Should Christians “Abstain From All Appearance of Evil” (KJV) (1 Thess. 5:22)?

by Jared Moore on September 16, 2013 · 10 comments

This article was originally posted at my site. I’m married with three children, an SBC pastor, a PhD student at SBTS, and an average Southern Baptist. I’ve authored two books. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube.

Ted Turnau (PhD in Apologetics from Westminster) is a college lecturer who teaches Cultural Studies and Religion in Prague, Czech Republic. He’s married with three children. He recently wrote a book titled Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective. I appreciate his approach to popular culture. Instead of Christians enjoying popular culture uncritically or rejecting popular culture altogether, Turnau offers a more biblical approach. This is an excerpt from an interview I did with Turnau last year:

What do you say to those who believe Christians should separate themselves from popular culture: “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV) (1 Thess. 5:22)?

To start off, I wouldn’t want anything I say about popular culture to have the effect of encouraging a Christian to violate their conscience, or to put themselves in the way of temptation. I want to be clear about that. However, there are other things to say here as well.

1. The first is that I’ve got to disagree with the King James’ translation of 1 Thess. 5:22 here. There are really good reasons to believe that it should have been translated “every form of evil” rather than appearance. A good article on this verse can be found here. Taken as “appearance,” it puts too heavy a burden on the Christian, not just to avoid evil, but to avoid anything that anyone would suspect of being evil. And that can lead to all sorts of abusive, legalistic behavior that’s just not good for churches and Christian witness.

2. But let’s say then that 1 Thess. 5:22 wasn’t about appearances, but about actual evil. Should we avoid popular culture then, since it’s evil? Well, I certainly think that some people ought to avoid some types of popular culture, for exactly the reason I said above: Christians shouldn’t be violating their consciences by doing something they know is sinful. But that’s not going to be the same for each and every person, and we ought to recognize that.

One of the things I say in Popologetics is that evil is not in things, like a virus we could catch if we stand too close to it. Rather, evil is a dynamic between the things of this creation and the idols of our hearts. If a piece of popular culture digs at the idols of your heart, leaving you feeling vulnerable, drawing you away from God, then stop. But your idols will not be the same as your Christian brother’s or sister’s idols. They may struggle differently, to a different degree. You cannot make your own struggles the standard for what Christians in general may or may not watch or listen to or play or read. It’s not that simple.

Let me give you a really striking example. A mentor of mine had a friend. He was a missionary of sorts. He would go into a strip club and witness to the girls who worked there, trying to share Jesus with them, trying to persuade them to come out of that really degrading lifestyle. He said that the nudity and environment just didn’t bother him. He wasn’t fazed by it, not tempted to lust by it. Now for me, that would not be a good mission field, because I would be tempted by it. I think 99.97% of men should not follow this man’s example. It would just be feeding idolatry and drawing them away from God. But if this guy is really telling the truth, who am I to say to him, “You can’t do that!” God may have specially gifted him, and it’s not my place to shoo him away from the field where God has called him. I think he needs encouragement, support, prayer, not judgment.

Granted, that’s an extreme example, but I think it’s helpful in setting out the principle: it is ultimately about our hearts before God, and not about other people’s standards, or what other people think. If you honestly are not tempted or degraded by a piece of popular culture, then I say enjoy it thoughtfully, reflectively.

3. There’s another thing I’d say to those who quote 1 Thess. 5:22, and that is that popular culture is not simply evil. It is also a gift from God. Let me explain. As I argue in the book, every piece of popular culture is attractive because of the goodness, truth and beauty that God allows to exist in his world. I call them “fragments of grace.” As Christians, we ought to be on the lookout for these grace fragments, and accept them gratefully. That’s the point of 1 Tim. 4:4-5: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” Popular culture draws upon the goodness of God’s good creation and ought to be received thankfully, prayerfully, and in accordance with God’s word.

But, as I said above, that doesn’t give us license to enjoy forms of popular culture that are going to violate our consciences. We’ve got to balance 1 Tim. 4:4-5 with 1 Thess. 5:22. The thing I love about Paul’s instruction in 1 Tim. 4:5 is that it guards our hearts against doing something stupid with our freedom to enjoy what’s good on this earth. It is very possible to enjoy a secular song or movie, thanking God for the truth and beauty that God has allowed this cultural creator to put in his work. (There were a few times while watching The Avengers that I remembered praying, “God, thank you for allowing Joss Whedon to write that line. That was awesome.”). But you cannot give thanks and pray if you’re engaging with something that’s clearly violating you and drawing you away from God. You cannot prayerfully watch something that’s trashing your heart and feeding your idols. So be careful. Be wise. Don’t violate your heart and feed your idols. But don’t reject the fragments of grace that God has allowed to be woven into popular cultural works.

