11. March 2018

Freedom from Conformity

Service Type:

‘…Be Transformed by the renewing of your mind…’ (Romans 12, 2a)

None of us likes to admit it, but the truth is we are all under pressure to conform. But we should remember that we exist as a Church, as a Free Church Congregation because we have inherited from our forebears a belief that we should not conform. Essentially their argument was that the Church exists not as an institution apart from the people, but rather that the Church only exists insofar as it is a ‘gathering together’ of believers. One does not ‘join’ the church; rather we, enjoined together, are the church. But Paul is challenging more than this. When Paul was writing, the church was still in embryonic form, far removed from the institution it was destined to become. For Paul, the challenge to the emerging Christian community was to see to it that it did not allow itself to become conformed to the institutional structure that was Imperial Rome. The Church had to resist the temptation to see itself as an Empire, instead it was to see itself as a Commonwealth. As the writer of the Book of the Revelation declares defiantly, at a time of extreme persecution for the church; ‘The Kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.’ Tragically, some 3 centuries after Paul had written his Letter to the Romans, Constantine absorbed Christianity into the Empire, a process with which, for short-sighted advantage, the Church acquiesced; in effect conceding that the Kingdom of God and of His Christ was to become as the kingdoms of this world. But Non-Conformity as far as the Christian is concerned can, if we are not careful cause us to fall into a trap of our own making…

“The simplistic way of not conforming is to see what is in style in our culture and then do the opposite. If short hair is in vogue, the nonconformist wears long hair. If going to the movies is popular, then Christians avoid movies as “worldly.” The extreme case of this may be seen in groups that refuse to wear buttons or use electricity because such things, too, are worldly. A superficial style of nonconformity is the classical pharisaical trap. The kingdom of God is not about buttons, movies, or dancing. The concern of God is not focused on what we eat or what we drink. The call of nonconformity is a call to a deeper level of righteousness, that goes beyond externals. When piety is defined exclusively in terms of externals, the whole point of the apostle’s teaching has been lost. Somehow, we have failed to hear Jesus’ words that it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of that mouth. We still want to make the kingdom a matter of eating and drinking.”  (R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God).

Hence Paul’s appeal to balance our necessary non-conformity to the things of this world by ensuring that under God we submit ourselves to the transforming or renewing of our minds. In effect, to be prepared to see the world as God sees the world. – We have long left behind us any belief that the earth is flat, but nearly every geography text book, until very recently have pictured the earth as flat, and as rectangular; a two-dimensional box rather than the reality that is a three-dimensional globe – and this is a powerful metaphor for describing the relative failure of the church to transform the world in accordance with God’s unfolding purpose. We are ‘worlds apart’ because while we may have ‘given our heart to Jesus’ we have stubbornly refused to submit our minds to His Kingly rule. We really do want ‘the best of both worlds’. But actually, there is only ‘one world’ – there is no world of the heart distinct from the world of the mind…

“A truly good person will speak truth, act with truth, and stand for Truth. A truly good person is not afraid to think from their heart; therefore, allowing nonconformist decisions, viewpoints, and perspectives to lead their life. By following their heart, they stand with their conscience, and only with God.” (Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem).

A world view that is constructed solely in terms of the inevitability of progress accomplished by intellectual prowess, materialistic motivation, mechanistic application, financial gain, political advantage, personal ambition, and collective self-interest is one that is so distorted that it is barely recognisable for what it really is. God is calling the Church, each one of us, to see the world as it really is, regardless of the consequences…

The poet, the artist, the sleuth - whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely "well-adjusted", he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists between antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power is manifest in the famous story "The Emperor's New Clothes".” (Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message).

The Gospel dares us to be different, but not just for the sake of being different; never confuse non-conformity with eccentricity. The Gospel dares us to be different because to be different is to be what we need to be. We are called to be the very antithesis of what the world understands being human to be. Then institutions we have built up around ourselves are strangling the life out of us…

“Jesus invited us to a dance … and we’ve turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking to see if we’re doing it right and are in step and in line with the other soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching.” (Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom)