The Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 5:22:
Abstain from all appearance of evil.
Eighteenth-century theologian Matthew Henry explains I Thessalonians 5:22 verse this way:
Corrupt affections indulged in the heart, and evil practices allowed of in the life, will greatly tend to promote fatal errors in the mind; whereas purity of heart, and integrity of life, will dispose men to receive the truth in the love of it. We should therefore abstain from evil, and all appearances of evil, from sin, and that which looks like sin, leads to it, and borders upon it. He who is not shy of the appearances of sin, who shuns not the occasions of sin, and who avoids not the temptations and approaches to sin, will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin. (E-Sword Bible Program)
For those of us raised in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) or Southern Baptist churches, we likely heard numerous sermons about abstaining from the appearance of evil. These sermons often included lists of things we should abstain from because the pastor, uh, I mean God, declared them to be sinful/evil. Sometimes, Ephesians 4:27 would be quoted: Neither give place to the devil. Not abstaining from the appearance of evil meant you were giving the Devil place in your life.
In the churches I grew up in, the IFB college I attended in the 1970s, and the churches I pastored in the 1980s and 1990s, abstaining from the appearance of evil meant not doing anything that looked like you were sinning. As you will see in just a moment, this kind of thinking led to all sorts of laughable and bizarre behavior.
As a pastor, my interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 evolved quite a bit over the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. As a young preacher, I was quite the literalist. I obsessed over being seen doing something that others might view as sinful. In particular, I made sure that church members never saw me doing anything that would lead them to conclude that I was sinning. Baked into this thinking was the notion that what could be seen was the problem. If I wanted to do something that might be perceived as sin, I just made sure no one saw what I was doing. Let me share two stories that should illustrate my point.
From 1983 to 1994, I pastored Somerset Baptist Church, a thriving IFB congregation in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio. The congregation was dirt poor. Though most of the men in the church were gainfully employed, poverty was common, and that included Pastor and Mrs. Gerencser and their six children. It was not uncommon for me to preach the Puritan work ethic and trusting God for all your needs from the pulpit. Congregants were expected to trust God, not the government, to meet their daily needs. Of course, this was an impossible standard for many of the church families to live by. When God failed to provide, families turned to the government for assistance. Many of the families were on food stamps — now called SNAP. There was a sense of guilt in the church over this, but when given a choice to go hungry for Jesus or have food on the table, church families turned to the government for food.
The church went through a difficult spell financially in the late 1980s, and I went unpaid weeks on end. During this time, we applied for food stamps. Boy, were we embarrassed. At the time, we thought that we were letting God (and the church) down by accepting government assistance. I suspect my pride played a big part in how I felt at the time, but with a family of eight to feed, my pride had to take a back seat to meeting our needs.
Thanks to our family size, we received a huge food stamp allotment each month — more than we could actually use. After we received our first food stamp coupon booklets, I told Polly that she was NEVER to use them at local grocery stores. We had to avoid the appearance of evil/sin, and in IFB circles, accepting government assistance was indeed considered sinful. Instead of buying groceries locally, we would drive an hour to Columbus to buy groceries. Twenty minutes away, Zanesville had several groceries, but since many of our church members shopped at these stores, we couldn’t do our shopping in Zanesville.
Polly’s uncle, James (Jim) Dennis, pastored the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio. The Baptist Temple was a strict IFB congregation, with rules and regulations governing virtually every aspect of life. Congregants were not permitted to attend the movies. Doing so meant you were supporting evil Hollywood. Even lingering around the entrance of a movie theater was viewed as giving the appearance of evil.
As a child, Polly and her parents would vacation with the Dennis family in Florida. Remember 1 Thessalonians 5:22? Abstain from all appearance of evil. Well, this verse took on a whole different meaning in Florida. With no church members around, the whole family would go to the movies. That’s right, a Baptist preacher who preached one thing but did another!
During the almost twelve years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist Church, I developed an elaborate code of conduct fueled by avoiding the appearance of evil at all costs. I never wanted church members to see me doing something that could be construed as sin/evil. Of course, what they didn’t see couldn’t hurt them. Polly and I became experts at playing the game. We could be having a big row as we drove to the church house, but as soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we put on our “Oh, How I Love Jesus” faces. You see, appearance was everything in my book. Lest someone come to the wrong conclusion, I had a deep love for Jesus and sincerely desired to walk in his steps. Unfortunately, I was human AND a Fundamentalist — a sure recipe for failure. Sure, I wanted people to see me in a certain light — who doesn’t, right — but I also loved the Lord, my God, and wanted to follow his commandments.
I should mention in passing the Biblical idea advanced by the apostle Paul that Christians should not do anything that would cause another Christian to “stumble.” Even if a particular behavior was not sinful, if a weaker Christian thought a behavior was sin or it could cause him to fall, you should not do it in his presence.
Let me conclude by illustrating how avoiding the appearance of evil/sin worked out practically in my life. I know these illustrations will seem absurd, but former Fundamentalist Christians will likely shake their head and say, “yep, been there, done that.” I hope readers will come away from this post understanding how Bible literalism and Fundamentalist thinking can deeply affect one’s life.
The following illustrations all took place from 1983-1994.
One day, I received a letter from the Somerset Ministerial Group asking me to join them for their monthly meeting at the Little Phil Restaurant. The letter was signed by the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Unbeknownst to these clergymen was the fact that IFB pastors were hyper-separatists who didn’t fellowship with anyone but their own kind. How could I break bread with pastors I believed were preaching a false gospel and leading people to Hell?
I wrote the Lutheran pastor a scathing letter, point by point, telling him why I would never join them for their meeting. Besides, the Little Phil served alcohol, and I didn’t eat at restaurants that served booze. The Lutheran pastor sent me a short reply, gently trying to show me the error of my way. He concluded by asking me to reconsider. “Just remember, Bruce, even Jesus ate with sinners.”
I refused to eat at any restaurant that sold alcohol. This meant that my idea of a good steak was Ponderosa (pound-a-grossa), and I ate far more fast food than was good for me. This also meant that we didn’t buy groceries at stores that sold booze or buy gasoline from gas stations that sold alcohol (or porn-lite magazines such as Playboy). This made life quite challenging for us at times, but I sincerely believed God wanted me to abstain from ALL appearances of sin. How could I preach against drinking alcohol if I was giving my money to businesses that sold the Devil’s elixir?
My views began to change after I left Somerset Baptist, and the last decade of my time in the ministry was very different lifestyle-wise from the first. As anyone who has carefully read my story knows, my beliefs and practices bumpily moved over the course of twenty-five years from Bruce, the Fundamentalist to Bruce, the generic Evangelical to Bruce, the progressive Christian. Intolerance begat tolerance, and in the end, I no longer believed that I was accountable for how people lived their lives. My preaching moved from thundering sermons on sin to emphasizing the two great commands: loving God and loving others. Now, this doesn’t mean I didn’t preach against sin, I did. But my sin list changed, becoming smaller and smaller over time.
I want to think that the cancer of Christian Fundamentalism has been excised from my life, but I know better. I still battle the notion that appearance is everything, that I always want people to see me in the best possible light. As a social construct, I suppose this is fine, but it does, at times, get in the way of me being my authentic self — warts and all.
As a Christian, how did you interpret the verses mentioned in this post? Did your pastors preach about abstaining from the appearance of evil/sin? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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