I’ve addressed this before but it has come up again. I think it’s worth revisiting. The idea that Christians should avoid appearing like they might be sinning is (in my impression) a widely held belief among conservative evangelicals. Since this is my background, I was surprised to discover not too long ago that this idea isn’t biblical. This stems from a misunderstanding of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 in certain English translations. The King James version translates this verse as “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” With few exceptions, the only other translations to use the word “appearance” are either other versions of the King James or are themselves well over a century old. Nearly all modern translations say “every form of evil” or “every kind of evil” (including the NASB and ESV). (Follow this link to see various translations yourself.)
What this verse is saying is to keep from any and every kind of evil (or sin). What this verse does not say is to keep from that which might lead others to assume that you are sinning.
Christians often talk about the concern about “our witness” or in other words, how non-Christians might perceive us. They worry that non-Christians may see us doing something which will lead them to believe that some sin is okay. For example, some think that a Christian shouldn’t drinking alcohol because it might lead someone else to believe that getting drunk is okay (something which many Christians hold to be wrong).
My first problem with this idea is that, in my experience, this doesn’t hold true. Non-Christians don’t seem very concerned about these types of things. If anything, they are usually relieved and feel more comfortable around the Christian because it relieves their fear of being judged. In reality, the people who are really concerned about appearances are the religious. Jesus addressed this specifically in the “Sermon on the Mount”. Remember all of the things he said to do in secret? Does it sound like he was concerned about appearances? How often was he criticized for giving the wrong appearance (think hanging out with the “wrong” people)? In reality, Jesus is concerned about appearances and he addressed it in this famous passage. But what he is concerned about is religious people doing right and not wrong for appearance sake only. This religion is worthless for anything beyond the recognition from other religious people.
I believe that we’re to do what’s right and not what’s wrong because that’s who we are (our character as children of God), not just because we’re supposed to. And I don’t believe we should be too concerned about what outside observers think. (This doesn’t negate accountability and community.) After all, we can’t control what people think (even though we try). In other words, I believe we are to be free of managing other people’s opinions of us.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean we can do want ever we feel like. But we’re free to do what’s right and not worry about managing other’s opinions of us, whether non-believers or other Christians. And I’m not too concerned about other people getting mixed up on what is wrong and right. In my experience the Holy Spirit is good at teaching and convicting people regarding these things.
If you can think of something in the Bible which would counter what I’ve said here about appearance, let me know.