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Biblical Nonconformity

Nonconformity is all the rage. Our culture applauds rebellion against social norms and encourage boldly standing apart. Sometimes this nonconformity is minor. It looks like fuchsia hair, living in a tiny house, eating only fruit and veggies. Other times nonconformity is something more extreme. The most immediate example is gender nonconformity. Biologically sexed males and females refuse to be classed as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ simply on the basis of biological sex. And our culture commends this bold refusal to conform.

Our society is not the only place we see nonconformity. The Bible commands it. In 1 Peter 1:14-15, the apostle Peter writes, “as obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” Similarly, the apostle Paul writes, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The question arises, what does God mean by “do not be conformed?” Is He in agreement with the modern trend of bucking societal norms? To answer these questions, we have to know first what it is to which we ought not conform. 

Looking again at Romans 12, Paul says “do not be conformed to this world.” People have interpreted Paul’s words in a variety of ways. R. C. Sproul explains the simplistic, and most common interpretation.

The simplistic way of not conforming is to see what is in style in our culture and then do the opposite. If short hair is in vogue, the nonconformist wears long hair. If going to the movies is popular, then Christians avoid movies as “worldly.” The extreme case of this may be seen in groups that refuse to wear buttons or use electricity because such things, too, are worldly.[1] [1]

This doesn’t sound much different from how most of our society interprets nonconformity. It is not what Paul means. When Paul refers to the world here, he means “the ways of culture and society that oppose the Lord” (see also Ephesians 2:2).[2] [2] Notice the difference. In Sproul’s example, our fellow man is the standard for nonconformity, when it ought really to be God. Whatever is contrary to God—“the use of dirty or offensive language, the singing of scurrilous songs, the reading of filthy books, the wearing of tempting attire, etc.”[3] [3]—is of the world. To this, we ought not to conform. Neither ought we to conform to ourselves.

The impetus behind our culture’s attraction to nonconformity is the false belief that we must be true to our own self-perception. When we are, we are able to satisfy our fleshly desires. Contrarily, Peter tells us that we are not to “be conformed to the passions of [our] former ignorance” (vs. 14). This means we are not to aim at fulfilling our fleshly desires. “For,” Paul writes, “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). In other words, before we became Christians, we slavishly followed our sinful inclinations wherever they led. We are not to do this anymore. Rather, “we must resist the pressure to conform to the age. We resist evil desires that we once indulged. We turn from sinful acts that are so common in the culture and in the life-style of many who grew up outside of the covenant.”[4] [4]

Paul tells us specifically what these sinful acts are. He writes, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21a). Clearly, biblical nonconformity is more than avoiding the popular or culturally normative. It is nonconformity with the world and our sinful flesh. This is nonconformity motivated not by a desire to look different from everyone or to fulfill our fleshly desires, but to look like Someone.

Rather than conform to the world and our fleshly desires, God calls us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 2:15). For we have been born again through Christ (1 Peter 1:3). We are now children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit (John 1:12, 1 Corinthians 3:16). We are no longer citizens of this world or slaves to its lusts (1 Peter 2:11). Now we are citizens of heaven and slaves to God. The only proper response to such great mercy is to gratefully give our whole selves to God.[5] [5]

This means, in part, surrendering whatever is not of God. For, through Christ, we “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24b). The result is that we will look more like Him, and that is the goal. “The idea…is that the basis for the call to nonconformity is that we are to be imitators of God in His difference. Just as God is different from the world, so are we as His children and heirs of the inheritance set before us in heaven, to be different from the world.”[6] [6] In other words, our motivation—and goal—for nonconformity is to look more like our Father who is holy.

Our temptation at this point is to create a list: ten steps to attain holiness. We deceive ourselves that with enough perseverance and focus, we can throw off the flesh and numb ourselves to worldly temptations. Believing this results in legalistic man-made religion. Such religion “tries to thwart sin and promote holiness through imposing a law code that adds to Scripture.”[7] [7] Such religion requires no savior. In truth, we cannot resist sin on our own, let alone attain holiness. We were saved by grace through faith, and we grow in holiness by grace through faith. The apostle Paul is adamant on this point.

Paul chastises the Galatian Christians by asking rhetorically, “let me ask you only this: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Galatians 3:2-3)? Similarly, we who were saved by faith in Christ’s blood, cannot conform to Him by faith in our own will power. Rather, we must rely on the Holy Spirit’s work in us—even as we did at the moment of salvation. Paul explains, “I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). In other words, “we are to be constantly dependent on the Spirit for living in a manner pleasing to God.”[8] [8] Daily, this means we do not grow in nonconformity with sin and conformity with God by trying hard. Rather, “we who walk by the Spirit uphold the Law, not in our own power but in putting to death any idea that we can keep our Creator’s law in our own strength and drawing upon the Spirit’s might to make us please the Lord (Ephesians 5:18).” Nonconformity—the fruit of which is holiness—then, is an outworking of the Spirit’s work in us.

Resisting the pressure to conform to the world and our flesh is no trivial task. It requires daily relying on the Holy Spirit’s power to enable us to turn from our former passions. Often it means we will look alien to the world. Biblical nonconformity means self-denial, suffering, and an end to willful independence. No wonder we often take the simplistic route of avoiding the popular—which inevitably ends in legalism. But though the medicine be bitter, the fruit is sweet. For the more we conform to our holy God, the more we will bear fruit in keeping with His Spirit in us. That fruit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). And who does not want these? 

Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.


[1] [9] R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God [10], 117. 

[2] [11] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/world-flesh-and-devil/.

[3] [12] The Holiness of God, 404. 

[4] [13] Daniel M. Doriani, 1 Peter [14],  40. 

[5] [15] See Hendriksen, Romans [16], 403-404. 

[6] [17] Sproul, 1-2 Peter [18],  46.

[7] [19] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/walking-spirit/.

[8] [20] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/walking-spirit/.