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FIRST-PERSON: The ever-lurking threat

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book “Hold the Line” by Tennessee pastor Erik Reed.

LEBANON, Tenn. (BP) – One of the greatest threats to Christians in America today is our tendency to conform our beliefs and morals to align with the culture. Everyone is conforming to something. For Christians, we want to conform more and more to Christ. We want our ideas, our words, and our actions to be holy and godly. However, the temptation Christians face is to forsake conforming to the image of Jesus and to adopt the ways of this world.

I have a friend who went from being a Bible-believing and Bible-obeying Christian to someone who threw off all restraints and adopted the prevailing ideas of our culture. She went from someone with a biblical view of sexuality and marriage to someone who denied Scripture’s teaching on the subject and married another woman. We had many conversations along the way, and each time I faced the charge of being judgmental and unloving to her. I was “injuring” her by my disagreement, even though my tone was kind. I never once said anything mean, nor raised my voice, but her conclusion about my disagreement was that I was homophobic and unlike Christ. This was hard to hear from someone my family loved, and still loves. No one wants to be viewed that way. But here I was, accused of being a homophobic bigot.

Scary trends

The last several decades reveal a decline in Christian convictions on what were once broadly held orthodox beliefs. Belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant and authoritative Word of God is on the decline. According to Gallup, only 24 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, down significantly from prior decades. Key doctrines like the Exclusivity of Jesus and the Divinity of Jesus are no longer undisputed tenets of the Christian faith. Studies show the consistent decline in theological understanding and convictions among professing Christians in America.

There are also startling statistics pertaining to young adults. Two-thirds of professing Christians walk away from the church and any commitment to Christ within two years of graduating high school. Think about that. In a youth group of 100 students, statistics say 66 of them are going to walk away from biblical Christianity within two years of graduation.

This is staggering. It should stun us. Or perhaps more accurately, it should terrify us. Most of these professing believers grew up in Christian homes and attended church for years. How can that many people fall away? How can those Christians no longer have anything to do with Christ?

Couple these statistics with the shifting beliefs of those who continue in the faith and profess to be Christians, and you get a snapshot of a church in crisis. America’s churches have big troubles. There seems to be a greater likelihood for professing Christians to believe what the world says instead of believing what God says. More and more Christians appear to take their theological and moral directions from the culture instead of the Bible.

I would never

Is that you? How do your beliefs line up when compared to the culture and to the Bible? What are you being conformed to: Christ or the culture?

There’s a good chance as you read this your inner lawyer is coming to your defense. “Not me!” “I would never turn away from Jesus.” “I won’t walk away from the church.” “I will not let the world determine what I believe.” “The Bible is my authority. Nothing’s changing that.” Maybe you mean those things. Perhaps you are sincere when you reject the possibility that you could conform to the world. And yet so many do. People’s beliefs keep shifting further away from biblical orthodoxy. People’s convictions morph into alignment with the culture rather than drifting towards biblical teaching.

We saw what Peter did already when he felt the pressure. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day didn’t recognize Him as the Messiah or His message as being from God. But it wasn’t because they lacked intelligence. No, Jesus says their problem was “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). They loved the approval and adoration of the crowds. This filtered everything they heard and witnessed from Jesus. They couldn’t accept Him because it would cost them their big dealness. It is hard to maintain status and notoriety when following Jesus gains you insults instead of praise.

Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). Expect others to revile you. Persecution is normative for Christians. Jesus says to rejoice and be glad when these things happen because we have a greater reward in heaven. People persecuted the prophets throughout the Old Testament. This is the plight of the faithful children of God.

Jesus comforts His disciples that are hated by the world by reminding them the world hated Jesus first (John 15:18). The world hates Christians because we are not of this world (John 15:19) and we refuse to join in the rebellion against God and His ways. Following Jesus draws the ire and hatred of the world because the world does not love God. They hate Him. And the hard truth is that because the world hates God, the world will hate us too.

But not everyone can handle being hated by others. Most of us long to be accepted and loved by all. This is what leads people to cave against resistance. Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver and the approval of the Pharisees. He walked with Jesus for three years as a witness to incredible miracles yet chose cheap substitutes over God in the flesh. How is that possible? Who in the world would make such a foolish choice?

Do not conform

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote to the believers:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be trans- formed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Why did Paul need to command the Christians in Rome not to conform? Because it was a real possibility. They faced constant threats against their faith. The culture in Rome then, and the culture in America now, are not far apart. Sexual sin abounded. Corruption infested government, businesses and the military. The cities reeked of the rot infusing its debased culture. And the culture in Rome permeated all the places they conquered. This helps us understand why each of Paul’s letters deal with the sin issues Christians were confronting. Not only were their hearts prone to sin, but the culture they lived in promoted and celebrated it. So, Paul warns them to flee from sin because they cannot remain in that sin and inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-20).

Paul exhorts the Roman Christians not to conform to this world. Conforming means to become like, or to take the shape of, something else. The Christians in Rome needed to avoid taking the shape of the sur- rounding culture. Paul wanted them to pursue holiness and live set apart from the world. Jesus called them to that.

Why did Paul need to tell them not to conform? Because the temptation was real. The possibility was strong. There is an ever-lurking threat every Christian faces, each day, to conform to the world and culture around them. The church today needs to heed Paul’s warning afresh. Fellow believer, and blood-bought sinner, do not conform to this world. Live set apart. Flee the temptation to become like our culture today. This is not an exhortation for the super committed Christian to follow. This is what it means to be a Christian. Resisting the temptation to conform to the world is the charge for every disciple of Jesus.

My goal is to help you understand why conformity is so common, and to help you guard yourself against it. To do that, we need a clear understanding of what being a disciple of Jesus actually requires of us.