Who Wants to Conform?

    Mar 08, 2015

    Passage: Romans 12:1-8


    In my experience, this passage I’ve selected is read and quoted often, maybe especially verse two: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the your mind’s renewal, so that you may examine what God’s will is and what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

    It’s one of those Pauline phrases that sticks with you, and is rather quick and applicable in any number of circumstances—as it has been. And, often, the point is not that bad: don’t conform to this world (and its problems) but transform your minds (and presumably, the world) through and to God’s will.

    Under such a reading, Paul’s ethical exhortation not to conform but to transform appears as something that would grab the attention and impress his audience, compel them to realize the problems with conformity, and inspire them to transform their minds to something greater.

    Yet, as I reflect on this verse more and more, I am reminded of a point biblical scholar Stan Stowers makes about another passage in Romans: “Ancient readers, however, would have more likely greeted the statement with a yawn than a gasp.”[1] Or, put differently, the sentence probably would not have stood out to them.

    It’s not that Paul’s point here is particularly bad—it isn’t. However, the implications of “conforming” – the Greek word here (συσχηματίζω) meaning more literally “to make one’s image along with” weren’t typically positive in its wider usage. For example, according to Plutarch, “vice” looks outside every day and “conforms” with others in order to disguise itself.[2] Conforming is something bad things do.

    Imagining Paul’s audience in Rome—the women and men who assembled together in the ancient church—I suspect that many, or most, of them were already trying not to “conform” to the world, that their communal conversations and perhaps debates were seeking to transform their lives and their world through the renewing of their minds. Though their ideas of how such renewal was to be enacted may have differed, I don’t think this suggestion itself said anything they weren’t already thinking about, discussing and struggling with, and perhaps even already doing.

    Similarly today, I think most of us would agree that conformity is not a value we—or even our society—explicitly endorse. We value individuality, we teach about the dangers of peer pressure. The word “conform” has more negative uses than positive, I would say.

    Indeed, with our fairly widespread disdain for conformity, it should come as no surprise that this text and its more typical interpretation is not only widespread in use—but the usages of such an interpretation could be quite contradictory. One example that comes to my mind as we engage with the Lenten season is the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” For forty days, we “fast” with Jesus by giving up something symbolic: chocolate is perhaps quite popular, but it ranges from caffeine, or other food and drink to promising to stop a bad habit (perhaps swearing, for example). Some people don’t abstain but add a practice, such as “giving up” some free time to pray, read the Bible, or meditate.

    On the one hand: through the lens of this Lenten practice, Romans 12:2 has been seen as a call toward this act of “giving up.” We give up something symbolic of our conforming to the world: we can’t eat that chocolate cake that a co-worker made; we have to forego going to the coffee shop. People notice the changes that we make, and—ideally—recognize that we are intentionally making our image differently, not conforming to our usual practices and those of the age around us. Such reflection can allow us to transform and renew our minds.

    But, this is the ideal. One could also argue from Romans 12:2—that for some (not everyone)—“giving up something for Lent” has also become a way to conform to a popularized practice, that—in some circles in largely Christian society—one stands out more by not giving something up for Lent. Indeed, sometimes our Lenten practices can seem to benefit us more now that allow us to draw closer to God (perhaps giving up sweets in order to be healthier before the summer). In such a scenario, it is possible that the practice become less an opportunity for transformation and more of a way to blend in with others, even if those others have good intentions.

    This example is not meant make anyone feel guilty. Indeed, I can admit that I have practiced giving something up for Lent for both profoundly spiritual reasons in order to not conform and I’ve done it only because I did not want to stand out from my friends or colleagues (trying to conform). I give this example as a way to show that the conformity and transformation that Romans 12:2 discusses can be applied in contradictory ways to the same topic—indeed this Lenten practice is only one of many examples!

    Though different from the potential “yawn” of ancient audiences accustomed to trying not to “conform,” the contradictory applications of “conformity” in today’s age present a broader sort of apathy. Indeed, as the Lenten example shows, this verse has become a bit too versatile and thus able to (at least somewhat legitimately) mean whatever it needs to.

    So, where does that leave us?

    For starters, its important to remember the context of this verse—it isn’t an isolated piece of advice. It forms only the “introduction” so to speak of the “ethical” chapters of Paul’s letter; like Plutarch’s use of “conformity” when talking about vice and virtue, this introduction helps frame the discussion that follows.

    In such a light, what is more important in 12:2 is not “making sure we aren’t conforming to this age”—the emphasis is on the reason for transformation: “so that you examine what God’s will is and what is good, pleasing, and perfect.” Some loaded terms, for sure! Which is seems, to my mind, a very difficult task to accomplish. In fact, it seems that theologians and others, indeed people of many traditions, faiths, and backgrounds, have been pondering this question for centuries before and after Paul wrote to Rome. what is God’s will and what is good, pleasing, and perfect?

    The remainder of Romans 12—and, indeed chapters 12-15—are an extended reflection on this—this is Paul’s examination of what (he thinks) God’s will is. (And note, in chapter 13, it is God’s will that, in the present, everyone submit to the governing authorities, a seeming concession to conformity…). He offers some good suggestions, but he is only one voice in this longstanding conversation about doing God’s will and transforming society.

    And so we can continue on to Paul’s metaphor of the “body” in verses 3-8, seeing this as part of his instructions on doing God’s will through the mind’s renewal. This idea of a body made up of diverse members, where each person or member is “one among many,” is also a way we imagine the ancient church: women and men who gathered together, worshipped God, shared meals, and had conversations. Through these conversations they shared their experiences of their beliefs—and how this impacted their lives and their interactions in the world. Conversations that are now lost—but I suspect that sometimes they probably disagreed about what they believed and how it should affect their actions. Different people have different senses of “what God’s will is.”

    But it is through such conversations—sometimes tense, sometimes flowing—that a community, a church can emerge.

    Like the body with many members that function differently so that the body can operate as one unit, many people, in the ancient church and in our own world—coming from a number of experiences and perspectives—have different ideas about “what God’s will is and what is good, pleasing, and perfect.” And no one idea could possibly be complete itself, and so no single perspective is absolutely better than another.

    So, for today, therefore, we have to be willing to share our ideas, our interpretations—and also listen to and engage with others. Sometimes our ideas will stand in tension with the values of our “age”—begging us and others not to “conform”—but sometimes our ideas might also (or instead) stand in tension with others. And if I were to pick one way not to conform to “our age”—it would be to say that when these ideas disagree, contradict, or seem to meet in tension, we do not have to either disengage or compromise, which often seem to be the only options. And neither leave us content; neither help us continue to ask and struggle with what is “God’s will.”

    Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that “being transformed through the renewing of our minds” might mean being open and willing to engage with others when it is the most difficult. And that also means realizing that “what God’s will is”—if anything can be said about it—is that it is not static. It is dynamic, it changes, and it is played out as different voices weave together and contribute just like the different parts contribute to one body. God’s will doesn’t conform to “this age”—but I think—or perhaps I hope—it relies on the best parts of it. Figuring how what this will is for us, today, means finding ways to listen within a diverse congregation and to be open to productive disagreements, whether in a meeting or a hallway; a congregation, with family or friends. And thinking with Paul’s introduction to “examine God’s will,” the idea of being members of one body, and situating diverse voices—ancient and modern—as each being “one among many”: I believe that these admittedly difficult engagements can transform society in a more just way. It is my hope that we can all—in many voices—enact this transformation together. Amen.


    [1] Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 181.

    [2] Pluatarch, “Virtue and Vice” in Moralia II, 100F-101A; LCL 222, trans. Babbitt.