Nebuchadnezzar’s statue dominated the landscape. Before it, thousands pressed their faces into the dust, worship frenzied by the fear of what would happen if they failed to comply with their king’s command. Only three stood apart—Hebrews who refused to renounce Yahweh’s claim as the only true God in all the earth. Predictably, Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath was not long coming. Incredibly, the outcome of the dissenters’ actions was unknown. For Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, only one thing was certain—they would not bow to Babylon.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answering Nebuchadnezzar the king, said, ‘There is no need for us to give you an answer to this question. If our God, whose servants we are, is able to keep us safe from the burning and flaming fire, and from your hands, O King, he will keep us safe. But if not, be certain, O King, that we will not be the servants of your gods, or give worship to the image of gold which you have put up.’
The Bible is littered with the stories of people who refused to conform to the pagan beliefs and practices of the society in which they lived. Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, these heroes often made their stand under threat of extreme violence; some even gave their life as martyrs. Yet these men and women of old were ultimately no different from any other believer having faith in Yahweh—including you and I. Their ability to resist society’s violent demands was made possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit, a power now present in the life of every believer having faith in God through Jesus.
Christianity’s non-conformist founders
The relationship between righteous believers and worldly societies has always been contentious. Jesus modeled non-conformity to his followers, and expected that they show the same level of discernment and ability to actively resist the world’s claims upon their loyalty.
- Despite Christian tradition, the New Testament never specifies that Jesus worked as a carpenter prior to his public ministry. Furthermore, Jesus’ parables were full of references to shepherding and viticulture, not carpentry. It’s therefore quite possible that Jesus did not conform to the societal norm that a son takes up his father’s profession.
- Jesus did not conform to the contemporary Jewish expectations of the Messiah;
- Neither did he conform to the religious traditions of the Pharisees.
- Jesus did not join the Jewish zealots, nor use violence to promote Jewish nationalism;
- He did not follow his society’s values by condemning weak, diseased, impoverished, traitorous, or foreign people;
- He did not conform to the Roman expectation that an innocent man could and should defend himself against false accusations.
The apostles were likewise non-conformist in their relationship with society.
- They did not stop preaching when threatened by Jewish and Roman authorities.
- They did not compromise the message of the gospel when under pressure to do so from Jewish and Roman authorities.
Paul expected that every Christian practice non-conformity. In Romans 12:2 he writes,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
It’s the direction of our thoughts and the attitude of our hearts that makes non-conformity possible (or impossible) for Christians. We have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16); this means that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ thoughts and attitudes are gifted to us, enabling Christians to follow His blueprint for living faithfully in a fallen world. One of the major attitudes Jesus modeled was non-conformity towards the societies in which he lived (Jewish and Roman); for this reason, non-conformity should likewise be the default position of every Christian believer seeking to faithfully imitate Jesus within their own societies.
The struggle to remain holy in the midst of endemic cultural sinfulness is one that is fought primarily ‘in the mind’. When Paul spoke of his need to correct the Corinthian church, he wrote,
2 Corinthians 10:4, 5
For the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
The gospel challenges our loyalty to this world, asking believers to redirect their hopes away from human institutions and towards the coming kingdom of God. It urges us to cultivate a lifestyle of dependence upon God, which is the very opposite of the world’s hopes for atheistic glory and self-made immortality. For this reason, opposition to the work of Christ’s Spirit comes most often through the demon-inspired thoughts, arguments, attitudes, and opinions of the world; these ideals are promoted to us everyday through government policies, media opinions, educational institutions, corporate entities and their associated marketing campaigns, the sports and entertainment industries, and social networks. The non-stop barrage of information that individuals must now wade through is loaded with ideas on how to get ahead, make money, find success, or lose weight; spiritually, the daily bombardment of these messages reinforces the proud belief that an individual can achieve salvation if they only work hard enough.
The cost of non-conformity
Followers of Christ are called to actively resist the world’s values and the behaviours they promote (1 John 2:15). The true Christian life is one that constantly rejects Babylon’s corrupt goals for humanity—yet like Jesus we must do this in a way that demonstrates complete love for and dependence upon our Father. Non-conformity is a costly lifestyle, and many who tread this path pay for it with their lives, none more so that Jesus, who was crucified by a religious hierarchy incensed by his rejection of their self-righteous creed.
In modern western countries persecution is more subtle—social ostracism, unfair dismissals, bullying, etc—yet the ‘deaths’ that ensue (of a business, friendship, job, or ministry) can be equally damaging, and cause untold emotional and economic pain. As worshippers of the Living God we know that death is not the end. God demonstrated his power over death by raising Jesus to life and enthroning him at his right hand; as children of God through faith in Christ, that same miracle power of life over death is extended to us too. We know that on the last day we will rise from the sleep of death to gain eternal life; so also now, in the midst of Babylon’s rage, we can rely on the Lord of Life to keep us safe, and raise to life those parts of our lives that have suffered death for the sake of Jesus.