Syncretism Breeds Pharisees


Syncretism Breeds Pharisees

(You May Be "Syncretized" ... and not know it)

by Phil Miglioratti • The Reimagine.Network


WHY? I concerned about this issue?


I was introduced to syncretism in a seminary class on "missions." It was described as a problem missionaries must confront in order to deliver a pure theology of the Gospel on the mission field (read: foreign countries). 


Syncretism, "the fusion of different forms of belief or practice" (Webster), inevitably results, according to the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, in “the replacement or the dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements” (Moreau 2000; quoted by Larry Owens for Missio Nexus).


The danger is when individuals, as well as cultures, come to faith, believe in Christ, they invariably add elements of their current faith system and/or worldview to their understanding of biblical Christianity. This can lead to the acceptance of cultural traditions that are not Christ-centered, religious rituals that are actually idolatrous, and/or theological viewpoints that are simply unbiblical. This was an important eye-opening concern I had not been exposed to in my discipleship process. I immediately began to watch for it in missions-related contexts.


But I now realize I had assumed (and was not taught otherwise) that "heathen" nations or people groups were the only ones susceptible to this error. I had failed to consider western nations to also be susceptible, including the United States of America. And also American denominations. As well as the tens of thousands of congregations similar to the ones that helped me grow up in my faith; the ones I most closely relate to now.  




...does syncretism look like?


Syncretism is the "combination or fusion of two or more  different forms of belief or practice."


"The ancient Greeks mainly used the term synkrētismos to describe the joining together of Greeks in opposition to a common enemy. In the early 17th century, English speakers adopted the term in the anglicized form syncretism to refer to the union of different religious beliefs. 


Their religion, Mexican syncretism, worships the forces of nature, the animals of the jungle, and the planets in the sky.— Pilar Guzman, Travel + Leisure, 9 Nov. 2021


"To understand the Day of the Dead, Ramírez-Oropeza told me, you must appreciate two concepts. The first is syncretism, the merging of two traditions into a new one." — Steve Padilla, Los Angeles Times, 28 Oct. 2021


Cultural Syncretism:

"The United States, being a nation formed by immigrants, is an excellent example of cultural syncretism. Decades of the blending of cultures is evident in the food and music that is considered “Amercian.” Asian Tacos, Mexican Pizza and Jazz are all examples of the blending of multiple cultures to create something new."


Christian Syncretism:

"Strongly syncretist Romantic and modern movements with some religious elements include mysticism, occultism, Theosophical Society, modern astrology, Neopaganism, and the New Age movement."


"Syncretism of the Christian gospel occurs when basic elements of the gospel are replaced by religious elements from the host culture. It often results from a tendency or attempt to undermine the uniqueness of the gospel as found in the Scriptures or the incarnate Son of God."


     Sources: Dictionary, Wikipedia, Theological Blogs...




...are the implications for American Christianity?


If we assume Western (read: White) believers and theologians are immune to syncretic influences, we will fail to assess if we have unintentionally added personal preferences, adopted political perspectives or acceded to  cultural points of view.


Syncretism results when we fail to realize how (or even refuse to admit that) our environment and experience influence our interpretation and /or applications of Holy Scripture ... thereby granting our doctrinal statements a functional authority equal to the Scripture Truth itself. No one considers themself or their teachers or their doctrinal statements to be inerrant. But when we fail to assess syncretic infection, we might as well. 


Syncretism is most easily discerned when examining a different culture or a diverse ethnicity but this same process is seldom applied to one's own belief system. We overly trust our discernment. We assume our answers-beliefs-choices are flawless. We defend our value-systems and cultural-adaptations as if they were inspired from a burning bush.

[Note: To help you understand the basis of these comments, please take a couple of minutes to read my articles on homogeneity and pharisaism below at "Related Articles"] 

A belief system combines Scripture statements (the inspired, ineerant text), well intended explanations (unlike Scripture itself, our exegesis is never authorized at the level of Scripture), that lead to applications that cannot escape the context of their culture. Over time, our applications to Holy Scripture become intertwined with our doctrinal statements, which elevate them to an untouchable status. 

[Note: If this last sentence seems unbelievable, think about the political statements of people who identify as Christian but align with a different party or perspective than you. What else can explain the level of defensiveness, opposition, even hatred?] 


Dancing, dress-codes, consumption of alcohol, length of hairstyle, discipline of children, the role of women/wives, compassion for the poor, voting rights, personal and corporate stewardship of wealth, justice or righteousness, patriotism, black or blue ... while scripture speaks to these and other areas of life, history is replete with examples of a too liberal (anything goes) or a too conservative (authoritarian control) prescription. The problem is not that evangelicals disagree on these points, but that we disagree because we automatically assume our opposer is altogether wrong and we are completely right. We fail to even ask why they have reached their conclusion because we know (read: assume) whatever they propose is the result of faulty assumptions, motivations, and applications.


We have left behind the biblical teaching of "fallenness;" that all sin in thinking and acting. Which should produce enough humility to remember we are not inerrant on every faith statement or cultural viewpoint and those we oppose may actually have an insight worth pondering.




