• You've Got To Conform To Belong!
You’ve Got to Conform to Belong!
Outreach Letters

You’ve Got to Conform to Belong!

  • You've Got To Conform To Belong!

You've Got To Conform To Belong!

About 15 years ago the Salvation Army In England launched a musical called ‘Hosea’. It proved quite a hit among Christians and was produced in several countries. I saw it in Australia. Among its songs was a satyrical number which began with the words: ‘You’ve got to conform to belong, we’ve all got to sing the same song!’ Now I don’t know if the message of that song ever succeeded in changing anything in the Salvation Army or anywhere else, but it did highlight something which is endemic in Christianity: the requirement to conform is a condition of belonging. What a contrast that is to the way in which the apostle Paul spoke of conformity as opposed to transformation. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” he wrote, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

The pressure to be conformed comes from without. The power to be transformed comes from withinTransformation is God’s way of changing us. Conformity is the world’s.

When Christian churches and institutions apply conforming pressure as a means of effecting change In their followers, guess whose methods they are employing?

The apostle Paul who, as the zealot Saul, had been an arch-advocate of the archetypical religious system, knew all about being conformed. He himself had been a well-conformed product of Judaism – having been squeezed, pushed, manipulated and programmed till his individualism was all but eliminated. Only then could he be a true son of the system. And he knew all about exerting the same sort of pressure on others.

When the followers of Jesus began to make their presence felt in Jerusalem, Paul personally vowed to do whatever he could, and to go to whatever lengths were necessary, to squeeze them back into religious conformity. Like the Catholic Inquisitors of a later period, Paul considered imprisonment, torture and even death to be justifiable instruments for the enforcement of the system’s beliefs and practices.

Once transformed by Jesus, though, Paul was a different man with a vastly different approach. He was forever finished with religious systems. How often he must have shuddered at the realization that the very religion which had once promised him a special relationship with God had gone so very close to depriving him of it forever. Never again would he be a part of such a system.

I wonder how horrified Paul would be if he could witness the larger-than-life hero worship which has, for centuries, been meted out to him by Christianity – a religion which, at the same time, bears little resemblance to the faith for which he both lived and died. Magnificent edifice and London landmark though it is, what a contradiction in terms ‘St. Paul’s Cathedral’ is!

Whether Jew or Gentile, Paul was determined to lead all men, not into outward conformity but into inward transformation. And, like Jesus before him, he made many enemies in the process.

Essentially, a policy of conformity has its roots in mistrust, whereas one of transformation cannot function without trust.

For the transforming work of God’s Spirit to take place in a man’s heart it is necessary for that man to exercise trust in God, in others and in himself. This is especially true concerning those who lead and minister among God’s people. For it is they who set the trend – either towards conformity or towards transformation.

The man who does not trust others betrays the fact that he does not trust himself. And he certainly does not trust God. So, instead of leading people into a life of joy and liberty in which they constantly experience the transforming work of God’s Spirit within, such a man will inevitably draw them into outward conformity.

It matters little whether that conformity is to something as small as one man’s ‘home-grown’ version of Christianity, or to something as vast as Catholicism. The trappings of conformity will surely be there – whether in the sweeping spectacle of a High Papal Mass or in a myopic adherence to some obscure doctrine or practice.

However they are applied, the techniques used to make people conform are calculated to achieve one main objective – and that objective has nothing to do with the welfare of the individual.

The requirement to conform is for the purpose of control. and the need to control is fundamental to the survival of the system.

Of course Christianity, unlike Communism, cannot close its borders around a captive population. To survive, let alone thrive, it must find other ways to entrap and retain its masses. It must offer what no one else can offer. Then, when the lure has been successful, it must find a way to keep its adherents. It must entice, it must gratify and, if necessary, it must coerce and threaten. It must, at all costs, achieve its ends. The system must be master. Which is where conforming comes in.

‘You’ve got to conform to belong,’ is much more than just a catchy phrase from a Christian musical. It’s a frightening reality! The beguiled masses of Christianity are little different to the gray masses of Communism.

Getting people to conform to that which is bigger than them, whether it be a cause, an ideology or a religious system, reduces them to the status of faceless, nameless, pawns. Rather than having any true personal value they are of value only to the extent they serve the system.

