Libna J. Arroyo, MA in School Counseling, is an assistant professor of psychology at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California, United States.

Have you felt the need to follow along with what other people are doing to avoid feeling left out or made fun of? Such situations can increase anxiety, giving us sweaty palms and butterflies in our stomachs. How do we stop such a stressful reaction? Do we act the same as others, leave, or confront the issue? Why is it so hard to stand alone, even as a pastor?

An experiment

I teach social psychology, “a science that studies how situations influence us, with special attention to how people view and affect one another.”1 In my social psychology class, one of the most popular experiments studied is the group conformity experiment. I show a video to my students that involves a young woman who comes to a doctor’s office for an appointment. While she is waiting, a bell rings, and everyone else in the reception area stands up and then sits back down. The bell continues to ring every few minutes, and everyone continues to stand and sit. After the third ring, the young woman stands up too. One by one, people leave for their appointments until she is alone in the waiting room. But then others start arriving, and she continues to follow the bell and leads others to do the same. When someone asks her why she was doing it, she replies that it was because everyone else was. Interviewed later, she says that she felt an immediate relief that she conformed, even if she did not know why she had to stand.

Types of conformity

Interestingly, there are three types of conformity. One is acceptance. In this category, you honestly believe that what the group stands for is right, and you willingly do what it asks. The second type is compliance, which involves conforming and carrying out an order even though you do not believe in it. The third is obedience, in which you do what you are asked because laws or a higher authority requests it, and you do not question that.2

According to psychology professors David Myers and Jean Twenge, absolute obedience can be coerced if you cannot see the firsthand effects of your actions on someone else or if you do not know the other people personally. If someone you know and trust gives you an order, it is more difficult to refuse to comply. Also, if the request comes from a well-respected institution, it is harder not to conform. On the other hand, if a group stands up together, it can create a liberating effect so that more people will then reject or oppose the command or requirement. The size and status of the group will also affect conformity.

Finally, a public decision has the highest conformity response. It is harder to change a decision or action once it is set in motion. People will be less likely to change their minds because they do not want to apologize for wrongdoing as it makes them feel vulnerable and not in control.3

Nonconformity examples

What does conformity have to do with Christianity? Throughout history, following God’s precepts has not always been the trendy way. Several Bible characters were truly God conformists but worldly nonconformists. I can think of Noah in Genesis 6–9, who stood alone with his family. Abraham, in Genesis 11, despite living in an idol-worshiping city, worshiped the true God and decided to follow God’s command to go to an unknown land. Moses, mentioned in Hebrews 11:24, 25, remained faithful despite being offered all that a person could want in luxury by the Pharaoh. Ruth followed the true God even though it involved leaving her family. David stayed faithful through all his challenges. Esther, in Esther 4, obeyed God’s calling even with death looming near. Daniel and his three friends (Daniel 1, 3, and 6) stayed firm against the threat of a fiery furnace and the lion’s den. Paul, in Romans 1, suffered much yet never denied Christ. Throughout the ages, God has had a group that followed His teaching and Word.

Recently, the Pacific Union College Church presented a play about the Anabaptist movement. Most of the Anabaptist founders believed wholeheartedly in the biblical teachings about baptism and were willing to die as martyrs for their beliefs. Other nonconformists include the Quakers, who stood against the laws of the land in the antebellum United States to help in the underground railroad and oppose slavery. And during the Holocaust, people in every country in Europe hid Jews from the Nazis despite death threats. On the other hand, the Bible has examples of groups of people that conformed to the world.

Conformity examples

From the time that the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the great majority succumbed to the lure of the high places of the Canaanites and Moabites. Such high places served as sites for idolatrous worship that promoted sexual immorality of all types. Later, the kings of Israel and Judah, starting with Solomon and continuing with Jeroboam, Ahab, Jehoram, Manasseh, and most of the rest of the rulers until the conquest of Judah by Babylon, brought the perverse practices of the surrounding nations to the people of God and into the temple itself. Such rulers influenced the people of Israel and Judah so much that it was hard not to conform to the idolatry present everywhere. The Bible says that “the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns” (2 Kings 17:9).4

It is hard

As a church leader, you might feel at times—as did the prophets, Levites, Christians in the Roman Empire, and Reformers during the Dark Ages—like a minority within your own church, school, or university. But remember what God said to Elijah, who felt very alone: “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18).

Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect.” It is hard not to conform to the world and our own desires. If you were raised just to observe religious traditions, follow the law perfectly, go to church, and other such practices with the only explanation being that it was “what we do in our family, and you must do it,” it is likely you would rebel and not conform with your family beliefs.

Be an example

Pastors have the supreme responsibility to help their congregation get to know God for themselves and develop their own relationship with Him. Advise your members to pray as a family and read and discuss the Bible together every day. It should become the top priority during these end times. Encourage prayerful meditation and time with God either before the day begins or as it closes. It will be a habit that will provide an armor of defense against evil.

One of the ways that we can bring constructive conformity is by doing “what I do, not what I say.”5 Be an example for your congregation. May they see you on your knees and witness you opening God’s Word. Another way to demonstrate conformity to God’s precepts is demonstrating God’s love to others despite hatred thrown your way.

Constructive conformity

God is calling you, minister of the gospel, to get to know Him as the supreme Authority and have your relationship with Him be the closest relationship you have, above any other on earth. He is calling us to trust that His Word transcends any earthly institution. God is summoning us not to conform to this world and our personal desires. First Corinthians 6:9, 10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–10 illustrate such worldly desires. Pray that God will give you wisdom and courage when you need it.

May we be considered worthy to suffer when persecuted, as were the nonconformists in the Bible and throughout the Reformation period. We are to do our best to obey our country’s laws and our leaders in the government and our church, but not when they violate God’s Word. Let nothing—not our jobs, families, public opinion, health, nor our riches—separate us from our heavenly Father and His ultimate redemption of this world. “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (3 John 1:11; emphasis added). I challenge you not to conform to the world but to conform to our beloved Savior, who will redeem us from sin forever.

  1. David G. Myers and Jean M. Twenge, Social Psychology, 14th ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2022), 2.
  2. Paul R. Nail, Geoff MacDonald, and David A. Levy, “Proposal of a Four-Dimensional Model of Social Response,” Psychological Bulletin 126, no. 3 (May 2000): 454–470, https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.126.3.454; Stephen Gibson, “Obedience Without Orders: Expanding Social Psychology’s Conception of ‘Obedience,’ ” British Journal of Social Psychology 58, no. 1 (Jan. 2019): 241–259, https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12272.
  3. Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Wenzel, and Kyli Hedrick, “Refusing to Apologize Can Have Psychological Benefits (and We Issue No Mea Culpa for This Research Finding),” European Journal of Social Psychology 43 (2013): 22–31.
  4. Scripture is from the English Standard Version.
  5. Myers and Twenge, Social Psychology, 163.

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Libna J. Arroyo, MA in School Counseling, is an assistant professor of psychology at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California, United States.

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