Do Not Be Conformed to the [Religious] World

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2 was the first passage I ever seriously considered and meditated upon. This occurred many years before I was introduced to the concepts of historical or literary context. This passage was initially introduced to me as a supporting verse for 2 Timothy 2:22 and fleeing “youthful lusts.”At that time, I interpreted the verse to mean that the more I read my Bible, the easier temptation would be to deal with. While I was certainly not too far off, I later came to realise that my interpretation was incomplete.Perhaps we can find more meaning within the historical context of the Roman church at the time and of the literary context of Paul’s writing.

The Historical Background of the Roman Church

We know that “visitors from Rome” were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when the initial 3,000 were baptised into Christ (Acts 2:10). Assuming that these early Christians returned and worshipped in Rome, the earliest Roman church would have been composed entirely of early Jewish believers. Their evangelistic efforts, at this point, would have been limited to other Jews in the synagogues of Rome. Later, however, the Roman church would have begun reaching out to the Gentiles, as the other early churches did. Following the conversion of the first Gentile converts, Cornelius and his household (Acts 10), the first mass outreach to Gentiles began (Acts 11:19-21). The successes among the Gentiles that Paul and Barnabas experienced during their first missionary journey (Acts 13:48-49; 14:1, 27) actually prompted the church in Jerusalem to send a letter to the Gentile brethren in nearby locations (Acts 15:23-30). Though we only have available the travels of Paul recorded in Acts, we can imagine the conversions among Gentiles continued to increase in the churches, including the church in Rome.

Paul’s meeting with Roman couple Priscilla and Aquila gives us more insight into the historical context of the Roman church (Acts 18:1-12). Priscilla and Aquila’s “trip” to Corinth was arranged by Emperor Claudius, who decreed that all Jews must leave the city of Rome. Roman historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio reinforce the biblical text of this historical occurrence. Looking to archaeology, we find that the Gallio inscription (Acts 18:12) in Delphi dates this event sometime between January of 51 and August of 52. The majority of the Roman congregation, presumably Jewish, would have been subject to Claudius’ edict. The welfare of the early Roman church, therefore, would have been left to the propriety of the rather recent Gentile converts for a significant amount of time.

By the time Paul, who had at that point had not personally visited the Roman church (Rom. 1:10-13), wrote to them, the Jewish population had returned (Romans 16:3). As you can imagine, the differences between the Jews and Gentiles in the church were amplified by the return of the Jewish Christians who most likely felt an overwhelming sense of culture shock. I can imagine them saying, “What happened to our synagogue style, mostly Jewish assembly?”, “Can you believe the Gentiles are coming to worship then going out for lunch at the temple of Athena!?”, “These guys don’t know our scriptures very well! What qualifies them to teach about Israel’s prophesied Messiah?”

The Literary Context of Romans 12

For obvious reasons, Paul spends considerable time in the book of Romans reconciling the brethren in Rome. His letter begins with passages like 1:16, 2:9-11, and 3:9, 29-30 which remind the brethren that: the stain of sin has affected ALL mankind, ALL mankind will be judged according to their works, and fortunately, the saving gospel of Jesus is also for ALL mankind. Spiritually speaking, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (3:22; 10:12).

Therefore the spiritual realities of: baptism (Romans 6:1-11), the release of the Jews from the Mosaic law that bound them to sin (Romans 7), and the promises of the Spirit (Romans 8) all serve to bring the Jewish and Gentile believers together into a new category: those who have responded to God’s call through faith in Jesus.

Chapter 1:18-32 focuses on “them,” the Gentiles with no regard for God. Chapters 9-11 focus on “them,” the Jews who haven’t accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Chapter 12, however, begins with an appeal to the Christians in Rome. Unlike the hedonistic Gentiles and the self-righteous Jews, the Christians ought to recognise the disobedience of all mankind, and the greatness of God for giving the opportunity of mercy to both Jew and Gentile (11:30-36). This discussion provides the immediate literary context for Romans 12:1-2.

To summarise Paul’s argumentation, it’s almost as if he’s saying, “Enough talking about ‘them.’ Let’s talk about ‘you’ Christians. You’re all from different backgrounds, but you’ve found a new identity in Christ. Forget the past. Whether it be the sensuality you formerly knew, or your supposed self-sufficiency in observing the law, you’ve all died to your former lives, and now you know that God’s mercy comes through Jesus.”

A Closer Examination of Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

How would the early Roman church have read this passage?

