I’ve been following a pretty interesting (and at times eye-roll inducing) discussion on Facebook this morning about the issue of whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. It’s not the alcohol part that interests me (for a good evaluation of that debate, check out Mark Driscoll’s FAQ on the issue), but another idea that was popping up in the debate. Basically, the position that bothers me goes like this:
It may not be a sin to drink alcohol, but Paul says we shouldn’t do anything that would offend a weaker brother – so then just because you can drink it, you shouldn’t if it would offend anyone. And, of course, the people making this claim are happy to assume the status of the “weaker brother”, so you basically have to hide in a cave and never mention it if you want to drink.
So, basically, Paul says it’s okay, and Jesus did it himself, but I don’t like it, so you’d better never let me catch you doing it.
There are a lot of problems with that, most notably the idea that you can just claim you’re the weaker brother because you don’t like something that a) you know is perfectly acceptable and/or b) you’re never going to be tempted to do. I’ve got a long blog post about that in my head, but I thought I’d start with another issue that’s somewhat related – the Biblical requirement to “abstain from all appearance of evil”.
I’m intimately familiar with this verse, as I heard it quoted a LOT growing up in both Sunday School and regular church services. The idea behind it is that since the Bible says we’re supposed to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22 KJV), that basically you don’t need to do anything that ANYONE considers evil. As you might imagine, this becomes really restrictive really fast.
The first time I remember this verse being preached, the specific evil we were told to avoid was the “movie house”. Moreover, it didn’t even matter what movie you were seeing – Cinderella was right up there with Scarface, as far as my pastor was concerned. After all, some stranger watching you doesn’t know what movie you’re there to see. He only knows that you’re a Christian (presumably because you’re wearing some sort of Christian t-shirt), and you’re at the movies, and now he’s probably never going to come to church because you just couldn’t wait for Batman II on VHS.
(I’d assume renting a movie in Blockbuster would be just as sinful, though.)
This argument was used over and over again, and the basis for determining what “appeared” to be evil was usually whatever that particular person didn’t like. Any game that used a deck of cards was out, thanks to poker players. Yahtzee was out, due to people who gambled with dice. Dominoes were even out, though I have no idea why. Contemporary Christian music wasn’t allowed (though it was always called Christian Rock), because it SOUNDED too much like “popular” music. Dancing was definitely a no-no. Ultimately, anything that seemed fun to a teenager was on the list.
Here’s the problem: That’s NOT what that verse means, or even says. Let’s look at it in the KJV:
“Abstain from all appearance of evil.”
How is it translated in other versions?
NIV – “Reject every kind of evil.”
NASB – “Abstain from every form of evil.”
ESV – “Abstain from every form of evil.”
Notice the difference? According to the KJV, you’re supposed to abstain from anything that looks like evil. In the others, you’re only supposed to reject things that actually ARE evil. Why is that? Because the Greek word used here, eidos, carries more of the idea of “form”, or “kind”, especially in this context. Also, we simply don’t speak English the way they did in 1611, when the KJV was translated. Whereas now we look at this verse and read it as, “Avoid anything that looks like evil”, if you consider it in the way it was understood by 1600’s English speakers, you’d get something more like, “Abstain from every appearing of evil”, or “Abstain from evil whenever it appears.”
Most of us don’t have a problem accepting this idea with other verses. For example, we willingly accept that “conversation”, as it’s often used, is better translated “lifestyle” or “behavior”.
Galatians 1:13 (KJV) – For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:
Galatians 1:13 (NASB) – For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it;
For some reason, though, people don’t seem to want to drop it. I still hear it preached this way from time to time, often by men who claim to understand the original languages. That’s pretty frustrating to me, and I’d say I can’t understand why they continue to do so, but I suspect I do – once it’s been proven your legalistic requirements don’t have any biblical support, you can always resort to “well, but you should avoid the appearance of evil” to keep people from doing things you don’t approve of.
In fact, if you actually look at 1 Thessalonians 5:22 in context – I know, that’s quite a stretch sometimes – you’ll be hard-pressed to prove it means anything close to “avoid anything that looks like it’s evil”. The thought starts in verse 19:
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 – “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
With a closer reading, it appears that the whole verse is talking about prophecy. Don’t despise them, but do examine them carefully – if they’re good, keep them. If they’re not, toss them out. If that’s the case (and I think it’s pretty hard to argue otherwise), then how on earth can you pull that one verse from that context and claim it means to avoid everything that even looks like evil?
Well, you can’t. Not if you’re trying to be honest and open with your interpretation.
And here’s my final objection – Jesus himself didn’t live up to that standard. He hung out with sinners and tax collectors. He touched dead bodies. He touched a woman with a menstrual issue. He created wine (yes, actual, real, you-can-get-drunk-with-it wine). He talked to Samaritans. He healed on the Sabbath. He spent so much time with sinners that he was called a drunkard and a glutton. His disciples didn’t even wash their hands before they ate, for crying out loud!
He offended the Pharisees over and over, doing things that they didn’t just think looked like evil – He did things they were certain WERE evil. I feel pretty certain that he did things that some of my old Sunday School teachers wouldn’t have approved of, either. And he didn’t seem to mind at all.
So, bottom line – if it’s sin, avoid it. If it’s not, then avoid it if you want to – just don’t try and force other believers to do as you’re doing.