In the 1950’s social psychologist, Solomon Ashe completed an incredibly interesting experiment. He was testing the extent to which social pressure could be exerted upon a person to conform.
He put an unknowing participant in a group with seven people who were in on the test. They would knowingly give a wrong answer.
Ashe showed the participants a picture with one line to the side and three to the right. He asked the participants which line to the right matched the one to the left.
The answer was obvious, but the seven people who were in on the experiment gave an obviously wrong answer. Would the eighth person go along with the group or pick the obviously correct answer?
What Ashe found was astonishing,
“Ashe measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, about one-third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials. Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participants never conformed.”
It turns out that we’re actually hardwired for agreement. In his book, Collective Illusions, Todd Rose argues that when we belong, our brain release oxytocin. Oxytocin is a happy chemical, and we love that feeling. Rose explains:
“…oxytocin increases our likelihood of complying with or temporarily supporting a position we may personally dislike. In search of this happy hormonal reward, we tend to prioritize behaviors that benefit our relationships. We look for affinity even when the basis for doing so is tenuous or trivial. We yearn to do more of what our community expects just so we can enjoy that sunny feeling of being included or admired by those we care about” (Rose, Todd. Collective Illusions).
While we might be prone to conformity, in Romans 12:2, God calls us not to conform but to be transformed.
What Does Romans 12:2 Mean?
Some people think of Romans as a treatise where Paul outlines a systematic theology of salvation. While Romans is certainly a great place to understand the nature of salvation, Paul had a practical point for writing this letter.
The church in Rome was plagued with disunity. Jewish Christians were the leaders within the church from its inception. But when an edict from the emperor booted Jews out of Rome, the Gentiles took over.
When a new edict allowed them to return, the Jews assumed the Gentiles would step aside and let them have their positions back. This created no small disruption.
This is why the Book of Romans is structured the way that it is. For 11 chapters, the apostle shows that Jew and Gentile are alike in their position before God.
He uses a robust theology of salvation to show them that they are equally lost and that the means of salvation and sanctification are the same for both of them. The “therefore” of Romans 12:1 is connected to all that Paul has been saying up to this point.
You’ll also notice that he says present your bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular). It is one living sacrifice that is presented. But how do we do this?
Verse two gives us the answer stated both positively and negatively. We are not conformed to the world, but instead, we are transformed by the renewing of our mind.
Both the “do not be conformed” and the “be transformed” are passives. J.B. Phillips captures it well in his paraphrase: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within.” The world will certainly squeeze us into its mold. Grant Osborne’s words are helpful here:
“The forces of this ‘age’ (the time in which sin reigns; cf. 5:21; 7:17, 20, 23) are forcing the believer to conform to its ideals. There are so many areas where this is true — consumerism, power politics, the success syndrome, sexual immorality, the pleasure principle, and so on (Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series).
What Osborne doesn’t mention as explicitly is the connection this has to the disunity plaguing Rome. Jesus spoke of the leadership style of “the Gentiles” (synonymous in that context with “the world”). They would “lord it over them.”
It was all about power and authority. If the church in Rome is “squeezed into the mold” of the world system, then they’ll act similarly. They’ll fight about power and who is in charge. They’ll go along to get along and eventually become one with the world system.
The good news of Jesus does something better. The indwelling Spirit transforms our minds. We are changed from the inside out. Rather than being squeezed into a mold, we are utterly changed into an entirely different form.
The word used here is the one from which we get our word metamorphosis. Much has been made of this, and many illustrations involving the butterfly have long circled around this passage. But perhaps we can best show the difference by circling back to the opening illustration.
Conformity doesn’t care about what you actually believe. Conformity is concerned with your outward appearance. You conform by fitting the mold.
So, if seven people say that the line on the left looks like C (even though it’s clearly B), conformity requires you to say C — even if you don’t actually believe it.
But transformation does something entirely different. Transformation changes us so that we truly match reality.
How Might We Be Conformed to the World Today?
I am currently preaching through Daniel, and this issue of conformity and non-conformity comes up often. At times, we miss the complexity of what is happening in Daniel because we don’t tie it to the words of the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29.
There he told the exiles that they should build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat its produce, get married and have babies, and ultimately seek the welfare of the city in which they live.
That sounds a bit like conformity. At best, we could say that they are called to “fit in” with Babylonian culture.
But what does that look like when everybody in the room is saying “C” is the corresponding line — but you know in your heart of hearts that it’s actually “B.” What does “fitting in” look like there? The answer, at times, isn’t as black and white as we might like to think.
What might look like conformity to one is, in reality, missional adaptation. I’m sure that even Paul (who wrote Romans 12:2) at times looked as if he was conforming to the ways of the world as he was “becoming all things to all men.”
Think of all the issues facing us in our own present-day Babylon.
- When your co-worker is transgender and asks you to use their preferred pronouns? Even if you don’t agree, do you — for the sake of relationship and keeping your job and providing for your family — call them by a preferred pronoun? Or do you take a stand here?
- When you are given the choice in a political election between two immoral people, do you hold your nose and vote for one candidate over the other? Or is this participating in evil?
- When the world is being crippled by a pandemic and the government asks the church to close her doors for the sake of public safety, do you obey the government, or do you say, “We must obey God rather than man”?
- Is it okay for a Christian bakery who doesn’t agree with same-sex marriage, to nevertheless bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding? Or should they refuse?
- If a stem cell from an aborted child could save a life, should it be used? Can Christians partner with secular organizations to accomplish a good end?
These are only a few. We can sometimes wax eloquent from the comfort of our computer chair on some of these issues — but when we are staring them in the face, and these issues are intersecting with real flesh and blood people, and they have real-life consequences, it can be unsettling.
We don’t like living in Babylon. It’s so much easier to live in safety, and it’s so much easier to not have to navigate life in an uncertain culture. But this is where God has placed us.
And we’re navigating these things as fallen, sinful, finite creatures — creatures who sometimes think we are absolutely correct when we aren’t. And fallen creatures who sometimes are absolutely correct but lack the moral resolve to take a stand when we should.
Life in Babylon is tough. Conformity is a real temptation. And so is taking an angry stand, burning bridges and opportunities for gospel proclamation, just because we don’t like the uncomfortable nature of living in “Babylon.” Obeying God is sometimes not as black and white as it first appears.
We might know that the line that matches is clearly “B,” but we have to function in a society as if we believe the answer is “C.” At times we might be pressed to make a declaration of our position.
And in those situations, we must never embrace a lie, but we aren’t always in that moment. Sometimes we’re in those places where we have to function differently than what we’d prefer. And these situations call for wisdom.
What Does This Mean?
This brings us back to Romans 12:2. What each of these situations is calling for is the ability to “discern the will of God” and to live it out. How does that happen? It happens through transformation.
As we are slowly (oh, so painfully slowly) transformed into the image of Christ, we will be better equipped to handle these questions and in the right way.
Conformity to the world might look like answering all of the above questions in a way that is unfaithful to Christ. It might look like fitting in and changing your answer to make friends with the world. That is a misstep. That is unfaithfulness to Christ.
Conformity to the world might also look like having a thirst for power and forced conformity of those who do not currently share your position.
Conformity to the world might look like wounding others with our positions. It might look like demanding conformity from other believers in Jesus. This, too, is a misstep and just as much conformity to the world.
We need God’s wisdom in our Babylon.
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