4. Though we may have to avoid some types of popular culture (depending on our heart’s idols), I have a problem with folks who use 1 Thess. 5:22 as an excuse for ditching non-Christian popular culture as a whole. And I’ve already spelled out the reason: the non-Christians around us live in a world suffused with popular culture. They speak the language of popular culture. They think in its categories. If you are going to be an effective witness to them, a gracious and loving friend to them, you’d better learn their language and patterns of thought. And there is no better way of doing that than actually watching some secular television shows, listening to secular music, playing the secular games, reading the secular books. And enjoying them enough to talk about them with your friends. If you shun popular culture as a whole, you are throwing up a wall between you and them. Don’t be proud that you are “different” from them. The kind of godly difference that shines is the fruits of the Spirit the comes from a true apprehension of the gospel. Godly difference comes from the mercy of God, and the gratitude the flows from that. Avoiding popular culture doesn’t produce “difference.” It produces isolation, and perhaps a judgmental attitude towards those who don’t share your cultural preferences. I am convinced that such an attitude actually harms the witness of the church of Christ, and it cripples our evangelism. So please, I’m begging you, rethink your position. Enjoy and engage with the popular culture you can, and connect with the non-Christians using that.

This article was originally posted at my site. I’m married with three children, an SBC pastor, a PhD student at SBTS, and an average Southern Baptist. I’ve authored two books. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube.

1 joeblackmon September 16, 2013 at 1:48 pm

He was a missionary of sorts. He would go into a strip club and witness to the girls who worked there, trying to share Jesus with them, trying to persuade them to come out of that really degrading lifestyle.

I am at a total loss for words. I can’t understand anyone trying to make a case that this was a good idea or actually going through with it. (shaking my head)

2 Trisha September 16, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I agree with you, Joe. Not only did that “missionary” pay to get in that establishment which only kept those girls imprisoned but when exactly could he talk to them about Jesus? While they’re stripping? Unbelievable! If he truly has a heart for prostitutes or strippers, how about go to some of these already established non-profits and volunteer as a counselor or some other way? Supporting the strip clubs is not helping the girls, it’s helping the club owners and more likely will lead others to think they can handle the same temptation only to discover they couldn’t when it’s too late for them.

3 Bob Cleveland September 16, 2013 at 4:57 pm

I’d imagine a stripper who got saved would think it a good idea.

4 Joe Blackmon (@joe_blackmon_72) September 16, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Yeah, Bob, and he’s going to witness to them, when? While they’re dancing? While they’re hustling customers for drinks?

5 Chris Roberts September 17, 2013 at 11:38 am

Are you that familiar with strip clubs that you know what the various girls do, when they might have time to talk, what it costs to get in, etc? You know them well enough to know there isn’t a way for this man to witness to the girls? So the story is what, a lie?

6 Christiane September 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Bravo to this:
“If you shun popular culture as a whole, you are throwing up a wall between you and them. Don’t be proud that you are “different” from them. The kind of godly difference that shines is the fruits of the Spirit the comes from a true apprehension of the gospel. Godly difference comes from the mercy of God, and the gratitude the flows from that. Avoiding popular culture doesn’t produce “difference.” It produces isolation, and perhaps a judgmental attitude towards those who don’t share your cultural preferences. I am convinced that such an attitude actually harms the witness of the church of Christ, and it cripples our evangelism. “

7 Bob Cleveland September 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm

When I was a young believer, in about 1968, I was in a Bible study and heard one of the participants say “You call yourself a Christian and you go to BASEBALL GAMES?” It turns out he’d been addicted to baseball, and his keeping of records and buying magazines, etc, was interfering with his life. So he swore off baseball.

When he realized how silly the statement sounded in that setting, we all had a good laugh about it. But that concept arose again a couple years later, when we went on a Haiti mission trip. The director asked that the ladies not wear sleeveless dresses (even though July in Haiti is pretty warm…). The reason: a sleeveless dress was a sign of a “loose woman” in Haiti; the women all understood and acted accordingly.

But I hasten to add that we cannot know what everyone around us defines as evil, so personally I have to be guided pretty much by what the Bible calls evil.

8 Trisha September 17, 2013 at 9:54 am

Bob, you can feel safe in knowing that God calls prostitution evil. And this man who paid to enter that establishment helped support that industry and it’s highly doubtful that he converted any women as they probably saw him as a hypocrite. They couldn’t see his heart or know for sure that he wasn’t lusting after them.

9 Chris Roberts September 17, 2013 at 11:43 am

I get your concern. If someone were to come to me and tell me they wanted to go witness to strippers in a strip club, I would strongly urge them not to do it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anyone who is capable of doing such a thing. As for the money that goes to support such a place, I doubt that one person’s patronage is going to make or break the club. Should his witness bear fruit, the effect would actually be to empty them of strippers.

10 Jared Moore September 20, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I’m surprised by all the negative reactions to this. If you lived in Corinth in the 1st Century, and were able to go into the Temple of Aphrodite and share the gospel with the Temple Priests and Priestesses (Prostitutes), then go. Automatically dismissing a brother with a stronger ability to withstand lust than us is unwise. Sure, warn him, but I believe Jesus and Paul could do it. Also, think about those Christians who attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for the purpose of sharing the gospel. These types of ministries are needed. Maybe we don’t need to be the ones doing it, but if a brother can do it, why encourage him not to?

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