As believers, how do we know when we have crossed the line into syncretism? It is one thing to learn about other religions, but it is another thing to adopt practices from other religions and bring them into the church and one’s personal life.
As it relates to religion, syncretism can be best defined as a “fusion of faiths.” This fusion takes place when two separate religious systems are blended to form a new religion. A modern-day example of syncretism can be found in the religion of Santeria, which is a combination of Roman Catholicism and the Yoruba religious tradition from West Africa. Santeria holds the saints and Christian symbols in Roman Catholicism in high regard while at the same time using spells, rituals, and animal sacrifices to divine the future and expel evil spirits. Although Santeria has its origins in Cuba, it has spread throughout Latin America and can even be found in North America, especially in places like South Florida.
While it is paramount for believers to avoid blending the practices of other religions with the Christian faith, it is important to make a distinction between the fusion of different religions and the blending of different cultures in the church. Understanding this distinction was a challenge for believers in the New Testament church, which was becoming decreasingly Jewish and increasingly Gentile. They had to figure out what to do with the practice of circumcision from the Old Testament and with the food sacrificed to idols in their Greek context.
Through the church council in Acts 15, it was confirmed that the Old Testament practice of circumcision was not a prerequisite for becoming a Christian. Because the church now had baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant, circumcision had become simply a ritual. It did not matter if you were circumcised as long as you were part of the new creation in Christ.
The second cultural hurdle for the church was what to do with food sacrificed to idols. At first, the church in Acts 15 advised believers to abstain. However, as we continue to read the New Testament, we discover that the church became increasingly less restrictive regarding this issue. In 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul said it was permissible to eat food sacrificed to idols. He reasoned that idols were not real and therefore eating this food did not have the power to bring someone closer or push someone further away from God. The only warning Paul gave was for believers not to misuse their freedom in Christ to exalt themselves over their weaker brothers and sisters.
As we reflect on how the church handled these cultural issues, we can learn much.
We must begin by recognizing that the church of Jesus Christ is composed of people from every tribe, language, and nation. This rich diversity should not only be acknowledged, but also celebrated in the church. As with circumcision, the church must ask itself, “Are there any traditions that have become burdens that keep us from embracing who we are becoming as a community in Christ?” As with food sacrificed to idols, Christians must learn to be patient with one another and ask, “What does it look like for us to become less restrictive with matters that are really culturally contextual expressions of faith rather than the fusion of different faiths?”
The church would do well to spend more time discovering what it means for our churches to become more African, more Native American, more Latino, more Asian, and more global at a local level. We should encourage these conversations not because we are becoming less biblical, but because we are seeking to become more biblical and Spirit-filled in our worship of Christ.