The 2013 colloquy hosted by Faith Builders was a time of presentation and discussion about the topic Separation and Non-conformity. Val Yoder, Nathan Yoder, and Wendell Heatwole prepared papers and gave presentations on the topic. Here are their papers.


The title could give one the idea that the term “Nonconformity” is something recent on the world scene. We, of course, know that this is not the case. Many scripture texts emphasize the concept of the people of God being separate from the world and belonging exclusively to the Almighty. Our focus is on how God’s people practice this in today’s culture. We are concerned about the obvious loss of the application of this vital Bible doctrine. We will only be able to grapple with the issues relating to this in real life today if we understand the Scriptural basis for nonconformity. Biblical truth is as relevant today as it was when it was conceived in the mind of the Author and penned by holy men as they were inspired by Him. We minimize this truth to our own ruin. 

It is a well-known fact that everything is in “deterioration mode”. The second law of thermodynamics presupposes this. The faucet begins to drip, the roof begins to leak, the shiny car rusts, businesses wax and then wane, the hard drive falters and then crashes, and our own physical condition reminds us of this truth personally. 

But NOT everything is deteriorating! Our Good God tells us in Malachi 3:6 “For I am the LORD, I change not”. And Hebrews 13:8 reminds us that “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever”. Also, His Word is not diminishing in content or relevance. “Forever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven”. Psalms 119:89 Paul makes this personal in 2 Corinthians 4:16 “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day”!

Biblical Cornerstones

God’s will is clearly expressed in a number of Passages from three different Apostles’ perspectives. 

Romans 12:1 – 2 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

2 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

1John 2:12 – 17 I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father. I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one. Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

1Peter 2:9 – 10 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

While these passages are profoundly deep, they are at once easy to understand. With the disciples we confess, “Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb.” We do not struggle with hidden apocalyptic interpretations here or with authorial intent, but with Spirit-directed application of being “doers of the word, and not hearers only” which leads to deception. Likely our Good God still cries, “O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!” Deut 5:29

These Scriptures, which are typical of the entire New Testament, are but a sampling on this subject that was also alluded to betimes in the Old Testament. Probably all Bible Believers would readily give verbal assent to the inspiration and truth of these Scriptures. Ask nearly any evangelical Protestant what the Bible says about salvation, conversion, respecting authority, modesty, even nonresistance . . . and they know the right answers and the verses that speak to the issues. How they work in “shoe leather” for those same adherents is an entirely different matter. 

Questions begging for answers are legion. How does “being transformed” relate to “not being conformed”? What does it mean to “love the world”? What is the “world” referred to in these passages? How can I fulfill the injunction to “be separate” from the very world in which I live? What aspects of the answers to these questions are factors of my spiritual life and experience and what aspects are a practical, physical reality? 

“This Bible doctrine is not a mere arbitrary dogma which, as some think, interferes with the liberties of men, but the more we study it the more we see in it the wisdom of God for His creatures”. Daniel Kauffman Doctrines of the Bible 491

“One cannot be nonconformed to the world by adopting a few symbols of nonconformity while remaining carnal and unspiritual in heart. Nonconformity to the world is the natural outcome of having been born again and of being alert to the spiritual issues which confront Christians living in a given culture.” Separated Unto God, page ix.

Nonconformity, Separation, and Holiness

“Nonconformity” is derived from the phrase “be not conformed” in Romans 12. Although our focus is on nonconformity, the letter to the Corinthians also includes the command “be ye separate”. “Separation” and “Nonconformity” have come to be used almost interchangeably – and with good reason. Nonconformity is impossible without separation!

Defining the primary terms will be an asset to our considerations. Separation refers to a clear-cut division between ourselves and all that is sinful or anti-God. It implies distance. It is also evident here that we are not only separated from, but separated unto something. Nonconformity is “the outward expression of inward separation” or “separation put to practice”. These twins impact nearly every area of the believer’s life.

