“Gray areas” in Christian ethics: Avoid even the appearance of evil?
This is the second post in my series on “gray areas” in Christian ethics. In my previous post, I explored the three basic Christian positions on drinking alcohol and laid out my own position on that particular issue. In this post, I want to address the phrase “avoid even the appearance of evil” as used in discussions of Christian ethics.
I heard the phrase “avoid even the appearance of evil” when I was growing up in church. The King James Version translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 reads, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” This verse can also be rendered, “Abstain from every form of evil,” as in the ESV translation. The verse in the KJV English has two possible meanings in modern English: 1. Do not even look like you are doing evil. 2. Do not do evil, even if it is only a little bit evil. The KJV translation appears to be the one that gave us the original form of “avoid even the appearance of evil,” and it appears from comparing the two translations that the second meaning is best.
In order to understand the Bible in my own language–let alone the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic–I have to know my own language. The KJV was published in 1611, and large sections of it were translated before that. In 2011, the whole thing will be at least 400 years old. While print has helped slow the rate of change in the English language, words change meaning in 400 years. All this is to say that you have to know English really well in order to read the Bible really well in English, especially if the translation is very old. Therefore, when a biblical phrase enters the Christian vernacular and acquires moral influence, we have to be careful to understand what it really means.
The specific phrase “avoid even the appearance of evil” is probably something that developed over years and years and it is used as a half-remembered Bible verse to remind Christians to live holy lives. Encouragements toward holy living are good, but this particular one raises questions about practicality. For instance, if I want to avoid looking like I am doing evil, whose perceptions must I obey? Romans 14 is a passage that Christians often use to guide the passage through the “gray areas” of the sea of ethics. In verse 13, Paul says, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” A verse like this might serve to reinforce “avoid even the appearance of evil,” but verse 16 says, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” Christians with many rules and Christians with only a few rules must tolerate each other equally with give and take on both sides.
To take another angle, Christians doing ministry will be misunderstood all the time. People hearing the gospel may misunderstand the message, fellow Christians may not understand why they have certain rules for their ministry, and other Christians might think that they should have even more rules. Perhaps some might even willfully misunderstand. What if Christians want to build genuine friendships with people of other religions and learn from their life perspectives? Perhaps someone might accuse them of trying to water down the faith.
This post series started with a discussion of the Christian ethical considerations of drinking alcohol. My ultimate point in this discussion of “gray areas” is that the accumulating rules without teaching the principles behind them throttles spiritual growth and weakens the individual conscience, preventing it from adapting to situations not covered by rules. Rules also need periodic revision as the signature sins of a particular generation dissipate and others take their places. One easy example is that the Roman Catholic Church stopped selling indulgences and ecclesiastical positions a long time ago; Protestants can stop affectionately referring to that institution as the “Whore of Babylon”.
I will put out one more post on the subject of “gray areas”. I will finish by giving you two links: one to an insightful blog post about how some people try to use legalism to control others and act as “professional weaker brethren,” and another for a post that lays out how 1 Thessalonians 5:22 can be twisted.
On “Professional Weaker Brethren”:
On 1 Thessalonians 5:22
Editor’s note: the title as originally published said “Avoid every appearance of evil?” when it was intended to be “Avoid even the appearance of evil?” The title has been thus modified.