Friday is for Friends: Chrissi Wright

ChrissiWright.jpgThis post is from Chrissy Wright, and I think she offers a serious counter to how one NT text is frequently used. (Next week from Matt Edwards.) How do you think this verse about avoiding the appearance of evil should be lived out today?

One of the most frequently quoted verses in the Bible, from my
experience, is 1 Thessalonians 5:22. You know, the one that goes “avoid
the appearance of evil.” Now, I think this is a great verse and a very
wise proverb, obviously, but I have been puzzled by how much it’s being used and how it’s been put to use as of late. What I think is really interesting and irritating about this subject,
is how it is used for very few things. Truly, the “real issues” that
some Evangelicals lift up as the absolute imperative sins are, to me,
so sad. Now, I’m not saying that these people are ridiculous, but I believe
their focuses are misguided, and this scripture about the
appearances of evil brings out this skewed perspective in a very
tangible way. The verse really seems to mean that we should avoid sin so completely
that we avoid the very appearance of it. Simple enough. But what it’s
come to mean, almost exactly is this:

Don’t Drink!
Don’t Smoke!
Don’t hang out too close to your girlfriend/boyfriend!
Don’t go to places where people do these things! And don’t hang out with people who do these things! (do not drive by the strip club)
Are these really our only major issues?
But my goal isn’t to shrink the list of “appearances.” I want to add to it.

When was the last time an American evangelical Christian chose not to buy an item made in China because they wanted to “Avoid the Appearance” of exploiting a vulnerable child?
When was the last time an American evangelical declined a day of shopping because they wanted to “Avoid the Appearance” of mindless consumption?

When was the last time an American evangelical declined a second portion of a rather delectable treat, not to avoid getting fat, but to “Avoid the Appearance” of gluttony?

We have tricked ourselves into thinking that if we fit into a rather comfortable little understanding of “normal” Christian practices then we are good to go. Someone came up with this list, I’m guessing some time in the 20th century. Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t go with girls that do. And it stuck. Why?

Because it is incredibly easy. For most, anyway. For those who struggle with the particular sins we have decided are paramount (even if they are really good at avoiding the other sins like greed, jealousy, gluttony, wrath, etc.), we simply exclude them from our practices and deny even the sincerity of their faith

Meanwhile, we only talk about the previously established sins and feel pretty good about ourselves. Because, if we abstain completely from a few things (rather than learning moderation), we can completely give ourselves over to a few other things (rather than learning moderation) and we’re good to go!  Now, I know I am not the first person to point this out. Heck, this isn’t even the first time I’ve pointed it out. But it bears repeating and repeating and repeating until we Christians come to terms with what we’ve really signed up for here.

It is not an easy path. It is not a selfish path. It is not a comfortable path. It is not an orderly, all laid out, avoid these five things, do these three things, neat path. It is a daily, creative, intentional adventure of learning how to love, learning how to sacrifice, and learning what it is to see His Kingdom come and His will be done.

Way cooler, way harder.

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  • Tyler

    Thank you for your thoughts on what I agree is an interesting and often misused proverb. I remember my Mom liked to use it often when she found out I owned a few CD’s with “explicit” lyrics. (I admit, I didn’t own them for their artistic merit.) Or when a few of my friends decided to wear their pants a little too low, etc. I’ve heard it used to rationalize a lot of snap judgments on people’s characters based on their outward appearance or associations with “the wrong crowd.”
    You’re right, discernment, which is what I think you’re getting at, is harder than making snap judgments. It’s a harder road than setting up boundary markers that are more about our own clarity and peace of mind than about a humble faith and holiness.
    Howewver, I want to add perhaps a word of caution. When you use the example of, say, not buying a “made in China” product due to the circumstances surrounding its manufacture, does that not open you to the same charge of exchanging true discernment (which is always relaitive to the situation) with feel-goodism? Most boycotts that I’ve encountered among Christians and non-Christians alike tend to smell like Pharisee. The boycotter feels good for appearing righteous, and the world goes on as before.
    Instead, would it not be more helpful to read Paul’s warning here within the wider context of his teaching on discernment (e.g. Rom 14-15)? I live in China–here many Christians refuse to play Mah Johng because of its association with gambling (a growing social problem here). Most Christians don’t drink because of the (male) drinking culture that promotes chauvinism and other anti-social behavior. And those rules are strictly enforced in the authoritarian nature of the church here. Legalism? Perhaps. But here, discernment happens among the leadership and all others are expected to follow to abstain from being a stumbling block to believers and non-believes alike in THIS culture. It’s a challennge to most Westerners like me. I was raised to be suspect of unquestioned authority and extra-biblical rules. Where does discernment fit in this picture?

  • Dan Wallace discusses the idea here:
    Seems to me that Jesus himself plunged headfirst into upsetting cultural and religious norms of appearances of evil. The woman who kissed his feet, eating with sinners, not washing hands, healing on the Sabbath – for a community whose life depended on following God’s laws, Jesus had the appearance of being careless with those laws.
    To be blunt, my “Truman Christian” background mostly saw this verse to say “Here is our cultural norm. Either you are spiritually mature enough to fall in line and do as we do (and don’t do as we don’t do) or else you give the appearance of evil, which will make people stumble.” So it became a legalism-enforcer. Part of my problem with this is that I know too many people who never drink a drop, never play cards, don’t go to movies, keep up appearances, yet fail with what Gal 5 calls “keeping in step with the Spirit” (NIV): patience, kindness, gentleness, respect for others, gratitude, forgiving others, putting others first, etc.

