Even if you don’t know what it means, the word “syncretism” sounds a bit suspicious—one of those scary “-isms” that you know you’re supposed to reject just because. Why would we even bring up the subject of syncretism? We bring it up because this scary thing we call syncretism is not an isolated problem that foreign missionaries have to confront. It’s a widespread problem with its victims sitting in your pews, living in your community, and standing in desperate need of truth—absolute truth.
Syncretism: The Universal False Religion
The dictionary definition of “syncretism” is as follows: “the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.” The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions explains, “traditionally among Christians [syncretism] has been used of the replacement or dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements.” So is this something like mixing a bit of voodoo chant with a church service? Or does it hit closer to home?
Syncretism: Not Just a Pagan Problem
I’m in the highlands of Madagascar, spreading the gospel among the people. I am speaking with a man who is educated, cultured, and well-to-do. He is knowledgeable about Christianity, but he is also steeped in the paganism of Madagascar’s traditional religions. To him, the two religious systems are equally valid. He selects a few of the nice features of Christianity by which to live his life. Then, of course, he abides by a few of the taboos of his ancestors, and holds a pagan ceremony (famadihana) ever few years…just in case. For my Malagasy friend, traditional religion and Christianity are just part of his life’s spirituality. Neither one is superior. Both are good.
Fastforward a few months. Now, I’m in the Southeast of the United States. This is Bible Belt territory. The smell of marijuana—sickly sweet and unforgettable—clung to the porch where I was standing. I was listening to a man talk: “I love Jesus and I love to get high.” The man talking to me was busy with his fingers, rolling the marijuana into cigarettes. I didn’t come to bust up a drag weed party. I came to tell these people about Jesus. And like other pushers, hookers, child molesters, and criminals that I’ve met, they were born again believers. Or so they claimed.
I am not the judge of hearts. I do not know who is saved and who is not.
What I do know is simple: Jesus will not be syncretized. Jesus is King. Jesus is sovereign. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Truth. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is the way to the Father. Jesus is Lord.
The problem of syncretism isn’t unique to African animists or Asian Buddhists who want Jesus plus their false gods. The problem of syncretism is a worldwide highway to condemnation. I am grieved over the blindness and hardened hearts of sinful people. What they need to hear is the Good News of Jesus—the One who will deliver them. This Jesus—this Loving Savior, this compassionate Friend, this God-Man—He will not be syncretized.
Syncretism: As Old as Human History
Syncretism isn’t a brand new development in the course of human history. In fact, it’s part of the story of human history itself. The history of the ancient Israelites is a history of their defilement with idolatry—corrupting the practice of Yahweh worship by building high places to the Baals. We see syncretism in the dawn of the Christian church, when philosophers mixed their lofty philosophy with the claims of the Jesus way. Soon, Christianity was tangled in the mire of gnosticism, Arianism, and various other deviations. Sure, there was plenty of Christian-sounding talk, but it was mixed—syncretized—with the other stuff.
Syncretism: Coming to a Random Person Near You
And so, through the course of human history and by the perversities of the Devil, syncretism is claiming its victims. Chances are, syncretism is stalking the people of your church, blinding them to the truth. Today’s younger generation, The Millennials, are particularly prone to the seduction of syncretism. A little of this. A little of that. A little Eastern mysticism plus a little church attendance. A belief in Jesus and a belief in the claims of the Islamic faith. A belief that Allah may actually be the same as the Christian God.
Syncretism sinks its roots deep. It alters a person’s very belief system—how they perceive and hold to truth (or the lack thereof). It affects the uneducated and the highly educated alike. But syncretism, no matter how Christianized the mix—is not true Christianity. Syncretism is yet another trap to draw people away from the truth of the Bible and salvation in Jesus Christ alone.
Syncretism: Dealing with the Challenge Today
When you teach, preach, witness, and interact with people today, be aware of the far-reaching effects of syncretism. Here are three suggestions for dealing with the challenge of syncretism.
- Assume little biblical knowledge. Most people in this country know about the Bible, but they need a correct understanding of the Bible. Take time to explain the Christian verbiage that we’re so used to. Cliche Christian phrases like “ask Jesus into your heart” may be totally clear to you, but they may sound really weird to someone else.
- Engage in deep biblical teaching. The Bible is absolute truth. The most important thing you can do is teach God’s Word carefully, thoroughly, and accurately. Don’t be afraid to go deep, but be sure to remain clear.
- Live an authentic, biblical life. In a culture that mocks religiosity, be aware that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). Shallow, superficial, artificial, or hypocritical living will compromise your witness and turn people away. The best testimony you can have as a Christian is not to raise your personal standards or hand out more tracks. Jesus said, “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Love—active, selfless, giving—is the testimony we must have (Matthew 22:36-40).
- Emphasize the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. In an age that is clouded by the confusion of syncretism, Jesus must be lifted high. His claim is exclusive. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Christ’s exclusive claims does not mean that we, His followers, should be obnoxious, bigoted, or proud. It means that we should humbly and compassionately insist on the truth.
True Christianity must not be syncretized. Signs of syncretism must be detected and confronted with the truth of the Bible. In our culture with its penchant for syncretism, “let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).