Reflections on “Do Not be Conformed to this World”

As a young visiting preacher, I sat on the back row in an auditorium adult Bible class listening to a discussion of Romans 12. “Do not be conformed to this world…” the teacher read aloud. “How is it that we are conformed to the world?” he asked. The first voice to answer suggested that we are conformed to the world when we used “these new-fangled Bible translations.” He had thought about this. “If God had meant Bible study to be easy,” he editorialized, “he would not have given us the King James Version.” Impeccable logic.

I remembered this story as I read the numerous responses to my last two blogposts that suggested that my position was little more than trading cultural values for God’s values. I was simply conforming to the world.

This is an easy accusation, and in most cases is overly simplistic. At its worst, it’s the convenient charge to simply dismiss changes we don’t like, for instance, using translations other than the KJV.

First, all of us ignore certain biblical commands and injunctions. With regards to gender issues in the church, most ignore the injunctions against women braiding hair with gold or pearls and wearing expensive clothing even though these come precisely in the same context and under the same rationale that forbids a woman to teach a man. (Not to mention that some men most opposed to gender inclusion would be the last men to raise hands while praying, another related teaching in this text).

We know intuitively that not only do some things change from the world described by the Bible, but that they should. The big example here is slavery. The Bible assumes the institution of slavery and doesn’t condemn it. In fact, advice is given to slaves in order to make them good slaves. But I doubt any readers of this blog would say that slavery under any condition is an appropriate practice in our world, especially for Christians. But preachers in the South before the Civil War did argue that slavery was a part of a God-ordained social order and that those opposed to slavery were simply caving to societal pressures. Similar arguments were made during the civil rights movement. I read a book when I was in high school from the ACU library written by a Bible professor from another Christian college that argued that the civil rights movement was a communist strategy to weaken the moral fiber of America. Talk about conforming to the world! But I doubt many readers of this blog would view letting black people sit where they want on a bus to be a way we are conforming to the world.

But I think even bigger factors go unrecognized when the charge of conforming to the world are made. The fact is, the earliest Christians believed that part of the gospel’s genius was its ability to find expression in every human culture. It’s adaptability was what made Christianity a universal religion. It was a value of the gospel, a demonstration of the continuing relevance of the incarnation wherein God made himself known within the limits of time and space. I like Mark Heim’s declaration that we won’t know the full meaning of the gospel until it has gone every place in every time.

In other words, the earliest Christians didn’t view the cultural trappings of people receiving the gospel only as an inimical set of values that had to be overcome. Rather, they found ways in many cases to express the gospel in new and dynamic ways. Exhibit A that this is the case is the fact that the earliest Christians decided that the story of Jesus could be told in a language other than the one Jesus actually spoke. And as people who translate will tell you, the act of translation changes meanings. You lose things. You gain things. And this impulse continues. We all read in our native languages. None of us went to learn Greek or Hebrew as children so that we could understand our faith in its more pristine cultural idiom. Contrast our experience to that of most Muslims who pray in Arabic or to Jews who attend Hebrew school. In terms of an adaptive strategy vis-a-vis cultures, Christianity has always been aggressive.

So, Christianity is always learning to say yes and no to the things it finds in new cultural contexts. It doesn’t just say “yes,” and it doesn’t just say “no.” Take, for instance, the New Testament’s use of “household codes.” This refers to instruction typical in Greco-Roman societies that addressed household relations, e.g. master-slave, husband-wife, fathers-children. The New Testament writers use this common form, and by doing so, preserve in some ways the hierarchical distinctions being made between masters and slaves, husbands and wives, and fathers and children. So, they said yes to a cultural form they found because they too conceived of life in relation to a household.

But even in adapting to this form they challenged it. The clearest place where this takes place might be in Ephesians 4, where Paul introduces a household code with the phrase “Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ.” All members of the household are called to submission, not just slaves, wives, and children. So, the earliest Christians are saying both yes and no to the world in which they are doing mission. They are adapting, but in a complex way.

This complexity is due to the fact that there is no clean distinction to be made between faith and culture. There is no part of the gospel that is not cultural, in the sense that the gospel is expressed through language and rituals and practices that are part and parcel of making meaning as humans. The church doesn’t stand outside of culture to determine beforehand what its relationship with it should be. It is always inescapably within it, making Christian meaning in ever-changing circumstances over time.