The concepts of Separation and Nonconformity are rooted deeply in the holiness of God. The story of God’s people in the Old Testament era is a story of God defining His holiness and instructing His people how to live so as to illustrate it. Many and various commandments were given to God’s people but the clear, ongoing reason is summarized in Deut 7:6, “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” God’s heart has not changed on this matter. He is still holy and He longs for us to experience holiness as well. To attempt to live separated or nonconformed without this fundamental motivation is frustrating and confusing. The Christian life is reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts; an endurance test of regulated accountability. 

God calling Abraham out of Ur is a practical illustration of separation. What are the implications of such a move for us today? This has been at least part of the impetus for various colonization efforts that have resulted in a church witness being planted where it may otherwise not have been. Part of the reason for the call to Abraham was for his own spiritual wellbeing, too. 

The neglect of separation leads subtly but steadily to assimilation. An example of this can be found in Ezra 9 where the lament was brought to Ezra, “. . . The people of Israel, . . . have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, . . . This neglect led to acculturation. Intermarriage soon followed. So did the reproof of God and the resulting bitter reaping. 

Assimilation has always been a threat for the people of God. “Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom”. Gen 13:12. This choice was not only economically advantageous but could easily have been justified on the basis of being near enough to the cultural centers of his day to impact them for good and for God. But Lot, instead of leaving an impact, lost most of what was precious to him, barely escaping with his own life. This story has been repeated countless times since then. Names and details change but the scenarios are strikingly similar short of the falling fire and brimstone. In spite of its frequency, this happens gradually enough that few seem to notice. And those that do, seem, at least at times, reluctant to rock the boat. Where is the sincere lad who is willing to declare that the progress of our day is akin to the Emperor’s new suit of clothes? 

One example of significant changes in nonconformity in appearance is documented in the book, “Passing on the Faith – The Story of a Mennonite School” by Donald Kraybill. From the introduction we learn, “This story of a Mennonite school is more than the story of a school. It is the story of a rural people seeking to pass on their religious faith while in the throes of becoming modern. It is the story of a people struggling with the relentless forces of industrialization in the middle of the twentieth century. The book also traces the multitude of changes and the controversies surrounding them that the people and their school experienced since the early ’40’s. Primarily the saga of a school, this light social history also chronicles the clash between deeply held religious convictions and modern ways”. We will consider a number of overlays depicting some of these changes. 

“God and Uncle Dale”, a book by Lester Bauman, chronicles a similar series of events in the Mennonite church in Alberta Canada in the ’60’s and ’70’s. 

In contrast to Lot’s assimilation, Abraham lived a life of physical separation. But he had a far greater impact on the city as an intercessor than Lot did living among them. The fathers’ impact on their families is notable as well. 

Jesus understood the threat of assimilation and prayed that we may learn how to be in the world but not of it. I have often wondered to what extent this prayer of our Lord is answered. For the answer to Jesus’ prayer lies right in our laps!

Nonconformity and the Two Kingdoms

Both of the terms “separation” and “nonconformity” have negative implications. Separation at once rings of division, distance, disconnection, the building of walls, and exclusiveness – not the typical vocabulary we wish to have as our primary identifiers. And yet this concept is used repeatedly in both the Old and New Testaments. 

Consider these two examples:

  • Deuteronomy 10:8 – 9 At that time the LORD separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day. Wherefore Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren; the LORD is his inheritance, according as the LORD thy God promised him.
  • Revelation 18:4 And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues

Nonconformity does not rate much higher. Odd, different, out of synch, and peculiar might be other terms that come to mind as synonyms. If this is all we see when approaching this subject it is little wonder that it is met with skepticism at best and more often, open disdain. But is this the will of our good God? 

