Rediscovering Christian Nonconformity
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Not only, but especially evangelical Christians have traditionally claimed to stand apart from pagan and/or secular cultures. We have often quoted and heard “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” It’s not only in the Bible but also firmly implanted in our minds and hearts. However, we have, of course, always disagreed about the details of what I am here calling “nonconformity to the world.” Here, also, “world” refers not to the physical planet but to culture.
I have been deeply involved in American evangelical culture my whole life and I am convinced that I have seen and do see a general drift of many evangelical Christians toward and into conformity to “this world”—the prevailing habits, customs, moods, expectations of the pagan/secular world that surrounds us.
Here I am calling for especially, but not only, evangelical Christians to return to a sense of being separate, of being critically discerning, about American culture and how far, 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 rate of divorce is almost the same as theirs. And anyone who is paying attention can see that other than attending church somewhat regularly, we American evangelical Christians do not live our lives very differently from others including atheists, agnostics, pagans, and “nones.”
I have often heard and told stories about the alleged “legalism” and strictness of American evangelicalism in the 1950s and before. Yes, yes, yes…banning card playing, attendance at any movies (including what would today be rated “G” or “PG”), all alcohol consumption (including wine with an evening meal), dancing (even in school “gym class”), etc., etc., was unnecessary. However, these things were markers to say to ourselves and others that we were different and that, in and of itself, is not bad—depending on whether 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 adjusting to pagan/secular culture is called for.
Instead of that, I fear, based on long experience, we American evangelicals have limped along behind our culture in terms of our ethical beliefs and behaviors—often giving little thought to how we live our lives and whether how we live our lives is based more on biblical principles or on “going along to get along” with the prevailing culture.
In some cases, evangelical adaptations to culture have been good. Many people point out how many Christians, especially in the South, took a very long time to throw out (insofar as they have) racism in the forms of belief in segregation of the races and belief in natural white supremacy. There have been times when American Christians should have adapted to culture in order to live according to biblical principles!
I think it should be remembered, however, that many abolitionists were devoted Christians. Some of the earliest British and American abolitionists certainly were, but that has been by-and-large covered over by the writers of history textbooks and makers of movies etc.
As I look back on the changes of lifestyles and acceptable behaviors among American evangelical Christians during my lifetime, I cannot help but believe that we have by-and-large drifted along, or slid down a slippery slope, into living our lives in almost identical ways to pagans/secular people.
Here is one example. I was a member of a relatively large and influential evangelical Baptist church some of whose leading members traveled together (families of friends) to Las Vegas annually to gamble and watch some “racy” (sexually-oriented) live “shows.” This was well-known and nothing was every said against it. Fifty years ago this would have been grounds for church discipline.
In the 1950s and before, American evangelical Christians, by-and-large, 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. And, to mention it once again (much to some readers’ displeasure), we ALL believed both males and females should dress modestly even when swimming, exercising, etc. Exposing “private parts” of the body through skimpy, tight clothing was grounds for strong pastoral admonition. Every Christian school, college, university, had dress codes.
During the last few years of my teaching career I had to impose my own dress code on my classes. I observed both men and women students attending classes and even chapels dressed in extremely short 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 large number of ethical issues from a Christian perspective, wrongly omitted any mention of modesty in clothing. I specifically said that modesty in dress should apply equally to males and females. Several of the female students were visibly upset at that and I heard one muttering to her neighbor “Boys should be taught not to objectify women’s bodies” as if that is the be-all and end-all of the matter. I consider that “social work jargon” and extremely unrealistic—about especially adolescent males’ physical and biological constitutions. Still, and nevertheless, she was right. The only wrong in what she muttered was that it doesn’t cover the issue (no pun intended) sufficiently. A Christian institution should have a reasonable dress code that takes into account all student’s (and others’) sensibilities, however weak they may be. This is commanded by the Apostle Paul—indirectly—in his “love paternalism” in Romans and 1 Corinthians where he specifically directed the “strong” (in faith and liberty of conscience) to accommodate to the “weak” (in faith and liberty of conscience) and condemned any action that might make a weaker brother or sister to stumble and ultimately be destroyed (spiritually).
This “love paternalism” principle was well-known (if not by that label) and commonly shared among American (and I’m sure other) evangelical Christians in the 1950s and before. It is now almost totally gone and I know this because I have brought it up and explained it in classes and experienced many students simply dismissing it as violating their personal freedoms and liberties.
Nonconformity to culture was a very strong “identity marker” among American (and other) evangelical Christians for centuries. I see it as having almost entirely died out. The only difference now is that Christians go to church regularly. Maybe. Many don’t.
I would like to propose that American evangelical Christians recover the sense of being a “remnant” within the broken world of pagan/secular culture. We need to have hard conversations among ourselves about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate even in terms of things like attire in public, males and females living or staying together without benefit of marriage, entertainment, uses of money, marriage and divorce, abortion and sexual ethics, etc.
We have by-and-large 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 in terms of lifestyles. Sermons, even in evangelical churches, are often little more than good advice. Except in fundamentalist churches, sermons that convict, meddle, challenge are rare.
I do not believe that the so-called “harsh legalism” of my childhood—at home and in church settings—harmed me at all. Much of it was silly, but overall it kept me from falling into sins. And it made the churches stand out as different from pagan/secular culture, refuges, havens, from the seductions of “worldly culture.” Recovering SOME DEGREE of that would not be a bad thing.