We are familiar with the idea of religious compromise, but not its root cause, religious syncretism. The compromise that most plagues the church is not that done unknowingly or in ignorance, but consciously, as a moral preference. A moral compromiser intentionally backs away from a godly stand because he prefers another; he chooses another stand because his real faith lies elsewhere.
Something is synchronous, or, to use a common slang expression, “in sync,” when multiple elements work together. Syncretism in religion blends different religious ideas and practices so that they work together. A fixed orthodoxy is anathema to syncretism, which operates in terms of a theological pragmatism.
Religious syncretism denies the absoluteness of the Faith. At best, syncretism blends various foreign elements into Christian terminology. At its worst, syncretism adds a little Christian terminology to that which is antithetical to the Faith and proclaims it a more relevant one. A syncretist believes in God when it suits him, and will obey His Word when it is useful. In reality he serves himself and obeys his own self-will.
A Reflection, Not a Prophet
A syncretist is never a prophet; he is a reflection of his times. He seeks the direction of the majority and accommodates his religion to it. The syncretist goes with the flow; his religion will justify prevalent opinion and practice. He is not only personally a cultural follower, he drags his faith with him and seeks to make it acceptable to the culture. Obedience will always be a secondary priority. His foremost goal is to find popular ideas and needs and incline his message to them. His religion must always be a blended, popular one, and one in which it is easy to believe.
The syncretist seeks the energy and motivation of his culture and integrates his message into that power source. The fear of God which “tendeth to life” (Pr. 19:23) is missing. The syncretist is more afraid of unpopularity than he is of God. Though the devils in hell believe in God and tremble (Jas. 2:19), the wicked man has “no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps. 36:1). The syncretist looks for an immanent source of power and authority to give his message credence, forgetting that it is fear of the Lord that is the beginning of knowledge (Pr. 1:7).
The religious syncretist is an existentialist. For him, meaning is in time and history and is grounded in human experience. Meaning is discovered
by man rather than revealed to him by God. Meaning is immanent, not transcendent.
Syncretism was part of Israel’s apostasy from early on. The Israelites blended Canaanite religious practices with the worship of God. Baal worship in particular was an attempt to profess the popular religion while maintaining a formal adherence to God.
The Baalim were lords, forces, powers, or sources of sovereignty. The Hebrews tried to blend the lords of Baal worship with the worship of the One who said, “I am the LORD thy God.” When Jeroboam divided the kingdom after Solomon’s death, he intentionally tried to synthesize a blended religion (1 Kin. 12:25-33). This was the religious tradition of the people to whom many of the prophets ministered. We should remember Elijah’s challenge to the people of Israel, “How long will ye halt between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kin. 18:21).
We should also remember the reaction of the people. Elijah’s alter call fell on deaf ears. Not one “Amen” or a single response was forthcoming. The people “answered him not a word.” They did not appreciate the challenge or the challenger because they were far too compromised. Elijah was a spokesman for the orthodoxy of the past; Baalism was the acknowledged representation of authority and power in the reigning cultural climate. Elijah had to call fire from heaven “that this people may know that thou art the Lord God” (v. 37).
That miracle was for the moment enough for an existential people. The display of power was real enough to get the attention and respect of even a pragmatic people. Even the syncretists knew God was real at that moment. When God revealed Himself, their compromising faith melted in the fire from heaven. In the face of failure and powerlessness, there are no principled syncretists, no faithful compromisers. This must be an encouragement to us; when God acts, opposition will wither.
Syncretism in Jesus’ Day
There was syncretism in our Lord’s day as well. The Sadducees, religiously liberal, pragmatically courted Roman favor, though with the rise of Herod their influence in Rome was set back. When some tried to take Jesus by force to make Him king (Jn. 6:15), they were gravitating to Him as a miracle-worker, a power source that could be used for nationalistic and economic purposes. Their concern was, “What can Jesus do for us?” They wanted Jesus the miracle-worker. He would be a great asset, like a genie in a bottle. They were not interested in His message. They were going to determine His relevance and utility for their ends. From such “converts” Christ departed.