It is regrettable that we have not done better at conveying the truth and glory of the Kingdom of God in contrast to the kingdom of this world. Too many Anabaptists see the “two kingdom concept” as a neat idea; a carpet under which to sweep the “uniquities” of our traditions and peculiarities. What a pathetic view! The growth and glory of the Kingdom of God is one of the primary themes of the New Testament. It is a cause that gives focus through times of personal and corporate, spiritual fog. It is intertwined with a faith that works – a faith that is visible. My comprehension of the implications of this truth continues to grow from glory to glory. And yet I feel like I am standing on the shore of the ocean, marveling at the quantity of water and then realizing anew that I am only seeing the surface!

These two Kingdoms stand in sharp contrast to each other. From creation, God divided the light from the darkness. And Jesus clearly reiterated this truth before Pilate when He declared, “My kingdom is not of this world!” Indeed, the kingdoms are as opposite as day and night. Each kingdom has a culture and a civilization. James 4:4 reminds us “that whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God”. The contrast here is so sharp, so diverse, it would appear there would be no question as to which kingdom anyone belonged to. While the contrast is clear in Scripture, in reality there is a confusing mixture of the cultures. Many have a Godly profession but lack transformation evidence. This may indicate that there has been a separation from but not a separation unto.

The “two Kingdom concept” then, provides the foundation for principles of salvation, separation, nonconformity, relationship of Church and State, nonparticipation in Government and the Military, to state just a few. 

Jesus made it clear that we cannot serve two Masters. We cannot be part of both Kingdoms simultaneously. But neither can we simply choose to be part of neither. God hates the attempting of integration of the two kingdoms. The first of the Ten Commandments addresses this in worship: thou shalt worship only one God. Marriage is to be non-integrational as well; “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers . . .” One cannot help but wonder why there is such a large “gray area” in “churchianity” where it is not immediately obvious which kingdom one is a part of.

Part of this confusion is due to the inconsistency of evidencing a mixture of traditionalism, worldliness and spirituality. For example:

  • Young men wearing a plain, long sleeved button down shirt under an expensive Nike jacket.
  •  Ladies wearing a modest cape dress while sporting a Hollywood hairstyle on the part of the head that is
  • not covered.
  •  A preacher wearing a plain suit is also wearing Western style boots.
  •  It is easy to sense the warmth in the discussion on politics as the need for justice is stressed by brethren
  • who profess nonresistance and love to all men.
  •  A $300,000 house is outfitted in latest décor and is deemed a good investment but the couple finds the
  • expected offerings to operate the school as unnecessarily high.

Each one of us has blind spots – areas we make allowances for ourselves that seem inconsistent to others. One of the great blessings of the Brotherhood is for brothers to submit one to another in practical areas. Rather than pulling us all down to a common denominator, it lifts all to higher ground.

Significant Expressions of Separation and Nonconformity

Many of us probably were born and raised in an Anabaptist home and church. It became a way of life without our needing to have wrestled with many of life’s tough choices at an early age. We learned to look at life through a given set of lenses. And for most it was probably also a Biblical set although there are also, no doubt, factors of our culture and traditions of our family background and church, too. 

In decades past, a large percentage of plain people were involved in some facet of agriculture, but today that has changed significantly. For various reasons outside of this writing, many have entered the day labor force in a variety of general and specialized fields of employment. While not wrong in and of itself, this shift has impacted us in unique ways. Involvement in agriculture does not guarantee nonconformity. Nor does the shift from it equal assimilation. But the relationship is undeniable. However, I believe it is also true that there are many Godhonoring businesses among us today that operate on the basis of Matthew 6:33 “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”. Honesty, integrity, and a genuine concern for the spiritual wellbeing of the employee and the consumer set these apart as nonconformed businesses. 

The Bible does not specify which fields of employment are for the child of God. It does teach us the value of purposeful employment. “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Ephesians 4:28 “Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished: but he that gathereth by labour shall increase.” Proverbs 13:11 Even while ministering, Paul reminded his brethren, “Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.” Acts 20:34

One only needs to intermingle briefly with the general populace to be reminded of the vulgarity and God-dishonoring speech that characterize so many people of the world today. Nonconformity impacts our speech – both in what is not said and in what is said.