...can I do to transform my ministry by rethinking with a renewed mind? (Romans 12:2: not conformed but transformed)


Ask, Seek, Knock.


  • Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you (and your group, congregation, movement) how syncretic thinking has infected your theology
    • Listening prayer requires listening once you've asked the question. Silence. Take notes. Discuss with other seekers as you pray. Respond with questions, as you...
  • Seek wisdom in how to differentiate between Truth and traditions and the impact of the worldview of the context (culture, nation, church) in which we live.
    • Desire (and assume the need for) correction.
  • Knock on the door (persistent prayer) by re-searching Scripture and reassessing applications, values, worldview.
    • Learn with and from others. Read. Debate. Discuss.  


Three Tiers


Assign different categories to your beliefs, viewpoints, values, perspectives, ministry presumptions:


  1. To Die For - literally, which Truths should you be willing to die for?
    1. Jesus is the Gospel: God Our Savior Promises Eternal Life
    2. Focus: The core truths of Christianity in the Apostles Creed (creation, incarnation, resurrection)
    3. Preach...proclaim, declare, these truths
    4. Worship and Evangelism
  2. That's Debatable - what teachings are viewed differently between authentic Christians?
    1. Biblical issues (Baptism modes, Lord's Supper protocols)
    2. Focus: Doctrinal statements about Scripture
    3. respectfully persuade; hold fast to your belief while listening to other views
    4. Discipleship
  3. For Discussion and Dialogue- what topics 
    1. Your personal perspectives & preferences (dress codes, worship styles)
    2. Focus: Your applications of Scripture
    3. Reach..."As you go" build relationships as you respect, listen, serve, seek justice, win a hearing
    4. Leadership


Syncretism is like COVID; everyone eventually gets infected. The Church cannot afford to consider itself a-symptomatic. We need leaders who hold fast to biblical Truth while fearlessly assessing differing interpretations and analyzing varied applications. Because we are called to be radical disciples of Christ, not blinder-wearing Pharisees ("able only to see things one way and unwilling or unable to consider other possibilities"). Only this will empower us to penetrate (think salt and visualize light) culture, not (even unknowingly) preserve the way of life of a homogeneous culture or tribe.


Related articles:

You need to be a member of The Reimagine Network to add comments!

Join The Reimagine Network

Email me when people reply –

SCROLL for additional content: Commentary ~ Resources~ Replies ~

  • Response from a Featured Contributor- - 

    I am not sure I would use the word syncretism but as you use it it works fine really. I would call both the theology and practice of the white American Church idolatrous in the full blown biblical sense.

    Examples . . .
    1. White colonialism is the foundation of our independent way of life. The gospel calls us to the values of the Beatitudes and not to success as defined by our way of life. We worship a god of power, wealth, political ideology, control and so-called freedom, which means I determine what I believe and then tell every one else to “go to hell” since I know what is right in both doctrine and morals and they are wrong. 
    2. The worst instincts of our way life, papered over with a veneer of private and deeply partisan Christianity, are now publicly evident. Our society is breaking apart because the church has broadly embraced the values of white culture as gospel truth. As in the missionary example we have taken our European version of Christianity, a version clearly not rooted in humility and valuing justice and love as central to all discipleship, and made it “biblical.” To oppose this is to oppose the gospel for most conservative white Christians. Liberal white Christians react by substituting they own ideologies for ancient truth. Most modern Christians have no idea what “ancient truth” means or how to explain it versus the Christianity that evolved in the 14th to the 16th centuries. Ancient faith Christianity is all but unknown even by our leaders. Much less by our members/flock

    It would take a treatise to explore this but your overall point is well crafted and very accurate. Perhaps some can hear you better than by the words I choose to describe this real and dangerous problem. Our divisions are rooted in our independence and lack of a doctrine of salvation that is not simply private but corporate. We settle for transaction prayers for accepting Jesus without transformation prayers and real discipleship. 
    As always, with love and support,
    John H. Armstrong
    "All things are possible to him who believes . . . they are less difficult for him who hopes . . . more easy for him who loves, and still more easy for him who perseveres in the practice of these three virtues."

    Brother Lawrence 
  • I offer this prayer for wisdom - -

    From seminary pro.
    God help me to remember that you are God and that I am not and to always remember the difference.
    Phil Nelson, pastor
    Lakeland Baptist Church in Carbondale, IL
  • While reading your article, I thought about the blog of Dr. Jackson Wu, among whose special interests is contextualization of Scripture (other special interests of his are missions and the honor/shame paradigm).  He's posted many articles about contextualization on his blog in the last ten years.
    In this very short one which he published in 2013, he explains what contextualization is, shows that it is something which all Christians do when they read the Scriptures, and provides links to a few related articles:
    Interpreting Contextualization
    Interpreting Contextualization
    What is "contextualization"? It is one of the most popular buzzwords in evangelicalism today. When a person hears a word enough times, it's easy to a…
  • Phil,

    It took me over five minutes just to read your distress signal.  So, now I’m on overtime @ 1½ times my hourly rate!  You should be praising God right now that my Christian hourly rate is $0.00/hour.