The Judaizers were also syncretists. Galatians 6:12-13 makes clear that their attempts to bring the early church under the umbrella of Jewish religion was to avoid persecution. Jewish religion was legal and Christianity was not. The syncretistic answer was to make Christianity a subset of Jewish religion without regard to the consequences to the church. No wonder Paul called this a perversion of the true gospel, another gospel altogether if there were such a thing (Gal. 1:6-7)
Political office represents a power center. The lure of wealth is that it represents empowerment. Likewise, the syncretist looks for the dynamic forces of his time and seeks to harmonize with them. The syncretist is a leader in search of a following. Faithfulness will never mark him; he sees fidelity to an unpopular or outdated message as foolhardy. The syncretist loves consensus and seeks harmony over orthodoxy. He measures his success in numbers.
Adapting the Faith to Culture
Syncretism is not an application of the faith to the culture, but an adaptation of the faith to the culture. We apply our faith by faithfulness, by a conscious starting point of submission to God in obedience. Repeatedly, God prefaced His words with, “I am the LORD thy God....” We are called to “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt. 6:33). It is only then we have the basis for addressing the culture. Syncretism seeks first the power and strength of the culture, and cultivates it in the name of Christianity.
Very intelligent and capable people often lean towards syncretism, because they demand a group on which to test their skills. Being a leader of large numbers is not easy, it involves playing off competing groups and ideas without offense. Such skilled syncretists are often accomplished planners and strategists. They are often very charismatic personalities. Morally and theologically, however, they are dangerous people.
Ecumenicism is an obvious modern manifestation of syncretism in the church. So too is the modern church growth movement. The mere presumption that size represents success is symptomatic: it is feeling a need for an affiliation with power as the culture understands it. The mega-church is aptly named. It draws people by its sheer size and its services are mega-events. More than a few such churches have readily admitted that they limit their message to a strictly positive one. After all, what power is there in telling a crowd what it does not wish to hear? Compromise is a consequence of syncretistic religion.
There is a syncretism of faith, then, but there is also a syncretism of priorities. We think about and are concerned with what excites us, what we see as important in our lives. I have been repeatedly distressed, over the years, to see Christians who are indifferent to talk of the power of the Triune God have an adrenaline rush when the subject of demonic experiences or the occult arises.
A syncretism of priorities means a man must defer to prevailing notions, no matter how silly or harmful they are. If Darwinian naturalism controls our culture, then the syncretist defers to biological evolution and psychology, anthropology, and sociology in terms of that belief. A syncretistic faith defends the status quo; it never challenges it.
The religious syncretists of today will be sensitive to all ideas that hold sway: positive thinking, empowerment, self-esteem, multi-culturalism, environmentalism, human rights, etc. When one term is replaced by another, the syncretist is the first to change his vocabulary and the literature in the church foyer. He is sensitive to such trends because, in part, he senses the need to get out in front of the movements he seeks to lead. A syncretist will never be old-fashioned, traditionalist, or conservative. He wants to be a player, and that means he must change with the game.
Getting Aboard the Power Train
There is yet one more characteristic of the syncretist strategy. We have said the syncretist seeks prevailing power and authority and gravitates toward them. He hitches his religious message to their power train. One such power center has always been the state. A locus of power with the means of enforcement, it has always remained a temptation to blend the state’s power into one’s religion, to appease it, court it, justify it, or exploit it.
In Israel the worship of Baal was state-sponsored and served the state’s purposes. Elijah thus had to break the power of the prophets of Baal before he could confront Ahab and his dynasty. The Sadducees courted Roman favor for the obvious pragmatic advantage. The Galileans demanded Jesus be their king because His miracle-working represented a nationalistic, statist power-source. The Judaizers sought the protection of Rome by demanding that the church become a sect of the Jewish religion. Syncretism will be deferential to the state because it courts the power and influence it represents.
Statism is a threat to individual liberty, but that is not the core moral issue. Statism is a moral evil because it removes individual liberty. Our Lord commanded us to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. To exercise our citizenship in terms of the righteousness of God necessitates the liberty to do so. The prophetic ministry of the church to the state must be one of warning against its arrogant presumption.
The great power center of the modern world is the state, and too much of the church cheers it on in the name of patriotism. Such Christians are predisposed to be indifferent to humanistic law and education. They cry “Lord, Lord,” but they isolate Him to the world of pietistic spirituality and tacitly acknowledge the state as lord over all else. As our modern lord, the state takes our wealth by its taxation and fiat money, our children by education, our estates by taxation, and our men and women to fight wars.
In contrast to syncretism’s changing amalgam of beliefs, we are called to faithfulness to our Lord, which we measure by our obedience to His unchanging Word. At best, syncretism is an immature and compromised faith; at its worst, it is a paganism masquerading as Christianity.