  • donsands

    “appearance of evil”
    To abstain from some things that may cause someone else to stumble is a good thing. Evene if that thing is good. That way we are loving the other person above ourselves. But surely we have the liberty to enjoy the good things the Father of lights has given as well. So there’s a fullness of living this out in our lives as we rub shoulders with new converts, mature converts, and even false-converts.
    Jesus said, “Don’t judge by appearance, but judge righteous actions.”
    A man clothed in a three piece suit and who has a nice job and family could well be a phoney. And someone who is not well dressed and still has a problem with some four letter words, and smokes Marlboro cigerettes could be a genuine child of the kingdom.
    We need to judge as Jesus said, especially ourselves.
    We need to be soaked in the whole Word of God, and then we will know the good to hold on to, and the evil to abstain from, as we fellowship with the children of peace, and of the kingdom, so that we can ne light and salt in a evil generation.

  • Andy W.

    I’ve been discussing this very verse in a class I lead @ church. One important note is that the translation quoted here and the one which most of us heard growing up is actually an incorrect translation based off the KJV. My TNIV has this translated as “reject whatever is harmful.” and the NKJV now has this as “abstain from every form of evil”. This makes since where the “appearance of evil” really doesn’t. We discussed in class how in Jesus day he was constantly being accused of being evil, or possessed by Beelzebub or of being a sorcerer because to the religionists of his day he did things that “appeared” evil. Jesus did not seem too concerned with appearances, but he was totally concerned with truth and living in truth however it appeared. This is a fine distinction that I find we often get wrong. It easy to avoid appearances, but much harder to deal with the heart issues which drive our motives and actions. I know I need to work a lot more on the later!

  • Good thoughts, Chrissy. Too often we pick and choose which “evils” to avoid based on what is convenient and easy.
    But I like Fee’s interpretation that the verse relates to prophecies in the Thessalonian community. First Thess 5:20–22 (NET) says, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil.” There were two extremes with regard to prophecies–those who treated them with contempt and those who accepted them uncritically. Paul said to examine them, to keep the good and avoid the evil.

  • Phil Niemi

    Scot, you could probably speak to this interpretation more than others, but I’ve heard and taught that is is refferring to “fleeing evil as it appears”, so when you see a situation coming you remove yourself from the temptation and thus not sin; not remove yourself from appearing to be involved with sin.
    Help me out here!

  • Good thoughts everybody. Tyler, you are totally right that any choice can become pharisaical (and I’m not promoting boycotting, necessariy!). However, my intent with those examples wasn’t so much “exchange those old rules for these cool new socially conscious rules!” I agree that this isn’t necessarily an different or better. More, as you guessed, that we use discernment and rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us in discernment in ALL of our actions, not just those socially sanctioned. My post is certainly incomplete, and was in fact originally titled “part 2” because it was second set of thoughts on the subject.
    I also relate to your experience living in China. I lived in the Philippines for 3 years and never drank while I lived there for the same reason.

  • I’ve been thinking some of the same thoughts. It would seem to me that this applies less to how we live in the Church (who really thinks other Christians are purposefully doing evil things? granted we have temptations) – but more how we live in the world. I would think the focus, much like you’ve described, is outwards.
    First, it would be don’t appear to the world to be doing evil things: evil things according to the world, of course the key word is appearance. Of course you are thinking “We’re Christians, we’re going to be better than the world”. Well, in the time it is written, being a Christian meant *not* doing a lot of worldly things. Even not sacrificing to the pagan Gods could be considered evil. Paul isn’t saying “go and sacrifice”, but is saying “don’t appear to be evil” so that you “may live in peace with all men”.
    Second, it would be the proactive sense in which Chrissi uses it. Use not appearing as evil as a reason to not do culturally accepted things, like being a consumer, and buying goods made through exploitation.

  • BeckyR

    what is this evil that we are to avoid? What’s the context from which meaning can be pulled?

  • thanks, chrissy.
    some great points.

  • ChrisB

    I think you’ve been thrown by KJV English. Modern translations render the verse, “avoid every kind of evil.” By “appearance,” I think 16th Century English meant, “avoid every manifestation of evil.”
    Jesus certainly did not avoid ever appearing evil. The appearance of evil (modern sense of the term) was defined by His enemies then and ours now (e.g., the greatest evil most people will name is saying another religion is wrong).
    “Mindless consumption” is a good example. You’ve defined it as a sin and now want other Christians to avoid appearing to do it. That’s called legalism.

  • Scot McKnight

    Can you read Greek? If not, I’d avoid making suggestions that one translation is more accurate than another. The word eidous can suggest “form” or “appearance” of evil.

  • ChrisB

    Scot, nothing in my comment appeals to a translation being more “accurate.” Rather, it is that most modern translations render it exactly the same way and the much older translation uses language that can be taken more than one way.
    And that Jesus’ life contradicts her understanding of the verse.

  • ChrisB. I don’t read the King James version because I am not up-to-date on 17th century vernacular. I do know, however, that this verse is used as a rallying cry for many evangelicals to enforce a strict and narrow lifestyle on all believers and it was this issue which I was addressing.
    My example of using sweatshops was just that, an example. My point was that we should expand our understanding of what is evil and make sure that there are no hidden areas in which we are engaging in sin unawares simply because our christian culture doesn’t hold it as significant.
    Also, if you went on to my blog you would find a previous post, also about this verse, when I point out your idea that this verse more likely refers to staying so far away from sin that you run from the sight of it. But I think my arguments here still work with that interpretation.

  • Chrissi Wright

    Oops. Replace “sweatshops” with “mindless consumption.” You get what I mean. All areas of our lives should be held up to (our own!) scrutiny as to what is righteous and what is, well, not.

  • Karen

    It is a LOT harder to “walk the talk” when you take into account the ways in which our lives intersect with other on this world. I agree with Chrissi that when we see the implications of our actions and words, we would be shocked to learn many times that we are actually encouraging modern day off shore slavery and all that it entails. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a lot more involved than it appeared 30 years ago.