At the end of church last week, we somehow got onto the topic of not giving the appearance of evil or sin. We didn’t have time to really get into it last week, so we talked about it this week. It seemed like a good topic to discuss. After all, it is biblical, right?
Do you know where “don’t give the appearance of evil” is found in the Bible? I didn’t remember. I looked for it and couldn’t find it… because it’s not there! Oops! It turns out this comes from a misleading translation in the King James Version of the Bible. “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (1 Thes. 5:22 KJV). Other translations communicate it better, saying either “every kind” or “every form” rather than “appearance”. The idea is to keep away from any and all evil; it doesn’t include that which merely appears wrong to someone.
So is the concept of not giving the appearance of evil biblical? When we discussed this question, we brought up a couple of related issues. The first is about temptation. We agreed that it’s not wise to put yourself in a situation that you know will be tempting for you (if there isn’t a really good reason to be there; temptation certainly isn’t always avoidable). We also agreed that the idea isn’t to cover up evil, avoiding the appearance of evil that is taking place.
Another person brought up the idea of witness. Does having the appearance of evil hurt a Christian’s witness? Many Christians would say so. (Unfortunately, many Christians and churches have cited this idea as a reason for covering up wrong doing that is taking place by the church and/or members there of.) Two of us in the group are involved in an outreach ministry in bars. Does this give the appearance of evil? If so, is it wrong? Does it hurt the effectiveness of the ministry?
Since I’ve been involved in this ministry for a while, I’ve considered these questions indirectly. I find it interesting: I can’t think of ever hearing a complaint about the “appearance” from people who aren’t Christians. The complaining always seems to come from Christians. Non-Christians tend to not be bothered by the things that certain Christians get all worked up about.
This is because of religion. What I mean here is that for many, Christianity is about following the rules and looking the part. The activities which I’ve always heard brought up around “appearances” are things like drinking, smoking, cussing, sex (outside of marriage), and gambling. Almost all of these are debatable as to if they are sin or not. But what they do represent is the culture of conservative Christianity. In this culture, the appearance is just as important—if not more so—than the actual reality. In other words, in this culture, a major part of being a good Christian is being “clean cut”. True, it’s not normally stated in so many words, but it is enforced nonetheless.
Once again we see the similarity between the culture of Israel in the first century and contemporary conservative Christianity. As I discussed when writing about the sermon on the mount previously, Jesus is telling his audience that having the right external appearance makes no difference if the reality of a person’s heart isn’t right. And this also relates to how Paul is adamant that non-Jewish Christians don’t have to follow Jewish customs (see here) in order to follow Christ. The idea is that non-Jews didn’t have to look culturally Jewish in order to be accepted by God. The application for today is that you don’t have to appear like a clean-cut, conservative Christian in order to be accepted by God.
In this conversation, it’s interesting to note that Jesus didn’t appear too concerned with appearances. He was called a glutton and drunkard and hung out with all the wrong kinds of people. He was accused of breaking the Sabbath. And if that wasn’t enough, he interacted with women in ways that were culturally scandalous. None of this was good for appearances. At least not to the religious. (One of the big problems with the idea of not giving the impression of evil has to do with the question of who gets to set the standard. There are a plethora of opinions out there, and if we start trying to manage appearances—inherently tied to other people’s opinions, we’ll quickly get bogged down, unable to do much if anything beyond religious rituals.)
I know that, at least in our culture, not keeping up appearances has actually been helpful in reaching out to people. One person shared with me how he felt more comfortable at Pub Theology when he saw that some members of the band were smoking and drinking. He realized he wasn’t likely to be judged. Obviously Christians have often been accused of being judgmental, which is a big barrier to people who know they don’t live up to the appearance. For some Christians, even meeting in a bar has the appearance of evil. But what if we didn’t? How many of these people would just decide to show up at a church? Most people feel like church is a place where you need to have your appearance together. It’s not a place to show up a mess or with problems or hurts.
Someone else in our group pointed out that as Christians, there should be something different about our lives in order to be witnesses. I completely agree. The difference here is that it’s not about what a lot of Christians have thought it’s about. It’s not about being clean-cut, attending a weekly service, nor wearing a “Christian” T-shirt. Jesus said that we would be known for our love. As we follow Christ, we will display the “fruits of the Spirit”. This is our witness. We aren’t called to manage appearances. After all, appearances have to do with other people’s perceptions which are out of our control.
In other words, do the right thing and don’t worry about what other people think about it.