    What can be done about syncretism in regard to biblical truth?  Evanlogically, my dear Philcilitator – nothing.

    Over time, since the middle of the fourth century, syncretic applications by organizing and then organized religion around, though not in, Holy Scripture became intertwined with our doctrinal statements, which elevated them to an untouchable status, such as the day we “celebrate” Christmas.  Have you ever tried moving that holiday, which should be a solemn commemoration not at all merry, off of the pagan winter solstice feast?

    I have.  Many have told me that “ship has already sailed” and they’re not going to be the one to try to call it back.  Apparently the non-Scriptural December 25th is more untouchable than Eliot Ness’s men.

    Shall I go on?  As the legal profession says, this would include, but not be limited to:

    • Rejoicing in the Resurrection of our Lord under the name of a pagan goddess;
    • Performing Lentin sacrifices, as if that could in any way compare to Christ’s Sacrifice;
    • Fund raising activities in case the worker is not worth his keep to the congregation.
    • Awwww, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, Christians.

    No nothing can be done.  Why?  Because the first edict of organized religion’s Christian leaders was, “OK.  It’s December 25, 336.  Syncretize your sundials.”

  • Response from a Featured Contributor  - -

    • First of all, I definitely think you are on the right track talking about syncretism and approaching it from a missions perspective.  Missionaries know it when they see it, and have been dealing with it overseas for decades.  I also like the pivot in the fourth paragraph where you raise the possibility that we may be blind to syncretism on the home front.


    • ​I would rephrase the quote you referenced:

    Christian Syncretism:​ "Strongly syncretist Romantic and modern movements with some religious elements include mysticism, occultism, Theosophical Society, modern astrology, Neopaganism, and the New Age movement."

    ... to  read:

    Christian Syncretism:  “In our recent history (19th and 20th centuries) we have seen the rise of syncretistic movements including Theosophy, Transcendentalism, Neopaganism and the New Age movement.”

     ​...because not all mysticism is syncretic and the same for the romantic movement​.​


    • ​In Western Christianity, we have assumed that this is a problem for other cultures and not our own.  However, if we fail to see that our belief system is at risk of syncretism, we will blindly and uncritically adopt political or cultural points of view that are contrary to the values of the Gospel.
  • #ItSeemsToMe...

    Syncretism can best be seen in our pursuit of the Fill-In-The-Blank Gospel.

    White Gospel. Black Gospel. Funky Gospel. Justice Gospel. Reformed Gospel. Prosperity Gospel. 

    Whenever we need a noun to precede "Gospel" we are encasing the good news of Jesus the Redeemer into a specific context; a set of prefereneces or protocols that suit a homogeneous group of people. 

    The problem is when those encasements are elevated to a functional authority that is equal to the heart of the Gospel; Jesus, Jesus' teaching, Jesus' life in us (salvation) and through the Church mission).


      Are Christian leaders really starting to hyphenate the Gospel?

      White-Gospel.  Black-Gospel.  Funky-Gospel.  Justice–Gospel.  Reformed-Gospel.  Prosperity-Gospel.

      Can’t Christians see that hyphenating our Americanism has dashed [ - ] our secular society to bits?

      African-Americans.  Hispanic-Americans.  Asian-Americans.  Muslim-Americans.  Native-Americans.  Euro-Americans, meaning white people as a demographic identity.  [No connection in any way to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) founded by former Klan leader and notorious neo-Nazi David Duke.]

      To any and all Categorized–Evangelicals, remember the Lord your God first Commanded, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  (Exodus 20:3)

      Let me suggest, Evanlogically, the Lord your God isn’t going to Bless any ministry that puts anything before the Gospel.

      Bible Gateway passage: Exodus 20:3 - New International Version
      “You shall have no other gods before me.
  • My Q&A with a featured member - -


    You asked about my purpose in this post ... My core thesis is that evangelicals are unaware of or unwilling to consider the influence of syncretism in their worldview. Since we have faith in an interrent Scripture, we believe (or function as if we believe) our doctrines are inerrant-like applications of biblical truth. We include too much in the "To Die For" category.
    Does your referring to evangelicals only pertain to those who reside in the United States? What about the rest of the world? Does the evangelicalism found in each nation reflect the politics, history, and culture of that nation? Is evangelicalism a denomination of Christianity? Were people not willing to die for their denominational faith? Worse, were they not willing to kill for it?  In the United States, is not part of the problem certain people's unyielding stance that both the way they practice their faith and political beliefs must be inerrant because they cannot live with the thought that they're not? 
    Brian Schroede


  • Froma featured author - -

    Who are we progressing toward—Christlikeness or our falsely constructed distorted gods? Who are we reflecting? When the world looks at the bride of Christ, do they see the loving God or one of hate? Do they see the generous God or a selfish one? Do they see the gracious God or a merciless one? Do they see our kind God or mean one? Do they see a peacemaking God or a warrior god?


  • Three Tiers:

    1. "To Die For" truths, then
    2. "That's Debatable" teachings, then
    3. "For Discussion and Dialogue" topics.
This reply was deleted.