Why deal with syncretism when sharing the gospel? — Insight #6

syncretism-add-mixThis series gives an inside view on the structure of By This Name and how it breaks through confusion in our diverse society, bringing clarity to the message of the gospel.

At the very basic level, syncretism happens when someone simply adds what they think the Bible says to what they already believe. Combining these two very different views leads to them adopting a third belief system.

What does syncretism look like? Take Lynn for example. Lynn believes in the Bible. A college friend explained the gospel to her and Lynn accepted what her friend shared. Every day, she reads a portion of Scripture. Every week, she not only attends the religious services in which she was raised but also a new church with which she has connected. She also tries, at every opportunity, to be good, to do good and to have good thoughts. She believes that God will find her acceptable and she can get to heaven because of these good works. She believes that good will come back to her if she does more good. (After all, will she not reap after death what she has sown in this lifetime?) For now, she also relies on horoscopes to foresee the future and to help guide her decision-making.

This description of Lynn is one of syncretism. She has mixed non-biblical ideas with Scripture, resulting in a completely different belief system. People like Lynn are very common in today’s world. They simply layer on bits of biblical truth onto their underlying belief system. There is no true understanding of the gospel message.

Syncretism creates at least two serious problems.

1. Religious syncretism perpetuates a false gospel

When error is mixed with the truth of God’s Word, it produces something completely foreign to the Scriptures. People may end up creating an entirely different message that is not the gospel.

2. Religious syncretism is very deceptive

When people have mixed up the Bible’s message with other beliefs, they may incorrectly believe they are in a right relationship with God (like in Lynn’s example). This misunderstanding may result in apathetic or frustrated churchgoers because they haven’t experienced the reality of the truth of the gospel. Worse, misunderstood truth can act like an inoculation against the acceptance of genuine truth, thus keeping people from salvation.

By This Name addresses the problem of syncretism by emphasizing that one cannot mix biblical truth with other ideas. It clearly shows what Yahweh thinks about this mixing of beliefs.

The golden calf

Starting on page 178, the book recounts the incident of the golden calf. Having grown impatient that Moses had not come back down from Mount Sinai, the Israelites demand of Aaron a god they can worship. Aaron fashioned a gold idol, probably reminiscent of one of Egypt’s gods, and presented it to the people. He declared, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4 NKJV).

btn-golden-calfYAHWEH had shown his people that he was the creator God, and he was separate from his creation. Also, he is spirit and not made of flesh and bone. Now here was Aaron, and the Israelites, mixing a created being (the calf) with the creator God. And Aaron was attributing the miracles that YAHWEH had done to the metal beast! This was a severe case of blending pagan Egyptian beliefs with biblical truth.

By This Name addresses syncretism right in this passage, explaining the concept and how YAHWEH never finds it acceptable to mix other ideas with his truth. The Lord’s reaction was swift and he ordered Moses to destroy the golden calf with fire, ground the ashes into powder, mix it with water and make the people drink the resulting mixture. As By This Name explains, “Although the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt, the Israelites needed to have the Egyptian thinking taken out of their minds. They needed to learn that Egypt did not have the answers to life, death and life after death” (page 180).

This biblical example of syncretism cuts through the tendency for a reader to mix biblical truth with ideas from his or her own worldview.

The god Baal

A second instance of gently but firmly driving home the message against syncretism is the incident of the prophet Elijah and the worshippers of Baal (pages 201-203). By this time in Israel’s history, the people were worshipping other gods, like Baal, alongside the worship of YAHWEH. Once more, the Lord, through Elijah, warned the Israelites that they could not mix worship of YAHWEH with any other “god.” There is to be no concept of YAHWEH’s way plus “something else.”

Elijah raises the challenge: “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21 NKJV).

Through this account, the book emphasizes that one cannot venerate other gods along with YAHWEH. The God of the Bible stands alone.

As the narrative moves into the New Testament, the book continues to emphasize the need to set apart the Bible’s message from all other belief systems. Stories such as the sheep pen (page 258) highlight the fact that there is only one way to safety. There is to be no mixing of ideas, no multiple ways to get right with the Creator of heaven and earth.

btn-sheep-penUsing these biblical examples, the book strives to help people like Lynn become clear on the Bible’s message. Reading the book, one is made aware that blending the truth of Scripture and one’s own ideas is not acceptable. Instead, By This Name guides the reader to the point where readers must decide—will they abandon their previous worldview and take on the biblical worldview? Will they trust what God’s Word is saying rather than rely on their own ideas? Will they believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ alone?

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 ESV)
By This Name Insight Series

#1: Why use the name Yahweh?
#2: Why focus on Egyptian religion?
#3: Using tables to contrast God’s way and man’s way
#4: Why talk about other “gods”?
#5: How to identify the Promised Deliverer?
#6: Why deal with syncretism when sharing the gospel?
#7: Why talk about prophecy when sharing the gospel?
#8: Why use the concept of a global classroom?

Author: David Cross

Curriculum development manager and staff writer at GoodSeed's International Office.