syn-cre-tism (siNGkre-tizem) noun: the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.
Not one time in the entire Old Testament did the Israelites completely turn their backs on God and entirely deny the God of Abraham. Instead, they tried to conflate the religion and culture and schools of thoughts of their neighbors into their own religion of Yahweh. It was more like spouses cheating on each other instead of spouses getting a divorce. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, “Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel”(Jeremiah 3:20). Some people want their cake and eat it too.
While the word syncretism is not in the Bible, it is alluded to as a violation of the very first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me”(Deuteronomy 5:7). Another way of phrasing this is, “You shall have no other gods BESIDES me.” In other words, faith in God cannot be syncretized. Why? Because “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God”(Deuteronomy 4:24).
Among other things, it was syncretism that flourished during the Intertestamental Period resulting in the Israelites rejection of Jesus as the Christ. I know some people reading this will say I am stretching things. But stop and think about it for a moment. During the Intertestamental Period (the 400 years between the Old Testament and the New Testament) Judaism became overtly political and militaristic. The books of First and Second Maccabees details both the political and military struggle during this time. During this period, Judaism became amalgamated by the popular school of thought that the Messiah would be a political/military savior and not just a spiritual savior. This plays itself out in the gospels and the ultimate execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans but with the blessings and encouragement of the Jewish religious establishment.
In the Pauline Epistles, one of the major problems the Apostle Paul dealt with were Judaizers infiltrating the church, teaching that added to salvation by grace must be obedience to the Mosaic Law, namely the practice of circumcision. These false teachers were not encouraging believers to abandon their faith, just add more elements to it. In others words, the early church was being encouraged to amalgamate Jewish practices to the gospel of grace. Paul wrote an entire letter to the churches in Galatia addressing this type of syncretism. Among other things, he writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all…You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles…what has happened to all your joy?…It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again…May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7; 3:1; 4:9, 15; 5:1; 6:14).
Syncretism has always been a very real temptation for the people of God. The main danger os syncretism is that it is incredibly deceitful. Most people don’t realize it is happening until it is too late. No one, from the Old Testament, to the New Testament, to the present day, has ever admitted what they were doing was syncretism.
Here is what I mean by syncretism: Syncretism is when, instead of outright denying Christian faith, a person, church, or institution tries to add to it things that are not part of that faith. Syncretism is when a person takes parts of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought, and adds them to their faith in Jesus. Again, I repeat, syncretism is a violation of the first commandment. Thus, syncretism is a sin!
I am wondering if, once again, we (the evangelical church in the United States) have fallen into the trap of syncretism. I wonder if we have been guilty of syncretism for a long time, maybe as far back as the founding of our country. We boast of being a Christian nation, but have we added things to our Christian faith? Has syncretism crept into our churches through…
…God and country worship service?
…the American flag in worship spaces?
…pledging allegiance, not only to Jesus, but to our country?
…Aligning ourselves to closely to any political party?
I think at this time in our country’s history, and in defense of our faith, these are questions with which all of us must wrestle.
If we, the Evangelical Church in the United States, are guilty of syncretism it is because we have mixed two religions. We have mixed our Christianity with Nationalism while still trying to hold on to our Christianity.
And don’t fool yourself, America is a religion!
In his book, Postcards from Babylon, pastor Brian Zahnd writes the following: “America is a religion–a religion complete with creation myths, holy days, holy ground, founding fathers, canonized saints, canonical texts, revered hymns, hallowed temples, sanctified statues, liturgical gestures, and sacred liturgies. To dispute the sacrosanct nature of any of these things is to court controversy and contempt. (Ask Colin Kaepernick.) The attempt to reconcile Christianity and Americanism into a single religion is the kind of religious syncretism that most conservative Christians claimed to be so alarmed about” (p.45).
Here are three more important quotes from Pastor Zahnd’s prophetic book, which I highly recommend. Every quote is from the chapter titled, “Tangled Up in Red, White, and Blue.” This one chapter is worth the price of the entire book!
- “When the church lacks the vision and courage to actually be the church, it abandons its high calling of proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus and panders to power, soliciting its service as the high priest of religious patriotism. When the church colludes with the principalities and powers, it can no longer prophetically challenge them. A church in bed with empire cannot credibly call the empire to repent” (p. 34).
- “If the church is to be an ambassador of the good news and an agent of healing in the world, the church is going to have to become serious about being something other than the high priest of religious nationalism” (p. 39).
- “One of the most most vital things an American Christian can do right now is resist the hijacking of Christian faith by American nationalism. We need to make it abundantly clear that ‘America First’ is incompatible with a global church whose mission it is to announce and embody the kingdom of Christ” (p. 47).
Our greatest need as a church is to lament and repent. We need to do this quickly, and we need to do it in that order. Lament and repent go together. You can’t have one without the other. But true repentance first involves deep lament. Deep regret. Deep grief. And deep sorrow for what we have done. Only after an extended period of lament can we truly be repentant. Deep lament, followed by true repentance, leads to real change.
Father, forgive us of our sin of syncretism.
(Sometimes things are better illustrated than defined. So, within the above text, and below, are a few popular social media memes that illustrates the syncretism of our Christian faith with nationalism.)