In the Christian context they merely make the transition from being one of the ‘unsaved’ multitude to being one of the ‘saved’ multitude. Having been once conformed to the world, they find themselves having to now conform to Christianity. Instead of discovering the freedom and value of their God-given individuality, they once again find themselves under the tyranny of the system.

And tyranny it is. The name of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, the pressure of persuasive preachers and equally persuasive peers, are all formidable forces.

In such a setting, the Christian soon discovers that his value is directly proportional to his conformity. He is trained and conditioned, not (as he is told) to serve God, but to serve the system.

In some cases that means no more than obediently sitting in front of a television set, taking in some televangelist’s program and regularly sending in gifts of money. In other cases it may mean something as comprehensive as a lifetime devoted to evangelising a primitive tribe in a far off jungle. Whatever the specifics, the important thing to the system is that people fit into its pattern and meet its requirements. Only then are they considered to be of value. Only then do they belong.

The truth is that instead of being loved they are used. Instead of being released into a fulfilling life, they are being squeezed into Christianity’s mold. Instead of being transformed they become conformed.

And where conformity reigns, individual freedom is dead.

What a contrast that is to the picture both Jesus and Paul presented of the liberating, transforming work of God’s Spirit. Ponder the scenario described in John chapter three where Nicodemus the theologian tried to fit Jesus into his religions frame of reference. To his mind, anything which did not conform to his theology (the theology of the system) was suspect, if not downright heretical.

So far as Jesus was concerned there was no problem. It was simply a matter of casting aside man-made limitations. He made it clear to Nicodemus, in no uncertain terms, that man’s theological concepts can in no way comprehend let alone contain – the lifegiving, inward work of God’s Spirit.

The activity of God among men has nothing to do with doctrinal or theological conformity. It has everything to do with the free, uninhibited, transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Which is something no religious system wants – even if it claims otherwise. To have God’s Spirit really free to transform lives and make them the way He wants them to be is hardly compatible with controlling, conforming Christianity.

How can any branch of the Christian system afford to risk its doctrines, its structures, its assets and its reputation by setting people free to really be God’s people? Why, they may discover they don’t need all that religious paraphernalia! Then what would happen?

Christianity, of course, did not get to where it is by being stupid or naive. Witness the vast army of ‘career Christians’ – men and women whose livelihood whose material well-being – is dependent upon the survival of the Christian system. With such a vested interest could they afford the risk of setting people free from religious conformity? That could result in the whole system tumbling down! Then what would happen to their careers, their salaries and their pension plans?

Paul, too, had a pretty good thing going for him in his earlier days. As Saul of Tarsus, the zealous young Pharisee, he was set to be a big man in the religious hierarchy of his time – till Jesus intervened, and transformed him. Now feel the impact of his words: “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ my Lord. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.”

Paul did not switch from conformity to one religion, to conformity to another. He was a transformed man! No religious prison could or would ever contain him again! Never again would such a system squeeze him into its mold. Because of that, the ex-conformee, now a transformee, could shout: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Woe to me if I, as a man of God, have so little trust in my God, myself and in those I lead, that I resort to binding God’s people with the fetters of conformity! Were I to do that I would be guilty of perpetuating the very thing Jesus came to do away with.

He came to set men free from the strictures of religious conformity. He did what no religious system ever does: He reached out to individuals, loving them and counting them as precious for their own sakes.

Jesus had no ulterior motives. He had no hidden agenda. He loved and He gave and, when He called men to follow Him, He put upon them not the demands of conformity but the status of liberated sons of God. He freed them to be what they had always wanted to be. His call to discipleship was not an untrusting demand for conformity. It was an expression of trust.

God is today seeking, as He has always sought, those who have a heart akin to His heart. To them He offers not doctrines but truth, not theology but reality. He offers, not the spurious security of a system. but the surpassing glory of intimacy with himself. His desire is to lead all His people out of bondage to systems, doctrines, forms, fear and the control of untrusting and untrustworthy men.

He has come to transform ordinary human beings into the very image of Jesus, so that all who truly desire to be God’s people and to live as God’s people may freely do so. Not within the limitations of religious conformity but, instead, to the full extent of their heart’s desire.