First John 1:9 extols honesty and confession as the antidote to sin. Preaching against the world on some issues, yet conforming to it in others, and remaining in denial about it, just helps hypocrisy spread like a cancer. But honesty and humility and transparency before God are the soil and water and fertilizer of spiritual transformation.
- God hates homosexuality as much as he hates adultery and divorce and lust and immodesty.
- God hates abortion as much as he hates churches loopholing their way out of caring for widows and orphans.
- God hates politics in Washington as much as he hates it in leaders’ conference rooms and small-group living rooms.
- God hates it when we call sin by another name, whether it’s homosexuality as “an alternate lifestyle,” abortion as “a woman’s right to choose,” or fear-mongering and silencing the prophetic voice as “preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
The church should be honest and humble and transparent about these things, or it may have conformed to the world.