What did Paul mean when he wrote that we should not be conformed to the world? Did he mean that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be compromised by the culture? Yes, but not in the ways we usually teach when we deal with Romans 12:1-8. Let’s start by reading the first two verses, which are two of the most well-known verses in the Bible.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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” (ESV).

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably heard a message about these two verses. And dollars to donuts—whatever that means—you’ve been told that you shouldn’t let the world/culture/worldview conform you or press you into its image. Don’t yield to peer pressure. Don’t give in and participate in activities like drinking, drug use and illicit sex—those sorts of sins. Or, on a different note, you may have been admonished  not to  be conformed to unbelievers’’ worldview concerning the nature of God, for example, or perhaps evolution. I’ve probably preached a similar message myself in the past. But I won’t preach it that way anymore, because I’ve read the passage in context.

I know, I know—silly me.

Before we look closer at Romans twelve, however, we should look at the end of chapter eleven, to give us a better idea of where Paul’s is coming from. Here he tells us how God’s ways are inscrutable and his judgments unsearchable. He quotes Job and Isaiah to let us know that His thoughts are above our thoughts. We don’t think the way He does. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” he asks with Isaiah.

So, when verse one of chapter twelve begins with the word, “therefore,” Paul is saying that the exhortation that follows is in light of how differently our amazing God thinks compared to how we think. In verse one, we are admonished to present our bodies as sacrifices—living ones, in this case. This is how we worship God. How do present our bodies as living sacrifices? Verse two tells us. “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” (ESV).

So, we’re to present our bodies as living sacrifices, worshiping God, by not being conformed to the world. We do this by being transformed by the renewing of our minds, to engage in a process of testing so we can discern what God’s will is, that which is good, acceptable and perfect.

Okay. Living sacrifices. Non-conformity to the world, which requires a transformation by the renewing of our minds by the Lord, because we don’t think like God thinks. He’s the One who must do this transforming, renewing work. God thinks one way. We think another. We need Him to change our thinking.

But how is our thinking not like His? What kind of thinking does God want to change?

The answer is in the verses that follow. We know this clearly because verse three begins with the word “for.”

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function,  so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:3–8 ESV).

We must pay attention here. I’m not a theologian, and I looked up this passage in six different commentaries. None of them dealt with the flow of Paul’s thinking here, in context. We’ve disassociated verses one and two from what follows that it takes some work to re-associate them.

Here we go. The thinking that the Lord needs to change by the renewal of our minds is that we, as naturally sinful people is that we all too easily think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. Before we go any further, let’s be clear about one thing. This exhortation from Paul  not to be conformed to the world and having our minds transformed has nothing whatsoever to do with not sinning in the more obvious ways that I mentioned earlier. It has to do with not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.

Okay. It’s about humility. We all know we should do that. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord. Pride comes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Check. Let’s move on.

Not so fast. Yes, it’s about humility, but Paul is specific about where that humility is to be lived out. It’s in the context of the gifts and ministries in the church. Nobody who has a particular gift or ministry—Paul lists a few here, and there are others in various New Testament passages—should think of himself as being better than someone else. This is not sober judgment or sound thinking, Paul tells us. It is not thinking the way the Lord does. Thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought because we have a certain gift or ministry is how the natural man and world thinks. Some people are better than others because they have certain abilities. In this case, it’s not physical giftedness that Paul is referring to, but spiritual.

Why shouldn’t someone to whom the Lord has given a gift or ministry think he or she is better than someone else? Paul tells us in verses six through eight. Everybody has gifts—he lists a few—and we are all one body. Nobody who has a particular gift should think of himself more highly than the others.

Again, at this point, we’re tempted to say. I’ve got it. We should be humble. Everybody has a gift. Yeah, I get that. I hear about that a lot. Check. Let’s move on.

Hold on. Let’s talk about this. Here’s a real world example that might help us understand this a little better. Let’s say you’re at a party, and there are people of all kinds of careers there. It’s a great party, and you’re having fun talking to different people. One woman is a secretary. One man is a contractor and builds houses. One woman teaches at a nearby university. One guy runs a very successful auto repair shop. You’re a software engineer. And so on. An interesting mix of interesting people, each with significant topics, that they like to talk about from their interests, abilities and point of view

However, the auto repair guy gathers everybody together and says he has something to say. He gets up on a chair and starts telling about all the things that go on at his shop. “This is stuff you need to know,” he says. “You all have cars, don’t you?” There is no doubt that he is a knowledgeable individual. However, the contractor who builds houses could ask the same question the shop owner did. We all live in houses, don’t we? And the contractor might know something about cars, as well. The teacher and the software engineer would agree. We’ve all been to school, haven’t we? And most of us have computers of some kind, don’t we? They might have some auto advice, as well, or something relevant to contribute. So, these people have something to say, something to share, but this auto repair guy is the only one talking. And, heaven forbid, what would happen if there were two auto repair guys at this party? Might not the other person have some auto wisdom, too?

And, to your amazement, this fellow shows up at every party you attend.

Now, would you say this first man is thinking more highly of himself than he should? He has a gift, that’s for sure. He obviously knows what he’s talking about. But why does he think he should “hog the show” while we all just listen? Don’t we all have our respective areas of knowledge and giftedness? However, everyone else who has something of significance to share, won’t be able to because they’re not the auto repair person.

The above analogy is poor. In church, there is only one primary topic, and that is the Lord and His Church and everything that is related to that, from Genesis to Revelation. All of our talk and giftedness relate in some way to that. However, I hope you get the point. Romans twelve tells us that the world thinks one way and Jesus’ followers think another. We’re all members of each other, and no one should be the star. That’s how the fallen nature of man thinks about gifted individuals. They get all the air time. However, Paul tells us that, in the church, everyone who has a gift should just go ahead and use them. I don’t have your gift, but you don’t have mine. Does that make you better than I, and therefore you are the only one ministering? Does the fact that I have a gift that you don’t, make me better than you? No. We have different gifts that need to be used, Paul tells us. This is not the only place where he addresses the issue. First Corinthians 14:6 is a great example: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (ESV, emphasis added).

This is way of thinking that Paul tells us needs to change; rather, that the Lord has to change in us, by being transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Now, a couple of questions.

Regarding how we do church, are we thinking the way the Lord thinks or the way the world thinks?

Have we conformed ourselves to this world?

Let me know what you find as you work your way through this passage.