by Justin Lonas
One of the biggest concerns of foreign missionaries, particularly in areas dominated by entrenched cultural beliefs, is religious syncretism-the blending of Christian teaching with other irreconcilable ideas and traditions.
For example, if an African tribe responds to a missionary's message and later is found to be using an Easter ritual to ward off evil spirits, syncretism has occurred. Missionaries respond to this by prayer and the teaching and reteaching of biblical orthodoxy. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit must change the hearts of the people. Our lives can never reflect the whole truth unless He regenerates us from the inside.
The mixing of Christianity with cultural practices is nothing new; the church has been fighting off false doctrine almost since its inception. First Corinthians, is, in essence, a polemic against how the church there was still wallowing in the same pagan excesses as the rest of the city's population, construing the freedom of Christ as entitlement for indulgence, and even incorporating a selfish, hedonistic mindset into church rituals (worship services, communion, etc.).
Obviously, Scripture places a high priority on the importance of keeping the truth of Christ exalted and distinct from all other systems of thought-it is as explicit as possible in asserting that nothing but the death and resurrection of Christ can bring us to God. Paul states in First Corinthians 2:1-2 his commitment to the core of the message, "When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."
In the modern era, our beliefs are often structured as philosophies. Western society as we know it operates on a complex system of these-humanism, individualism, progressivism, rationalism, materialism, etc. Human ideas such as these have helped to erect our social structures, our business and our prosperity. Unfortunat-ely these same philosophies have seeped into the church and colored our doctrine with their teachings.
Christians don't articulate much of our modern syncretism-it's entrenched in our worldviews and attitudes. For an example, look no further than how we treat the family. Publicly, we stand for marriage and against abortion; practically speaking, however, we operate from a worldview much the same as those who hold the opposite side of our cultural arguments. Study after study indicates that divorce rates within the church are nearly equal to the populace at large. Similar evidence suggests that infidelity and promiscuity are also rampant. We roll our eyes in disbelief at a family with more than a few children; we whisper about irresponsibility when a couple marries before they finish their education or if they have children before they've established financial stability; we refer to our children born despite our best efforts at birth control as "accidents." Nevermind that Scripture says that it is a blessed thing to find a wife in your youth (Prov. 5:17-19, 18:22) or that children are a gift from the Lord and that having many children equates with greater blessing (Ps. 127:3-4).
The church has bought into the wider culture's value system-that we are to think of ourselves first, that everything (and everyone) should be judged according to how we benefit from the situation. The building blocks of our culture depend on the central belief that the self is the highest authority on morality, sociology, economics, education, etc. Such beliefs have no corollary in the gospel of God, and should not be welcome in His church.
If we want the people in our churches to begin effecting a change in society, then we have to begin by praying and teaching in such a way that the Holy Spirit can effect a change in our churches. Unless those who claim to represent Christ to this world allow His word to pierce their hearts and transform their minds, there is no "culture war" to fight. It's already lost. Truth's conquest of falsehood only begins with the source of Truth.
The exhortation of Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ," needs to be reiterated today more than ever. Paul tells us in Second Corinthians 6:14-17 not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. From the context, we see that the real danger he is pointing out is our association with bad doctrine, not "bad" people. (We are never to forsake sharing the message of Christ with unbelievers.) We have to throw off the yoke of our partnership with human wisdom and follow Christ with all our being if we want to be found in His will.