Thursday, July 23, 2009

Do Not Be Conformed to This World (Rom. 12:2)

What does it mean to be conformed to the world today? It cannot mean simply doing or believing something that non-Christians also do or believe. After all, common grace ensures that unbelievers often do praiseworthy things and believe truths. We are all human and the patterns of human life make some overlap between Christian and non-Christian belief and behaviour inevitable.

Liberal Protestants seek to align themselves with the forces of "progressive" politics in order to advance the causes of peace, justice and the environment. For liberals, this is not being conformed to the world but fighting against the evils of the world in cooperation with the unbelievers who already are engaged in doing so. Liberals want a society in which the State ensures equality for all and individuals have equal opportunities for fulfilling life projects. This is what liberals mean by the common good.

Conservative Protestants seek to align themselves with conservative politics in order to resist the encroachment of the State into more and more areas of life and to defend civil society, especially the family. Conservatives want a society in which the State does not become totalitarian and in which families, civic organizations and churches can flourish so as to enrich human life. They value subsidiarity as part of the common good.

Neither of these appraoches can be said necessarily to be conformity to the world even though liberal Christians work as allies of secular liberals and conservative Christians work as allies of secular conservatives.

The uniqueness of Christianity is centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is a message of sin and salvation for individuals and a witness for the kingdom of God that will come through the work of Jesus Christ. To enter this Kingdom, which Jesus will set up on earth at his return, one must be born again. So Christianity is focussed, not on this world, but on the eschatological Kingdom of God. Both liberalism and conservativism are focussed on this world and, to the extent that we all have to live in this world, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that.

The problem with both liberalism and conservativism arises when these worldly ideologies come into conflict with the Gospel. The question of worldliness (conformity to the world) arises when one's social and political ideology leads one away from a focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So which one of these ideologies leads us to compromise the uniqueness of the Gospel message? Which one takes our attention off Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? Which one leads to a down-playing of the Gospel of sin and salvation and makes personal faith superfluous?

My conviction is that, while there are dangers in both ideologies, liberalism hold the most potential for leading the Church to be conformed to this world. Utopianism and Pelagianism are the hidden presuppositions in much of so-called "progressive" Christianity and these presuppositions embody a false doctrine of human nature and are, therefore, dangerous.

While it is true that unthinking conservativism can lead to nationalism, violence and imperialism, it can only do so when it is perverted from its true nature. It seems to me, however, that liberal progressivism need not be perverted from its true nature in order to be dangerous.

Whatever the case may be in theory, the historical evidence of the past 200 years is very clear in indicating that liberal Christianity has in fact become conformed to the world as it has made common cause with progressive politics. There is no logical reason why cultural liberalism (ie. promiscuity, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality etc.) need accompany economic liberalism (ie. the welfare state, equality of opportunity, etc.), but the fact is that it does. The Democratic Party in the US and the NDP in Canada promote cultural liberalism every bit as much as economic liberalism. Theory aside, this is how it has worked out.

But to say this is not yet to settle the matter, for the real issue is which kind of alignment with the world leads to the silencing of the Gospel. And here the evidence is in and it is unambiguous. The liberal Protestant denominations (eg. the United Church of Canada, The Episcopal Church) no longer preach the Gospel that all Protestants preached at the time of the Reformation. On the other hand, the Southern Baptists and other conservative denominations do. So worldly politics aside, the fact is that only conservative branches of Christianity still preach the message of sin and salvation that Peter, Paul and the other apostles took to the Greco-Roman world and the Reformers emphasized. This, then, is the definitive answer to the question of who is conformed to the world. The liberal churches are conformed to the world, in disobedience to the Scriptural command, because, and to the extent that, they no longer preach the Gospel.

Forget sex and economics for a moment. The Gospel is far more important. With the Gospel issues of ethics and lifestyle can eventually be sorted out. Without the Gospel no such issues matter because the Church has no message for the world that the world does not already know and the Church has been conformed to the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think this verse is hitting upon the human tendency to set ourselves apart in defiance to God. We seek our own ways and our own good without much or any thought towards our Maker. In the Christian Religion both conservatives and liberals alike often become emeshed in the world and drag their brand of ideals into their Christianity.

In that sense I think it's helpful to distinquish between the Christian Faith and the Christian Religion. The Christian Faith is centred upon our individual/personal communion with, and encountering of God, whereas the Christian Religion is more centred on ideologies, doctrines, and politics.