“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” From Paul’s letter to the Romans, this sentence has been used for centuries as a cudgel to browbeat people into adhering to customary social standards, claiming the words to be biblical in the face of evidence that they are unjust and contrary to the way of Jesus’ commandments. Its evidence is hard to recognize. After all how could what is usual and normal be contrary to God’s will?
During our denomination’s struggle over homosexuality there were voices declaring that acceptance meant “conforming to this world,” by which they meant any change in the status quo. “The world” to them was anything related to social changes they were uncomfortable with. Dissenters claimed that biblical standards were those social standards in which they had been raised, those accepted as normative for all persons and, of course, endorsed by God. I think their view was the very opposite of what Paul meant for his readers. The world to which new Christians should not be conformed were accepted Roman standards declared normative for all persons. Christians were to be transformed into a new way of life with norms established by God’s abundant and steadfast love as taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ.
The same is true today. It’s relatively easy to recognize social behavior that corrupts and threatens a people’s well being. It’s more difficult to recognize acceptable social values and behavior as unacceptable to God’s way of love. It’s especially true for Americans who place the greatest value on individualism and discount the value of common good that challenges established boundaries of custom, prejudice and geography.
The Christian way gives priority to the common good and the individual’s responsibility for it.The common good and the individual good must live in symbiotic harmony if society is to be healthy. What is good need not be Christian, but Christians are to live by standards of goodness that conform to God’s ways no matter the surrounding society. Scripture is replete with incomplete lists of individual and corporate wickedness that corrupt and destroy: murder, envy, greed, avarice, promiscuity, evil talk, theft, lying, and things like that.
Jesus leads us into new and deeper ways of understanding what is good, acceptable and perfect in spite of customary social norms. Understanding good and acceptable can look suspicious, a threat to social stability, an upsetting of the way things are supposed to be. After all, social norms are necessary to maintain the fabric of community. As long as individuals behave in a way somewhere in the broad expanse between outer limits of acceptability we can get along without too much trouble. The too prim and proper can be tolerated because they’re not dangerous, but those who challenge safe and orderly ways have to be brought to justice. Society would fall apart if it were not so. Crime, understood in the usual sense, is an obvious example. But those who challenge social standards in the cause of godly justice can also be seen as threats to be dealt with. Hanging onto customary norms with uncritical determination often ends with the assertion that if they’re changed then anything goes and there are no standards. Of course that’s not true but the fear that it might be runs deep.
Social norms are always conventions of a certain time and place; they are always lacking, never perfect. Their fundamental weaknesses appear more obvious with each passing generation. It’s more a mutation process that adapts grammatically to new conditions than an evolution of moral thinking. At least that’s my guess.
Nevertheless, God continues to speak in the midst of changing conditions to point ways toward a more loving and godly way of justice. Following Christ creates two jolts to complacency with the way things normally are. The first is an enormous dose of unwanted humility. It’s the recognition that we have not welcomed brothers and sisters into the full measure of society membership. The second is the recognition that even given the normal frailties and failures of human life nothing prevents them from following Christ in the way of love. It isn’t a matter of welcoming others into our ways of life, but of us welcoming their way of life into ours. It requires suspension of prejudices nurtured in long held social standards, allowing scripture and God’s continuing revelation of what is good and just to guide us in new ways of thinking.
Christian social standards have little to do with any generation’s sense of proper fashion, manners, ways of speaking, levels of education or physical characteristics. Each generation’s sense of propriety may have value and purpose, but it isn’t Christian as such. Each generation’s sense of what is morally acceptable is more problematic. It often includes Christian values but subordinates them to ways that future generations find reprehensible. As decades go by, what are the enduring Christian social values that have been true for two thousand years and yet are reborn with new understanding? As I’ve written before, they are revealed in a deep reading of the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew chapters five through seven. Paul clarified them in simple ordinary everyday terms in his letter to the Romans included in its entirety below.
Romans 12, NRSV
The New Life in Christ
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[a]
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the encourager, in encouragement; the giver, in sincerity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Marks of the True Christian
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly;[b] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,[c] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 Instead, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.