Practical nonconformity impacts our leisure time, hobbies, recreation, use of insurance, our philosophy of education, romantic relationships, choice of vehicles, and use of our possessions. . . . just to name a few. Each of these could warrant a paragraph or a subtopic section. Suffice it to say that a commitment to separation and nonconformity significantly alters the practical ways our lives are lived – and for good reason. Kingdom life is so much more than a Sunday experience, or a certain style of dress experience. It is rather a way of life that impacts every area of our life. 

It is interesting to note the areas where and why the Christian and the unbeliever follow similar customs and methodologies, and why they differ. In many areas of life, whether in brands of home furnishings, kinds of vehicles, methods and implements used in agriculture, places we shop, what we eat, etc., etc., there is little difference as long as necessity, practicality and service are the guiding principles. But let pride, lust, egotism or vanity enter and the picture changes dramatically. This is true of many aspects of our appearance as well.

Nonconformity in Appearance

Perhaps the area where nonconformity or its absence is first noticed in a church or culture or in meeting a person for the first time is in the area of our appearance. It is not uncommon for this subject to consume a disproportionately large portion of our Anabaptist brethren’s church Brotherhood Agreements. It is perhaps the area most often targeted by our archenemy. Worldly fashions and fads coupled with our own pride and carnality make a volatile combination.

The Scriptures are not silent on this subject. Duane Eby identifies 5 Scriptural principles affecting personal appearance in the booklet, “Adorning the Temple”. 

  • Clothing is to cover ones nakedness Clothes should be adequate to cover most of the body regardless of gender.

And thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins even unto the thighs they shall reach: And they shall be upon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they come in unto the tabernacle of the congregation, or when they come near unto the altar to minister in the holy place; that they bear not iniquity, and die: it shall be a statute for ever unto him and his seed after him.

Exodus 28:42 – 43

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel…

1Timothy 2:9
  • God desires that we use our bodies for His glory, not our own glory.

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

1Corinthians 6:19 – 20
  • God calls us to be pilgrims and strangers on the earth.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” While this verse can be applied to a wide range of life it seems particularly applicable to the area of dress. Ponder the example of our Lord.

Romans 12:2

For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.

2Corinthians 8:9
  • Christians are not to follow the fads and fashions of this world in personal appearance. Clothes are not to be made or worn according to the fashion of this world.

I Peter 1:14 – 15 As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance, But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation. Our clothes should not be the cause of worry.

I Peter 1:14 – 15

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

Matthew 6:30 – 31
  • A Christian’s clothing should support and promote morality.

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

1Ti 2:9 – 10

As we are “doers of the Word”, each of these principles finds expression in our appearance. 

  • Our nakedness is to be covered and concealed. Transparent fabrics and fabrics that cling to the body
  • violate this principle as well.
  • Adornment, makeup or jewelry that draws attention to me violates the “glory to God” principle.
  • Hairstyles fall in a similar category.
  • Simplicity and serviceability are two marks of pilgrim and stranger clothing.
  • The fashion world is part of enemy territory. It is our old man that is intrigued with its glitz.
  • Sensuality and immodesty are major issues in the area of dress. Gender distinction in appearance is still a
  • Biblical value. 

What is the value of uniformity within a community of Believers? At a fundamental level, we all espouse a basic uniformity. For example –

  • Clothes are necessary to cover our nakedness.
  • The Bible prescribes principles of Separation and Nonconformity.
  • There should be gender specific dress.

It is simply the methodology and extent of uniformity that gives us problems. It is as the principles of Scripture find expression that we struggle to find a place of unity and rest. 