Now, this makes people nervous. If we are always making Christian sense from within culture, then how we will keep the faith. One way to deal with this complexity is to deny that it exists. And the most common form of denial is to turn the Bible into a fortress that stands over against the tide of culture. For the Bible to function that way, however, the cultural aspects have to be downplayed and the Bible has to speak with one voice on all matters. The Bible, however, won’t conform to these artificial standards.

The other way forward is to trust the living God to keep his people in each and every circumstance within the story of redemption the Bible tells in all of its rich complexity. This is to trust the Holy Spirit.

So, is my position on gender inclusion a conformity to the world? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly don’t think so. Am I just trading societies values for “biblical” values? Maybe, maybe not. But I do feel like I’m honoring the very way the earliest Christians thought about how the gospel adapted itself to every cultural context.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
This entry was posted in Christian practice, hermeneutics, Scripture, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Reflections on “Do Not be Conformed to this World”

  1. Kris says:

    Another excellent article. I find it funny that many complementarian churches teach that the prohibition on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2 is universal while the instruction to wear head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 is cultural,even though both passages use the creation order of Adam and Eve to justify the instruction. I just don’t understand why that is?

    • Mark says:

      Because it suits their agenda…

      • Carlos says:

        1 Cor 11 isn’t cultural. And it isn’t about women. It is about men. Men with their heads covered. Read the passage in order. Men in Corinth (and the Roman religions in particular) prayed and offered sacrifices with their heads covered. It was cultural to do that. Paul said don’t do that. He went against the cultural practice because of the theology. He isn’t saying women cover your heads. They were doing that. He was telling men to uncover their heads and stop acting like the pagans.

        Here is Caesar, in Corinth, worshipping.

        That is why we pull our caps off in the prayer before the church softball game.

  2. Good seed for further thought and study. Thanks.

  3. Casey Coston says:

    Thanks brother Mark! Miss you but thankful for our time at ACU!

  4. jmar198013 says:

    Amen. A dozen times, amen.

  5. Debbie Curtis says:

    Amen a dozen MORE times!!!!!

  6. Cary McCall says:

    Hi Mark. Good couple of posts. I do agree with your position. However, I would like to see a thorough handling of Paul’s theological rationale (the creation account) when it comes to women. This certainly makes the issue dicey because it takes the issue beyond simple cultural context and affirms them with what Paul seems to think is a theological argument that comes from the beginning of time. How do you handle this? Do we simply disagree with Paul?

    • Mark Love says:

      Cary, I don’t think we disagree with him. It’s more that Paul reasons within two poles, creation and new creation. They aren’t the same, and ultimately, we’re headed to the new. In between the times, we’re always managing the already/not yet.

      • Cary McCall says:

        I don’t really think that says anything substantive when it comes to the question of how Paul reasoned to come to conclusions. For Paul, it seems it was as simple as “this is how it should be done, and here is why.” Certainly in 1 Timothy 2. We may need to admit that for us, it comes down to simply not liking, or disagreeing with, his “why.” Paul’s reasoning is not a high-level “new creation/old creation” “already/not yet” management of ideals, it was “Adam was first, not Eve. And Eve was deceived, not Adam. Woman brought sin in the world. Therefore, let them stay quiet.” A blatantly patriarchal theology. Let’s admit that none of us would teach this theology to restrict women because we simply disagree with it now. We either affirm his simple reasoning or we disregard it. By giving women voices and authority in our churches, we are disregarding his reasoning. I hope I’m not going too far out on a limb to say that it may be okay to do so if we, in good faith, humility, and subjection to the Holy Spirit, find this to be theology that is longer acceptable for the work of the kingdom in the world. Our conservative and complementarian brothers and sisters may find that approach fraught with dangers, but as you have pointed out, everybody’s theology has done this. Bottom line, let’s just admit that we disagree with Paul on this point.

