For many years, Romans 12:1–2 has been for me one of the key texts of scripture. So it surprised me when I learned just a few weeks ago how radical a text it really is. When Paul says, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship,” he takes terms that had their natural place in the rituals of the Jewish Temple or the Hellenistic mystery religions out of doors into the wide world of everyday life. In a flash, another phrase that had been a mantra for me was newly illuminated: H. Evan Runner’s “Human life in its entirety is religion.” Christian faith is not something to be expressed most fully within the walls of a sacred building, but in the fullness of the sacred space that is God’s creation—“creation” being not just the “natural world,” but also all things personal, social and cultural.
This revelation happened as I was reading an article about the early Christians’ view of pagan schooling (Judge 1983). The author pointed out that there is only one mention in the New Testament of an act of worship occurring in a place where Christians were gathered (that is, as “church”)—and this worship is offered by a hypothetical non-Christian who has wandered in and presumably knew no other response, given his experience of Jewish or pagan religious gatherings. Christians gathered primarily to share a fellowship meal, to sing psalms and spiritual songs to one another, to learn from one another of the Lord’s purposes, and to stir one another up to love and good works—to spiritual acts of worship in the world.
Note that it is indeed acts that are in view: that which “pleased God [was] the commitment of one’s practical life” (Judge 1983, 31). My habitual reading of the Romans text had focused on our calling to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. As a teacher, these verses were a clarion reminder that the disciplines we study at university and the subjects we teach in schools are not neutral, but require an inner biblical reformation. I still believe this to be the case, of course; the way we think about the world is too often shaped by the spirits of our age rather than by the Holy Spirit, too often distorted by idolatries that would find the source of order and meaning in something created instead of the Creator.