Romans 12:1 urges the Christians “to present [their] bodies a living and holy sacrifice.” It’s within the context of the epistle to suppose that this passage might have been presented to the Gentile Christians and their previous lives of sensuality. 12:2, however, is likely directed to the Jewish Christians who risked conforming their minds to a worldview that allowed no room for a crucified Saviour from Nazareth.

The Jewish Christians could be encouraged by this passage to use the available evidence (the Old Testament scriptures- Acts 17:1-2 and apostolic signs- 2 Cor. 12:12) to prove that: faith in Jesus, as opposed to faith in the observance of the law, is actually God’s will. Subsequently, the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God was also part of God’s plan (Eph. 2:11-22). By accepting these things, the first readers of this epistle wouldn’t be moulded by the societal or religious status quo of first century diaspora Judaism, but instead would be transformed, together with their Gentile brethren, into the “body of Christ” (Rom. 12:5).

Applying Romans 12:2 Today

“Since we’ve answered the question, “What did this passage mean to them?,” we can now ask, “What should it mean to us?”.”

There are major differences between our context and that of the original audience. Primarily, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is nonexistent today. Our western society generally champions the ethics of diversity and inclusivity, sometimes to a fault. Our society generally accepts any religious faith and practice, while the first century Christians were subject to eviction from their homes (as in the situation in Rome) and other types of persecution.

Despite the differences there are notable similarities between our churches and theirs. For one, division in the church is still a significant issue. Despite Jesus’ plea for unity among believers (John 17:20-23), there are more denominations than ever before in church history. The “World Christian Encyclopedia” by Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson (Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) counts as many as 33,820 Christian denominations. Paul’s exhortation “to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5) is completely applicable to contemporary church culture defined by differences.

The widespread division between churches raises another similarity between the modern and early Christians: falsehood taught under religious pretext. The blind observance of Pharisaic traditions led many Jews to ultimately deny that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. Can we say that we would have fared any better? How do we know that the religious sentiments we express today in our daily lives and our worship services aren’t just man-made traditions?

The Bereans come to mind in this conversation. They were said to have “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:10-11). They weren’t focused entirely on new teachings as the Athenians were (Acts 17:21). Neither were they “always learning but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). They were eager to hear a new teaching (Jesus as Messiah), but they also examined what was being taught with what they already knew to be true, the objective standard of Scripture.

How can we benefit from the example of the Bereans and Paul’s exhortation to the Roman church?

  1. Don’t wholeheartedly accept everything you’ve been given. I love my parents, my friends, and my former teachers who have all taught me spiritual things. Though I have a great respect for these individuals, the outcome of my own soul is even more important to me. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). If Christianity is the exclusive pathway to heaven as Jesus says it is, what is the outcome of all the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who wholeheartedly accept the teachings of their friends and family? The outcome of their souls depends on their willingness to honestly examine all the evidence. If I expect this type of attitude from my non-Christian friends, I ought to exemplify this attitude in my own approach to seeking truth.
  2. Don’t wholeheartedly reject everything you’ve been given. I’ve noticed that some, in the spirit of rebellion or because of a personal flaw within a person who taught them, completely reject everything that they’ve been taught. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 instructs us to, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” It would be a logical mistake to imagine that every single aspect of religious information we were taught is wrong, simply because we inherited it from our parents or faith community.
  3. Accept the fact that you’ve been wrong before, and it’s likely that you’ll be wrong again. It takes a humble person to admit this but it is vital to our growth as Christians. Just because someone brings a different interpretation that I haven’t heard before, doesn’t automatically make them wrong. Apollos gives us an example of humbly accepting correction and moving on with newfound knowledge to the glory of God (Acts 18:24ff).
  4. Accept the fact that you’ve been right before, and it’s likely that you’ll be right again. If we take the previous point too far, we might begin doubting that it’s possible to know anything. If I’ve been wrong before, how do I know that I’ve ever been right before?! Without going to that extreme, I can accept that every interpretational decision I’ve made is based upon the best evidence that I’ve processed so far in the best way I know how. I have a rational mind able to examine evidences and come to proper judgments.

By adopting this attitude, every new idea that is presented to me will inevitably renew my mind because my interpretational decisions will be further confirmed or reasonably questioned. If we take to heart Paul’s exhortation, we won’t allow ourselves to be conformed to the world’s desire to mould us, be it sensual or pseudo-religious. I pray that we constantly and consciously invite our minds to be renewed. This process won’t allow us to become close minded to any question asked of the Scripture. Neither will it allow us to accept every teaching as equally valid. Only when our minds are open to renewal will we be able to “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

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