Is Social Conformity a Personal Evil?

This is a hard question to wrestle with. It’s one of the main questions I attempt to think through on this blog. How much should we conform to society, and how much should we make our own hay? There are few easy answers to this question.

One thing I am personally able to say with confidence is that it is the duty of a Christian to observe one’s social culture with radar glasses specially designed to detect consistencies and inconsistencies relative to the Christian faith. Christians cannot simply assume that the culture surrounding them is neutral–the style of dress, of speech, of music, of recreation, of political thought, and the list goes on. Christians have in the past made the key mistake of thinking that culture is simply neutral and therefore can be embraced wholeheartedly. This problem is common today, as many of the younger generation have embraced the spirit of the age and have acceded (unknowingly) to the American counterculture. Evangelical Christianity and counterculture antiauthoritarianism are strange bedfellows. This is not to say that there is no overlap between the two movements. There may well be. But surely it is right to say that we cannot completely correlate the two movements and assume that we can seamlessly blend them by simply hollowing out nonChristian beliefs and inserting our own. Does not belief influence the way one approaches culture and society? Shouldn’t it? Do we have a problem on our hands when we assume either knowingly or unknowingly that it does not? I think we do.

Many Christians, it strikes me, are simply lazy about the culture. They don’t want to think it through. They don’t want to examine it to see whether its ideals and its practical forms are inconsistent with Christianity. They don’t want to think about their style of dress and whether it is respectful or unpleasant to others. They don’t begin to think about the morality of NFL football, with its glorification of violence and sometimes shocking injury. Does the average Christian, when he’s watching the highlights of various games, think about the fact that many of these men are bludgeoning themselves, subjecting themselves to multiple concussions and injuries that will detract from their ability to care for a family and lead a normal life? Does he think about whether the violence he’s watching is acceptable for himself? Does the average Christian woman think about how society has affected her understanding of modesty, of gender roles, and of romance? Many of us, it seems, do not think. We simply accede to the culture and adopt its practices and ideas without thinking. Yes, we avoid the big sins, the career-enders, so to speak, but do we take captive every thought for Christ? Do we pursue God’s glory in all things and all days, not just Sunday?

But there is a flip side here, and it is this. There are times when it is good to conform to society and not to buck against it. Conformity is a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad word in today’s society (to appropriate shamelessly the title of a children’s book from my youth). But it is not the case that conformity to society is inherently evil and harmful. There are many instances in which it is good and right not to run with the spirit of the age and rebel against things simply because one can. It is often good and right and mature to sidestep calls to personally express oneself and instead to demonstrate a calm and respectful spirit. What does all of this mean? Well, it means that we must carefully discern our culture and the worldviews that affect us. We must avoid an embrace of anti-authoritarianism for its own sake even as we avoid an unthoughtful acceptance of whatever culture has to offer us. We need to think and discern and work out matters of everyday life. Each of us must answer the question: is there a good reason for my conformity to culture on this point? Is there a good reason for my failure to conform to culture on this point? Or I am simply swimming with the crowd, whether it be the anti-authoritarians or the conformists? Neither group has it all right; neither group merits the unthinking acceptance of the Christian.

All must be considered; all must be discerned.

  • Dad

    Good post Owen,

    I have come to believe, but don’t always practice, that when one becomes a believer he must start re-naming or labeling all things, and I mean all. Because as unbelievers we have labelled all things from the perspective of darkness.

    Al (Not Owen’s dad or that other “Al”.)

  • Reid S. Monaghan

    Owen,

    I would add that nobody, I men zero human beings including Jesus Christ lived a culture-less existence. The Word of God breaks into cultures, judges its idols, exposes sin and gives us the ability to rejoice in culture as well. We cannot think we stand outside of it all, but we do have a word from without to guide us within. I like Reject, Redeem, Receive as a good rubric for discernment. What of culture is clearly wicked according to Scripture? What of culture is twisted and can be redeemed (Sex, alcohol, use of technology) and what can be received with rejoicing (chicken wings, hip hop and NFL football). Personally, I don’t think all violence is evil – only evil violence. My boy I want to wrestle…which is more brutal that football.

    I love hearing your wrestle with this – we all need to do so. As far as “anti-authoritarian” that is a relative term. I would argue that Jesus was extremely subversive to certain authorities – ie the Pharisees/Saducees, but completely submissive and conformist to right authority – namely, his Father. So Christians should be subversive against the principles and powers, the cultural power brokers etc., but extremely submissive to God’s Word, church leadership, government when it is not commanding us to disobey God etc.

    Our views must be lived in culture – in our day that means among sports, godly Netflix queues, and styles of clothing.

    Don’t forget to drink deeply of grace, laugh and enjoy God’s good gifts in culture today…with all thoughts captive to Jesus Christ.

    Peace