During my spring break in 2018, as a second-year student at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity, I attended a young seminarian retreat in Fort Worth, Texas. While participating in daily worship, spiritual formation activities, and group discussions, I recall my group leader referring to another older woman and me as her "nonconformists." At first, I laughed. We were the oldest in a room full of young seminarians in their mid-twenties to early thirties. We were late bloomers to the idea of attending seminary. However, inwardly I was disturbed, wanting to question my group leader's reason for describing us as her "nonconformists."
As I ponder that moment, I recall the colorful tattoos on the left arm of the other older woman. She was edgy in style and admired contemporary Christian music instead of traditional. I wore a curly afro with ripped-up jeans, and I had a strong interest in discovering diverse ways to share the gospel of Christ. Maybe our outer appearance and being in our forties fueled our group leader's reasoning.
I looked closely at the definition of nonconformist: “a person who does not conform to a generally accepted pattern of thoughts or action.” What are the generally accepted thoughts or actions? What are the prevailing ideas or practices? They are the oppressive pressures that, publicly and privately, demise the level of worth in individuals, especially women, and even more so in women of color, according to Eurocentric patriarchal standards.
This is when I began to worry that being labeled a "nonconformist" meant being perceived as rebellious and controversial. Or maybe it insinuated I had a problem with authority or submitting to a common agenda that shares the mind, heart, and spirit of Christ. People might think my “nonconformist” self would hinder the sharing of the gospel of Christ through prophetic preaching, rooted in biblical truth. Finally, I worried about the standard-issue that appears in the corporate world and church regarding the camaraderie between male and female leaders. The thought of being perceived in a negative light brought me discomfort. As women, we must decide if we will conform to the pressures of sexism, classism, racism, socialism, discrimination, and denominational practices.
Nonconformists in the Corporate World and Church
The oppressive pressures that form our society and nurture division are very evident in our workplaces and churches—parading as the status quo. Hidden agendas and preferential policies pressure women, especially women of color, to conform. For example, women of color in the corporate world are encouraged to wear Eurocentric hairstyles, and in the churches to remain in silos of silence. Not only do these silos of silence hinder women’s ability to lead or preach, they camouflage the impact of sexual, emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical abuse toward women. Finally, preferential policies that promote voters’ suppression detrimentally effect people of color, including women.
The status quo is a manifestation of sexism, classism, racism, socialism, discrimination, and denominational practices. When women push against the status quo, they must be ready for negative labeling and ostracization.
Letting God Guide Our Conformity or Nonconformity
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. (2 Cor. 10:4–6)
Before the fall of humanity, Genesis 2 illustrates a woman working together with her male counterpart in the garden of Eden. They worked in harmony, fulfilling the same task: tending the garden. Equality originated in the garden of Eden, so, equality between men and women is conformity. When men and women work together and share leadership responsibilities, they are conforming to God's creational intention.
Then, in the New Testament we see Jesus’s approach to the various status quo that manifested from patriarchalism, sexism, and gender inequality to impact the world and church.1 In Kingdom Ethics, David Gushee and Glen Stassen examine the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7, paying particular attention to how Jesus instructs his listeners, especially men, to be aware of their sinful patterns that demise the respect and sacred dignity toward humanity, especially among women.2 In retrospect, Jesus teaches a transformational message that challenges us to release our minds from the oppressive status quo and conform to the practices he is teaching, which are from the kingdom of God. Through the Sermon on the Mount, I see Jesus admonishing that our conformity begins when we see each other, both male and female, as equals. Jesus is a bold example of a nonconformist through his ministry.
It takes great courage for us to stand in the un-moveable power and love of Christ to survive the church and workplace’s pressures to conform to the status quo. We must be spiritually transformed by a renewed mind. God has created all of humanity, including women, to be an example of Christ. God has given us the mental capacity to be Christ, know Christ, and do the work of Christ. Including women in ministerial leadership is a blessed representation of Christ. The world uses oppressive methods in both the corporate and church worlds, but we must act with the kingdom of God in view. If women surrender to the status quo, our minds will inevitably conform to inequality and devaluing the clarion call of God on our lives. But I would like to encourage you to be strong and courageous.
Not Just a Nonconformist—But Also a Transformationalist
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:2)
In Romans 12:2, Apostle Paul reminds us of the importance of not being conformed by worldly ideas and practices. He provides ethical perspectives on how to live righteously during a time of change. In addition, scholarly commentaries highlight that Paul's ethical arguments were centered on human conditions, divine remedy, liberation, hope in the future, and God's mercy for all. According to Raymond E. Brown in An Introduction to The New Testament, Paul’s writing is an authoritative approach to humanity, strongly advising humanity to not conform to harmful worldly ideas and practices. In addition, Brown documents Paul’s transformational ethical charge which emphasizes harmony, forbearance, forgiveness, love, unity, and God’s mercy.3 With these ethical perspectives, Paul includes the names of women who assisted him throughout his ministry. Paul’s revelation from God understood the importance of women in the body of Christ and stressed the need to be transformed.
So, women, don't conform to this world but be transformed by a new revelation. Be like Sojourner Truth, who spoke truth about women’s rights as a woman of color and said, "That little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
Women, don't conform but transform to the desire for freedom like Harriet Tubman and say with her, “God’s time is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.”
Women don't conform but transform like Mary Magdelene and Mary, as they were the first to declare the gospel that Christ has risen from the grave.
Women, you are the prophetic voices of freedom. You are technological giants, live-streaming the gospel for the world to hear. And you are theologians giving voice to the oppressed. So strut in your freedom. Why? John 8:36, says "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Our duty and charge are to share, stand, speak, and remind others of their freedom, especially women. Our responsibility and mission are not to conform to the devices of our present status quo.
How do I feel about being label as a “nonconformist”? After rehearsing the teachings of Christ and Paul’s authoritative advice, I would say thank you to my group leader. Thank you for prophetically affirming me and identifying that I am an agent of change. I am a voice in the wilderness crying out to prepare the way for my brothers and sisters. I am charged to encourage others not to conform to society’s status quo but to transform to a renewed mind in Christ.
Signed, Sealed, and Delivered.
Sincerely, your Modern-Day Nonconformist
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.
- David P.Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2016), 234–251.
- Gushee and Stassen, 237–241.
- Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 571.