Rediscovering Christian Nonconformity | Roger E. Olson
Rediscovering Christian Nonconformity
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Not only, but above all, evangelical Christians have traditionally claimed to distance themselves from pagan and/or secular cultures. We have often quoted and heard “Do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your spirit.” It is not only in the Bible but also firmly planted in our minds and hearts. However, we have, of course, always disagreed on the details of what I here call ‘non-conformity to the world’. Here too, the “world” does not refer to the physical planet but to the culture.
I have been deeply involved in American evangelical culture all my life and I am convinced that I have seen and do see a general drift of many evangelical Christians towards and in conformity with “this world” – the habits, customs, the prevailing moods, expectations of the pagan/secular world around us.
Here I appeal particularly, but not only, to evangelical Christians to return to a sense of being separate, to be critically discerning, about American culture and to what extent, if at all, we should adapt to its trends.
Various sociological studies have indicated that in America, self-identified evangelical Christians do not live very differently from others, even non-religious, non-Christian people. Our divorce rate is almost the same as theirs. And anyone paying attention can see that other than going to church fairly regularly, we American evangelical Christians don’t live our lives very differently from others, including atheists, agnostics, pagans, and “no-ones.” .
I have often heard and told stories about the so-called “legalism” and strictness of American evangelicalism in the 1950s and before. Yes, yes, yes… prohibit playing cards, going to any cinema (including what would today be rated “G” or “PG”), all consumption of alcohol (including wine at dinner), dancing (even in school gym class), etc., etc., was not necessary. However, these things were markers to tell ourselves and others that we were different and that, in and of itself, isn’t bad – that the differences were and are really important.
What does “really important” mean? Well, of course, sticking to biblical principles is really important. But I think it is also important for Christians everywhere to think long and hard, with faithful and intelligent discernment, about whether it is necessary to adapt to pagan/secular culture.
Instead, I fear, based on long experience, that we American evangelicals have lagged behind our culture in terms of beliefs and ethical behaviors – often paying little attention to how we live our lives and whether the way we live our lives is more based on biblical principles or on “going along to get along” with the dominant culture.
In some cases, evangelical adaptations to culture have been good. Many people point out how many Christians, especially in the South, have taken a very long time to reject (to the extent that they have it) racism in the forms of belief in the segregation of races and belief in supremacy natural white. There have been times when American Christians should have adapted to the culture to live by biblical principles!
I think it should be remembered, however, that many abolitionists were devout Christians. Some of the early British and American abolitionists certainly were, but it has been covered extensively by history textbook writers and filmmakers etc.
Looking back on the changes in acceptable lifestyles and behaviors among American evangelical Christians during my lifetime, I cannot help but believe that we have generally drifted or slid down a slippery slope to live our lives in almost identical. manners to pagans/secular people.
Here is an example. I was a member of a relatively large and influential Evangelical Baptist Church of which some of the core members traveled together (families of friends) to Las Vegas every year to gamble and watch “racy” (sexually oriented) live “shows”. It was well known and nothing was said against it. Fifty years ago this would have been grounds for ecclesiastical discipline.
In the 1950s and before, American evangelical Christians on the whole disdained consumerism, encouraged sacrificial giving to missions and the poor (via Christian charities like the Salvation Army), strongly discouraged gambling, divorce (and certainly remarriage), consumption of non-prescription drugs and alcohol (especially in excess), etc. private parts” of the body through skimpy and tight clothing was a reason for strong pastoral remonstrance. Every Christian school, college, university had dress codes.
During the last years of my teaching career, I had to impose my own dress code on my classes. I have observed male and female students attending classes and even chapels wearing extremely cropped shorts and tops that revealed too much of their bodies.
I mentioned this in one of my ethics classes and argued that the textbook, which covered a lot of ethical issues from a Christian perspective, wrongly omitted any mention of modesty in clothes. I specifically said that modesty in dress should apply equally to men and women. Several of the female students were visibly upset by this and I overheard one muttering to her neighbor “You have to teach boys not to objectify women’s bodies” as if that was the end of the matter. I consider this “social work jargon” to be wildly unrealistic, especially when it comes to the physical and biological constitutions of adolescent males. Yet, and yet, she was right. The only flaw in what she mumbled was that it didn’t sufficiently cover the issue (no pun intended). A Christian institution should have a reasonable dress code that accommodates all student (and other) sensitivities, no matter how small. This is commanded by the Apostle Paul – indirectly – in his “paternalism of love” in Romans and 1 Corinthians where he specifically directed the “strong” (in faith and freedom of conscience) to accommodate the “weak”. ” (in faith and freedom of conscience). conscience) and condemned any action that might trip up a weaker brother or sister and ultimately destroy them (spiritually).
This principle of “paternalism of love” was well known (if not by this label) and commonly shared among American evangelical Christians (and I’m sure others) in the 1950s and before. It is now almost completely gone and I know this because I have brought it up and explained it in class and many students have simply dismissed it as a violation of their personal liberties and liberties.
Cultural nonconformity has been a very strong “identity marker” among American (and other) evangelical Christians for centuries. I see it as having almost entirely disappeared. The only difference now is that Christians go to church regularly. May be. Many don’t.
I would like to propose that American evangelical Christians find a sense of being a “remnant” in the broken world of pagan/secular culture. We need to have tough conversations among ourselves about what is appropriate and what is not, even in terms of dress in public, men and women living or staying together without marriage, entertainment, use of money, marriage and divorce, abortion and sexual ethics, etc.
Overall, we have reduced our Christian communities to collections of individuals who decide entirely for themselves what it means to be “Christian” – both in terms of beliefs and ways of life. Sermons, even in evangelical churches, are often little more than good advice. Except in fundamentalist churches, sermons that condemn, mingle, challenge are rare.
I don’t believe that the so-called “harsh legalism” of my childhood – at home and at church – hurt me. Much of it was silly, but overall it kept me from falling into sins. And it made the churches stand out from pagan/secular culture, refuges, refuges, seductions from “worldly culture”. Recovering SOME DEGREE of that wouldn’t be a bad thing.