Many organizations and schools utilize uniforms and have found them to have significant value. Identity, diminishing the social gulf between the haves and have-nots, and increased camaraderie are only a few of the many positive consequences of uniforms. These values also enhance “Brotherhood” and “community”. The “ribband of blue” principle from Numbers 15 was one of God’s injunctions to the children of Israel that highlights the value of uniformity among other purposes. 

Ideally, this uniformity will spring from a motivation far deeper than my commitment to our Brotherhood Agreements although that is important as well. There are a number of “common” factors within the Brotherhood that are foundational to this consideration.

  • A common Lord– For all who have been redeemed by our Lord, God is our Father and Jesus our elder Brother. This at once connects us in ways that the unconverted know nothing of. 
  • A common Love– This fruit of the Spirit is a powerful, bonding cause within the community of Believers. Who can list all the positive consequences of an active practice of the first and second great commandments – to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbor as our self?
  • A common Labor– Builders enjoy shoptalk with other builders. It is easier to “walk a mile in the moccasins of another” when we have been there previously or are there now. Many of us can identify with the joy of common labor in the midst of or immediately following a crises or disaster such as a fire or devastating storm. A unity grows out of the shared goal.

The following four verses are but a sampling of many that instruct us to like-mindedness. 

  • Romans 15:5 Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: 
  • Romans 12:16a Be of the same mind one toward another. 
  • Philippians 1:27 Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;
  • Philippians 2:2 Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.

We believe that a Spirit-directed Brotherhood that seriously endeavors to live out the principles of God’s Word in a literal, practical and united expression and to help one another through humble accountability will far outlive one where each member endeavors to do so individually as he understands the same principles. Where time and mindless repetition have choked the practice into dead tradition, let us resurrect the principle and revive the practice rather than “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. 

How different can one be from the accepted or expected norm until it hinders or distracts from what the church is trying to accomplish? This question is a helpful guiding principle in practicing uniformity. For example, If the norm on Sunday morning is long sleeved shirts and suit coats and I take the pulpit in bib overalls . . . it does not matter that I am modest and the garment is serviceable. It distracts from the message I am trying to convey. If any part of our appearance identifies us with a major league sports team, or Hollywood, or simply says “look at me”, it hinders what the church is about!

The Effects of Another Gospel

Paul labored hard to establish the church at Galatia. He was distressed when a few short years later he learned of wide spread apostasy. Paul wrote, ” I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel, which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. Galatians 1:6 – 7 Paul marveled that this apostasy had set in. What is our response to steps toward assimilation? Some yawn. Others shrug it off. Some even consider it progress. Paul did not. He was shocked. 

They had been converted due to the good news of the Gospel. Now he rebukes them for turning to another Gospel. Why did he call this foreign influence a Gospel? The Gospel is to be good news. And this other Gospel includes teachings that seem to be good news. 

  • Divorce is no longer always a sin. Sometimes there simply is no other good way to solve this particular problem.
  • We can change the corruption in politics and government by electing enough conservative Christians into office
  • Accountability to a brotherhood can be stifling to one’s spiritual growth. You only need to be accountable to God.
  • Do you want to go to heaven? Say this prayer after me and you will never need to worry again about missing heaven.
  • The way you apply the Bible is taking things a bit far. Don’t you realize that many of the teachings in the Epistles are time- and culture-specific?
  • You can be free from traditions and cultural factors of bygone times. We are justified by faith. 

This other Gospel, rather than bringing us liberty, gradually brings us into the bondage of worldliness. It is akin to a U-turn that is so gradual that the casual traveler does not notice he is turning around. Only as we pay attention to the “compass” of God’s Word will we notice where we are heading and the repentance it will take to right the course.

The Dilemma of Incremental Justification

There was once a woodchopper who had a fine mule and wagon with which he hauled his wood. One day as he was loading the wagon he began thinking of the time he could save if he took more wood with each trip. His wagon was large but he had only been partially filling it heretofore. As he approached the point where he normally stopped he reasoned that if the mule could pull the load with this much wood, surely he could pull it with one more. And if that was alright, one more piece would not be a big deal either. Thus his reasoning continued until the wagon would hold no more. But, alas! The mule could not budge the wagon even with “carrots and goads”. There was nothing to do but take some off. As he threw a piece off he began to reason that if he could not pull it with this much on, one less piece would not make a big enough difference that he could now satisfactorily pull it. He toiled on with this rationale. Eventually the wagon was empty. 

