"Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and acceptable and perfect."
Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)
by David K. Shumate
Every preacher remembers their first sermon. Mine was on July 20, 1980 for the evening service at the Crab Orchard Church of the Brethren in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The sermon, in comparison with those that have followed, was uncharacteristically brief. Twelve minutes passed and we were singing the invitational hymn. The older women of the church, always good for an encouraging word, stated their thanksgiving that I was to the point and did not repeat myself.
These words of the Apostle Paul are among the golden texts of the Church of the Brethren. Brethren believe that salvation involves a change in the behavior of the saved. Paul's admonition to the Romans makes clear that this behavioral change involves non-conformity with the society around us. We are called to be set-apart, different and peculiar when viewed from a societal perspective. This does not involve withdrawal from society nor from the lives of those who encompass our social universe. As the experience of Jesus (Matthew 4) demonstrates, withdrawal from others never removes us from the source of temptation and evil. Our Christian experience is to be in the world and not of the world.
Our non-conformity in the midst of the commonplace experiences of humanity is precisely what makes us useful servants of God. The foundation of this is God's wondrous transformation of our lives by the renewing of our minds. The human mind is a precious gift from a loving Creator. Our minds give us the capability to evaluate and assess the reasonableness of our emotions and feelings. We are not prisoners of instinct as are other animals. Reason is the fountainhead of all morality and behavior. Feelings happen. They come and go like the weather. There is no condemnation for our feelings. We are accountable for our behavior and actions. The mind is the crucial mediator in a process that makes us responsible for what we do and are!
Transformation in Christ is marked by a radical change in the focus and orientation of our minds and wills. This change is instantaneous as to basic life direction and a continuing, lifelong process as to maturity and understanding. Some would call the lifelong process "sanctification", others would say that it is "growing in grace". Among Brethren this process would be styled as "following in the footsteps of Jesus", "the walk of discipleship" or "receiving the mind of Christ".
Whatever this experience is called, it is apparent that the Christian is changed and is changing for the best as we each are drawn closer to our Lord. Feelings happen, but the Christian man or woman assesses and acts upon these in a markedly different manner than those who have not experienced the grace of God through Christ. Our Lord said that those who follow and know him are the salt of the earth. If our lifestyles make these words true our presence in the world changes the flavor of all society for the better. Truly this begins when we experience his mind- changing and will-altering presence in our lives. The presence is strengthened and made complete by our association together as God's people in worship, study, service and fellowship. It implies that the Body of Christ shall offer to the world a better way, not mere theory but lifestyle and opportunity. That bet ter way means offering a whole gospel, one that deals meaningfully with persons' emotions, provides intellectual challenge and broadens the awareness and horizons of its membership. The challenge for us and our congregations in the contemporary world will be to point to the Better Way, even as we continue his work.