What non-compliance does NOT mean
What non-compliance does NOT mean
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Recently I argued here that Christians, especially evangelical Christians, should exercise discernment, using biblical knowledge and wisdom, practice non-conformity with the pagan/secular culture around them and that this principle of biblical nonconformity even moves away from evangelical church life and life in the evangelical church. establishments.
Here I want to address a mistake often made by Christians who think about cultural non-conformity – the thinking mistake that involves anti-intellectualism and/or separation from culture.
I grew up in a Christian subculture that fell into these errors – along with perhaps the majority of conservative evangelicals in the 1950s and before. For example, in high school, I became interested in philosophy and started trying to read it, especially existentialist philosophy. I was firmly told to stop. In my house, us kids weren’t allowed to own or read comic books (eg, “Archie and Jughead”) and reading secular fiction was frowned upon. No secular music, except occasional classical music, was permitted. We weren’t allowed to listen to “rock ‘n roll” music or even just popular music from the 1960s. When the “Grand Ol’ Opry” came to town, our pastor forbade congregants from to assist. etc., etc., etc.
Nonconformity does not mean avoiding everything in pagan/secular culture. As theologian Rich Mouw has pointed out many times and in many places, all truth is God’s truth and all bright and beautiful things belong to God and should be enjoyed. My church and home partly believed this, but practiced it very inconsistently. For the most part, anything labeled “worldly” was frowned upon and dismissed. Dancing, attending plays and movies, reading novels, even watching television, all of this was frowned upon.
When I enrolled in a doctoral program at a secular university to study religious studies and theology, I knew that many of my family, acquaintances and church friends were praying for me – not that God would protect my spirit, but that I would see the light and the abandonment of this ungodly and useless enterprise. I’ve often wondered what they thought when my first teaching job was at a major evangelical, even charismatic, university! I detected confusion among them.
Too many American Christians, especially conservatives, mistakenly assume that nonconformity means giving up the life of the spirit — beyond reading the scriptures and books written by “trusted Christian authors.” Evangelical historian Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Spirit” has just been republished with a new “Afterward.” Both the original book and this new publication with the added sequel expose the widespread evangelical abandonment of the life of the spirit, evangelical engagement with culture, and creativity in the arts and sciences, etc. Noll mentions many exceptions, but he is correct that on the whole and in general evangelicals in America have not been productive of new research or even knowledgeable about the world (physical or cultural).
Nonconformity has ONLY to do with “NOT following” every new trend in pagan/secular culture, but sitting down and thinking discerningly about pagan/secular culture and deciding within our communities where, when and how we evangelical Christians should respond to its habits, customs, traditions, etc.
The apostle Paul clearly knew Greek philosophy and poetry and went among the intelligentsia of Athens to discuss God with them. He impressed at least some of them with his ability to quote pagan authors. It is clear that Paul practiced non-conformity with mainstream culture as I have defended here, but he did not take it to extremes as many conservative evangelicals in America do (e.g., the anti-intellectualism, “holy ignorance”, etc.).
Christian pastors must address cultural issues from their pulpits and lecterns and guide their congregations in discernment. For example, what should we evangelical Christians think about the recreational use of marijuana when it will soon become legal? (I am referring to congressional efforts to withdraw federal laws against this.) Is there a difference between the recreational use of such a mind-altering drug and its medical use? I think so. Too many conservative Christians simply cannot manage these seemingly subtle distinctions without help.
What about biomedical ethics as it rushes towards gene editing and other revolutionary transformations within science? Where should Christians draw the line(s)? What about owning firearms for more than hunting? Should Christians buy and own automatic weapon arsenals (like some of my neighbors once did)? What about buying expensive clothes just for the brand? What about social networks and their uses?
In all my years among American evangelicals, I have never heard any sermons or pastoral talks on these issues. They are sometimes discussed in ethics courses at colleges, universities and seminaries, but it seems to me that lay people are left to their own devices about them.
The job of the church is not to forbid young Christians from going to college or university, but to prepare them to discern what they will hear and study there.
I could go on, but I think that suffices to warn against a common misinterpretation of Christian nonconformity. The devil is always in the details, of course, so what I’m urging here isn’t so much specific rules of non-compliance, but thoughtful, biblically informed, intelligent conversations about it that are open to the learning beyond Christian boundaries while at the same time drawing lines that protect against thoughtless and thoughtless accommodations to pagan/secular culture.