The logic of this process has been repeated dozens of times in the Kingdom. Let’s use one article of clothes for an example. When is a shirt nonconformed? 

  • Is a long sleeved shirt nonconformed? A short sleeved? What if it has no sleeves?
  • Is a full button down shirt nonconformed? What about one with three buttons? What if it has no buttons?
  • Is a white shirt nonconformed? A bright red one? A black one? Does color matter?
  • Is one solid color nonconformed? What if it has two colors? Stripes? Small plaid pattern? Big plaid pattern?
  • Is a shirt with no insignia nonconformed? What about a small insignia? A big one? What if the whole shirt is green and yellow with a tractor so real you can almost hear it run?
  • Is a shirt made by a general manufacturer always nonconformed? One considered “name brand”? What if that brand name is not visible? What if it is in small print? How about the brand splashed across the entire garment?
  • Is it nonconformed if I was able to get a $70 shirt at Good Will for $5?
  • What does the shirt’s contact with the body have to do with nonconformity? Is a tight shirt nonconformed? A loose one? One that is three sizes too big?
  • Is a nonconformed shirt appropriate for one occasion but not for another? Who decides?
  • Is a shirt even necessary?! What about when I am swimming by myself? With a small group? A big group? A mixed group? 

Perhaps these are not the right questions to be asking. But they are being asked. And often they are answered with less than Biblical perspectives. What complicates this process is that different groups, whether families, local congregations or denominational structures, ask these questions and come out at different places. And with scriptural justification!

Change usually takes place gradually. In a positive way, the Father leads us from glory to glory, faithfully working in our lives by His good Spirit. It is a “line upon line” process, here a little and there a little. Our enemy uses similar processes against us. He knows most of us will not be enticed with a leap into the world. But if he can get us to progressively lose a little here and justify a negative change there, he is satisfied. 

Another effective methodology our enemy utilizes is what I call “conditioning factors”. Jeff Pollard discusses this in his book Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America. In his short book, he effectively points out how beaches were the conditioning factor for public undress. He maintains that in centuries past, there was basically only segregated swimming, especially on any public beach. Then mixed swimming became popular but with modest swimwear. With time, fashion designers made swimwear increasingly scanty and provocative. Finally, there was little left to the imagination. At the same time, modesty was taking a hard lick on the street and in the workplace. It is easy to follow the logic. If it is alright to dress this way on the sand, or on the street leading to the sand, or in the restaurant on the street leading to the sand, why not anywhere? 

Weddings are one conditioning factor in our churches today. It is a special day for the bride and groom. Materials that are shiny, slinky, and form-revealing are sometimes utilized. Special garments are sometimes rented and used. Well wishing and blessing leads to hugging. And cross gender. But it is only for one special day! Really? Clothes for that one special day are not then discarded. They are slowly incorporated. And there is increasing looseness between the two genders. It is erroneous to blame weddings for the proliferation of these problems. It is sticking our heads in the sand to conclude they make no difference. 

Discerning what is healthy recreation and what falls in the category of inappropriate involvement in professional sports can easily follow a similar path. Watching big league sports or participation in infrequent tournaments can easily be the conditioning factor that pushes our youth groups in the direction of professional-type sports on small scale. 

Asking “What’s wrong with…” greatly accelerates this process that leads to assimilation. This is not the question we should be leading our people to ask! The challenge is to rather ask, “What is right with…?” “How can I more effectively be faithful?” “How can I best serve and represent Jesus and His bride in this life?” From 1Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23, we can summarize three meaningful questions; 1. Is it expedient? 2. Does it enslave? 3. Does it edify? 