      • Mark Love says:

        Cary, I don’t think you’re reading Paul closely enough. You may be right that the tension is not made specific in 1 Timothy, but it is in 1 Cor specifically in the case of head coverings. I think its clear that Paul is commending them for a more inclusive practice that conforms to his teaching–an “in Christ there is no male or female” kind of stance, which I think is an eschatological category for Paul. But the Corinthian’s want to live in a realized eschatology and so are blurring gender lines. So, while Paul commends them (for leaning into the reality that is coming), he also has to remind them that they are not there yet, and for that he uses an argument from nature (creation). So, whether it comes out as an explicit rationale in each instance of advice, this is the framework running behind all of Paul’s reasoning. When he needs order, he appeals to creation more often that not. But his primary horizon is on the new creation that is coming. Was Paul limited to expressing this within why he knew. Yes, he was limited. But I think that’s different than being wrong.

      • Cary McCall says:

        This is interesting reasoning. Help me to understand what makes us more qualified to practice things in an eschatological way than the Corinthians. That’s a truly honest question as I really want to understand this reasoning. It seems to me that if moving toward the eschaton (as you have described it) is ultimately Paul’s goal, arguing against those things (if he somehow deep down actually agreed with them, which I find unlikely), regardless do where the reasoning comes from, would be counterproductive.

      • Mark Love says:

        Cary, its ad hoc reasoning in light of circumstances. Our circumstances are different. In 1 Timothy Paul is clearly giving different advice than he did to the Corinthians regarding gender. My case in point is his advise to young widows. In 1 Corinthians, stay single with an appeal to the eschaton, in 1 Timothy they must remarry. Is Paul wishy-washy? Has he changed his mind? Or are the circumstances different? All of his advice regarding elders and deacons and widows seems to center around the reputation of the church within the community. I think this might also explain the seemingly different advice he gives in 1 Cor 11 and 1 Cor 14. In 1 Cor 14, the outside is present. Paul is concerned that the church embrace the realities of the new creation, but he is also trying to get young, fledgling churches to make their way in a patriarchal world. His ad hoc reasoning, or pastoral reasoning, takes place between the poles of creation and new creation and the love of God in the cross of Jesus is the hermeneutical impulse that he tries to keep in view in the tension. When we choose other than Paul, we’re not making ourselves better than Paul, we’re making ourselves like him. In our cultural setting, some of Paul’s concerns for how the church will make its way given the values of the surrounding world, I think, would be flipped on its head. I think I am advocating gender inclusion for the same reasons Paul holds back (in some ways. But in many ways, I think Paul’s practice is more inclusive than we sometimes recognize) and so am honoring Paul’s theological reasoning.

        I don’t think Paul fully agreed with the Corinthians. He had real problems with them blurring gender distinctions. They had gone too far. Creation is good. Male and female are good. New creation is better.

      • Nick Gill says:

        Paul’s reasoning is not a high-level “new creation/old creation” “already/not yet” management of ideals, it was “Adam was first, not Eve. And Eve was deceived, not Adam. Woman brought sin in the world. Therefore, let them stay quiet.”

        That is an unfair characterization of Paul’s words. He commands, in 1 Tim 2, that the women be allowed to learn in quietness, rather than to teach with self-authenticated authority — authority based upon their identity.

        Why? Well, because in the Garden the command about the tree was given to Adam before Eve was around, and he clearly didn’t handle his responsibilities in conveying God’s message to his partner — or in resisting the serpent’s temptation, since “Adam was with her.” (Gen 3:6) If creation order expresses order of authority, then we’d all better start obeying our pets.

        Further, if Paul’s instructions are to Timothy, then the reminder that Eve was deceived is double-edged. Eve alone was deceived (with better teaching, she would not have been); Adam was not deceived — therefore, he knew exactly what he was doing when he ate the fruit. Again (like head coverings in 1 Cor 11), the emphasis is towards the men in the situation. “Since Eve was deceived, and Adam blatantly disobeyed, be better than Adam by allowing new female converts to learn in quietness.”

    • Cary McCall says:

      I appreciate your engagement on these things. Lots of good perspectives to continue to consider.

  7. I have a different perception of Paul’s instructions to Timothy and his reasons for writing them (see if you wish) – I think he was correcting a truthless doctrine held by some women teaching it in Ephesus where Timothy was. To me, that makes more sense than this citation being used by Paul to support an unexpressed argument: that women should sit down and shut up in church because Eve sinned first. The argument isn’t there. Christians have assumed it for hundreds of years. But it isn’t there.

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