THE NONCONFORMISTS

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.”

Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 5:13-16

I am not sure what you think of when you hear the word “nonconformist” but usually people think of someone who breaks with social convention, someone who refuses to adopt the dominant norms and values in society. But in England “the nonconformists” historically referred to Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers and later the Methodists? Well, let me explain why.
In 1662 the English Parliament passed a law called the Act of Uniformity. This meant that everyone in England, except Jews, had to accept the doctrines and conform to the practices of the Church of England set out in the then new Book of Common Prayer. In protest, about certain liturgical practices, two thousand priests resigned and many became ministers of Congregational and Baptist congregations. These separatist churches already existed, but the influx of a large number of clergy helped them grow significantly. In the process they were labelled the Nonconformists. As such they were sometimes imprisoned, but always, along with Roman Catholics, they were discriminated against. Nonconformists, for example, were not allowed to attend University or hold positions in government, To be a Nonconformist was like being black in an apartheid society.
Many of the differences that led to the rise of Nonconformity have now fallen away, and the Nonconformist denominations in England have lost of much of the influence that they once had. But the name has stuck, at least in England, and because it has been used to describe some churches and not others, it is often forgotten that all Christians are called to be nonconformists in the sense that St. Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of their minds.” This has got nothing to do with denominations; it has everything to do with being Christian and being the church in the world.
Not conforming to the world does not mean that we should leave the world to its own devices, running away from public responsibility and seeking safety in some religious ghetto. After all, the defining character of God is that God so loves the world, not just the church, that he sends his son to be its saviour (John 3:16). God does not turn his back on the world; God enters into the life of the world in order to redeem it. That is the meaning of the Incarnation and as such provides the clue. Christians, like Jesus, are meant to be fully in the world, but not conforming to those values, perspectives and attitudes that characterise what is dehumanizing and destructive in the world. Like salt, we are in the world, but in order to give the world a much better flavour. And like light, we are not meant to be candles hidden in a corner, but lamps that fill the whole house with light.
Eugene Petersen translates Paul’s words in this way: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” This does not mean that there is nothing good in our respective cultures, or in secular society. As Christians we can learn much from others that is good, and we should participate with them in making the world a better place. After all, not everything in the church is good, which is why the Church always needs renewal and reformation. As Christians we need to exercise critical discernment in order to affirm what is good and to resist what is bad. That is why Paul says that our minds have to be renewed so that we can see the world differently, from the perspective of Christ. Incidentally, this is quite literally what the word “repentance” (metanoia) means in the New Testament. To repent is have a fundamental change of mind so that we begin to see the world differently.
When we do that we begin to see that we as Christians are called to love our neighbours and enemies, not hate them, and therefore resist pressures, fears and political policies that make others enemies, instead of relating to them as fellow human beings. When our minds are renewed in Christ we discern that we should forgive not harbour resentment and seek vengeance, or resorting to violence and war to solve problems. For us, security does not come through the barrel of a gun. When we think as Christians, we know that we should take a stand with the weak and the poor rather than support the powerful and rich at their expense, or economic policies that are unjust, unfair and destructive of community. When we see things from Christ’s point of view we reject racism and xenophobia, homophobia and gender discrimination. We take a stand against alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and everything else that is destructive of the life of people, families and nations. This is being nonconformist Christians. After all, if we are to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” we cannot conform to the world, we dare not “allow the world to squeeze us into its mould” as J.B. Phillips translated our text.
Yes, as Christians we are called to be in the world but not of it. It is only in this way that we can serve Christ fully in the world, being the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” So let us not allow the world to squeeze us into its own mould, but rather “be transformed by the renewal of our minds” in Christ.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed June 9, 2016

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