Avoid the Appearance of Evil?
As a guy who grew up in the conservative Christian culture, I heard countless times the command to "Avoid the appearance of evil." I heard it was in the Bible, and assumed as much for a very long time.
It's a handy command in regard to lots of social issues.
You shouldn't drink. Not because it's inherently bad, but it can look bad. And you should avoid the appearance of evil.
You shouldn't sit in a parked car with a girl. You must avoid the appearance of evil.
You probably shouldn't go to that restaurant at the casino. You know, because... evil.
While it sounds like a good Christian thing to do, it's not actually in the Bible.
Well, depending on the Bible you read. The only time "appearance of evil" is mentioned is in 1 Thessalonians 5:22...
in the King James Version.*
Oh, the KJV. Revered by some, nearly incomprehensible by many.
The KJV, while groundbreaking in its conception, turns out to be one of the (if not the) least reliable translations. While most of its errors are inconsequential, ones like this are mildly more annoying.
And in this case, I'd say it's actually harmful.
You see, in nearly every other translation, the command is to "abstain from all kinds of evil." It's still a strong, and important command. We should absolutely abstain from every single kind of evil we see.
The appearance of evil, though, is not a thing we are commanded to avoid. It's a translation error.
(Well, not necessarily a flat out error. The word can mean "appearance," but context seems to lead away from that, hence nearly every other translation rendering it differently.)
The philosophy this leads to is a philosophy of fear, rather than love. It leads to the constant "I don't want to look like I'm condoning this..." mentality. Your job as a Christian is not to make sure everyone knows where you stand on any particular issue.
Yes, you should stand firm for truth. But that doesn't mean "taking a stand" every chance you get.
Fear of sin just increases the power it has over your life.
It's kind of like You-Know-Who, or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the villain of the Harry Potter books.
His name was actually Lord Voldemort, but he was so feared no one wanted to say his name. In the first book, in response to Harry's hesitation in saying Voldemort's name, Professor Dumbledore (Harry's Yoda, in a sense) said, “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
I think the same is true here. Our fear of appearing like we're sinning only increases our fear of, and focus on, sin itself. We try to avoid it, try to build fences around it, so nobody would think we might be sinning.
This fear, though, is debilitating. If we build a wall to separate us from the beach, we'll never be able to help save someone pulled into its tide.
Not to mention, our preoccupation with the danger of sin means we're not taking that time to focus on Christ.
Jesus didn't avoid the appearance of evil. He was often maligned by the Pharisees for that reason. Jesus, while being completely sinless, abstaining from every kind of evil, didn't avoid the appearance of it. He was with those who sinned, doing things the religious at the time thought shameful.
Christ's sacrifice not only cleanses us from our sin, but gives us the freedom to do good without fear.
Avoid evil, but do good. And sometimes the latter, to religious folk, may look like the former. But don't fear that appearance, it only increases the fear of the thing itself.
We are to fear God alone.
*And a few other odd-ball translations that resemble the KJV. See the Jubilee Bible and Young's Literal Translation.