Youth and young adulthood is an especially vulnerable time. The importance of nonconformity in most areas of life is a challenge during this time and especially the area of nonconformity in appearance. Part of the reason is the strong God-given desire for community; to belong to a group with similar identity and culture. This is a wonderful bonding factor when directed by the Spirit of God. But it can be damaging, even damning, when it is purely peer focus that results in what we call peer pressure. 

What shall the Redeemed wear? Simon Schrock asks and effectively answers the question in his book by the same title. The clothes we put on is a daily reminder of our need of the blood of Jesus to cover us and of the robe of righteousness He offers us to cover our spiritual wretchedness and shame.

Concluding Ponderations

There are several factors that will contribute to the practice of ongoing nonconformity.

  1. Nothing can take the place of an unapologetic embracing of and commitment to the Holy Word of God. These truths are eternally settled in heaven. We neglect them to our own hurt. Multitudes give verbal assent to the inerrant authority of the Word of God. But far fewer have a solid commitment to literally apply that which is written. Many are in the category of “every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand”. To be a hearer of the Word but not a doer is self-deception. I believe our Lord still often wonders, “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” This is not rocket science theology but just simple, loving obedience. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” 1John 5:3 In contrast to that, His directives are given to us “that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the LORD God of thy fathers hath promised thee.” Indeed, “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” Revelation 22:14
  2. It is a waste of valuable time and energy for every generation to reinvent the wheel. But I believe there is great value in every generation reinventing the nonconformity “wheel”. It is important that every new generation asks the hard questions as they read the Scriptures. What doctrines of the Bible are being challenged today? How do these truths apply to me in today’s culture? How will they find appropriate expression and application? Each generation must wrestle with the issues to a place of personal understanding, peace, and appropriate expression. This may happen at a decisive point in one’s life where a climax of battles is settled once and for all and our face is set forward with no turning back. But more often these convictions grow as we are exposed to truth – day by day personally, and Sunday by Sunday in preaching and teaching. Colloquies, Men’s Meetings, Bible Study groups may provide good platforms to tangle with applications and encourage one another forward. In the Christian home setting, it is important that there be sufficient dialogue on this subject and other important issues to not only reveal to the parents what is going on in the minds of the youth but to help them think through the consequential implications of their thought processes.
  3. The Revelation of Jesus Christ includes seven letters to seven different churches. Each church was blessed for what they were doing right. Where each church had needs, the Spirit faithfully directed them to repentance. The directives given to one church were different from the directives given to the other churches. To each was given the injunction, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” Rev. 3:13 One application we may conclude from this is that there may well be some Spirit-directed variation to applications of a given Scriptural principle.
  4. While the church has a profound responsibility in promoting and teaching Biblical Nonconformity, nothing can replace the impact of this being taught and modeled in the home. The unfeigned faith of Timothy dwelt first in his grandmother and mother. We cannot easily overemphasize the importance of this doctrine being a conviction of father and mother. It should be consistently loved in the hearts and faithfully lived out in the lives of parents. It is appropriate to expect the same from the oncoming generation as well.
  5. Another asset in retaining applications of nonconformity is to develop an appreciation for the work of those who have lived before us. The principles of the Word of God are unchanging. They are forever settled in Heaven. Applications vary and change as new inventions and situations arise. A young man does not have to age far beyond the teen years until he is amazed at how his father has grown in wisdom during this time. Sometimes we are a part of a church for a time before we see the wisdom of some injunction a previous generation struggled over and left behind for our benefit. This is not to say that everything that is handed down to us is “Gospel” or even beneficial. There may also be baggage left behind simply because of the difficulty of addressing it.

May God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot and should not change;
the courage to change the things we can and should;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

This article is the second in a collection of three articles on Separation and Nonconformity that was shared as a presentation at the 2013 Colloquy hosted by Faith Builders.