Is Scientific Consensus Trustworthy?

Here’s the question that I’d like to address here:

From a purely scientific perspective, can we all implicitly trust the consensus of modern scientists that the earth is old and that we are here because of evolution?

I would say that even without the Bible, it is still reasonable to have doubts about the current consensus of scientists regarding the origins and age of the universe. And I have two reasons that I hope you will consider with me…

  1. There are a number of well-documented examples throughout history of widely-embraced scientific “facts” that turned out to be completely wrong. For example, in ancient Greece, it was believed that the liver, not the heart, pumped the blood in your body, and that your organs consumed your blood as fuel. This was finally disproven in 1628 by William Harvey. Another example: Until the late 19th century, doctors didn’t wash their hands before surgery and blamed the subsequent diseases, not on germs, but on “bad air” and the “four humors.” You might also research spontaneous generation, phlogiston, alchemy and blood-letting. And there are so many other examples. My point is that there is a difference between consensus and fact, and sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference (because of limited knowledge and presuppositions). Darwinian evolution may be the consensus view of scientists today, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fact. And even though we know a lot more than folks did a few hundred years ago, don’t think we know it all. In fact, I would suggest to you that we have barely scratched the surface of scientific truth.
  2. Even among evolutionists, there isn’t consensus regarding what exactly has happened and how it has happened. For example, not all evolutionists explain the origin of the universe by the Big Bang theory. Others ascribe to the “Steady State Theory.” There are different views regarding the means by which dinosaurs “went extinct.” Some say it was a meteor, others, a volcanic eruption, and so on. And if you think there is consensus regarding human evolution, you are mistaken! There is constant debate regarding the identity of so-called “primitive man.” In fact, if you’ve been following the news lately, there is growing skepticism that Neanderthal was an intermediate link between man and our so-called “ape-like ancestor.” And so within the scientific community, there are countless disagreements and debates raging over even the most basic tenets of origins and evolution. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

So let’s set the Bible aside for just a moment and honestly examine science. Are we really being unreasonable and ignorant when we have doubts about billions of years and Darwinian evolution? And if we have such doubts, are we suddenly a threat to the progress of science? Men such as Galileo and Louis Pasteur (who challenged the consensus and turned out to be right) are proof-positive that we can still love science while rejecting a particular scientific claim.

Having said this, I want to make it very clear that science is wonderful and that there are a lot of great scientists out there. And even though Darwinian evolution and billions of years are the consensus views of modern scientists, not all scientists agree; there are many, many scientists who are also young earth creationists, and others who objectively question the status-quo. My objection in this article is not against science or scientists per se, but to the notion that all scientific claims have to be regarded as inerrant fact to the neglect or injury of the Scriptures.

In closing, while scientific claims are ever changing, and while man will always be limited in what he can know about the universe (on his own), we find consistent, unchanging, infallible truth in the inspired Scriptures…which have been authored by the Creator of us all, the sovereign originator of science itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17). I will put my trust in the incorruptible word of God which lives and abides forever (1 Peter 1:22-25) rather than the claims of fallible men, especially when it comes down to choosing one over the other.

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Spiritual Lessons From Nuclear Physics

Last summer, I enrolled in a course that offered an overview of nuclear physics. Not only was I fascinated by what I learned, my faith in God was strengthened. Consider a few of the spiritual lessons I learned from studying nuclear physics.

Everything in the universe is made of the same stuff.

On the atomic level, there are protons, neutrons and electrons. These are basically just tiny particles that have different atomic weights and electrical charges, and it’s the different combinations of these particles that make up the elements of the Periodic Table.

For example, hydrogen consists of 1 proton and 1 electron. Carbon consists of 6 protons, 6 neutrons and 6 electrons. Gold has 79 protons, 118 neutrons and 79 electrons. The only thing that separates the element Gold from Mercury is one proton! Add two more protons to Mercury and you get Lead. Incredible, right?

So the combination of atomic particles make up the elements, and the combination of elements make up molecular compounds. We all know that H20 is water – 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. Carbon Dioxide is CO2, which is a combination of 1 Carbon atom and 2 Oxygen atoms. Salt is Sodium Chloride, or NaCl.

Even our DNA can be broken down into protons, neutrons and electrons. DNA is made up of nucleotides, and each nucleotide is made up of a phosphate group, sugar group and nitrogen base. Each of these can be broken down into elements such as Oxygen, Phosphorus, Nitrogen, and many others, and again, each of these atoms can be further broken down into various unique combinations of protons, neutrons and electrons.

So everything from water to the sun, from table salt to human DNA, is made up of the same physical stuff – tiny molecules with different atomic weights and electrical charges – matter and energy. The only thing that separates us from dirt or even air is a greater complexity of atomic combinations.

God – the Master Artist!

Let’s compare nuclear physics and art for a moment…

A painter like Van Gogh uses three primary colors – red, blue and yellow – to make all the colors on his pallet. Green is a combination of blue and yellow. Orange is a combination of red and yellow. And so on. Then, using these three simple colors, he paints a vibrant masterpiece that inspires millions.

Is it remotely possible that the three primary colors could naturally mix on their own to form a masterpiece such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Of course not.

In the realm of nuclear physics, how did we get from three atomic particles – protons, neutrons and electrons – to the vast complexity that characterizes the universe today? To be more specific, how could Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus and other atoms combine to form the Genetic Language that is written on our DNA – which makes us human? Can a language develop on its own in the natural world?

The answer is simple. Just as it takes a skilled artist to mix the primary colors and make a beautiful painting, it takes some independent, higher intelligence to mix the protons, neutrons and electrons to form a universe that is infinitely more complex than a simple painting.

God is the master artist! The Bible says that the heavens are God’s handiwork (Psalm 19:1) and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139). Genesis 1 tells us that God built the universe and wrote the genetic script for all living things!

 Humans are Different.

Even though everything in the universe can be broken down into protons, neutrons and electrons – physical stuff, in other words – the Scriptures teach us that God added something else to the assembly instructions for mankind.

Genesis 1:26-27 says that God made man in His image, and has given us dominion over the earth. What this means is that even though we are made of dust like everything else in the universe, we have been infused with something divine. In one way, we are unlike everything else and like God.

John 4:24 says that God is a spirit. He is not physical, but spiritual. His existence transcends the physical world of protons, neutrons and electrons. According to Scripture, we share in this essence. We, too, have an eternal spirit – a part of us that will transcend our physical existence. Ecclesiastes 3:11 affirms that God has placed eternity in our hearts. Man’s spiritual nature is seen throughout Scripture, and this is something that we understand and accept.

Why is it that we are so different? Why is it that we seek a greater purpose? Why is it that we concern ourselves with the “afterlife?” Why is it that we ponder philosophy and beauty, and seek to understand the workings of the universe? Because that is how God made us, and us alone.

The more that I study nuclear physics and science in general, the more I resist the argument that we (humans) are nothing more than “stardust.” Yes, it’s true that everything in the universe is physical and can be broken down very specifically into the same physical building blocks…but there is something intuitively different about humanity. We are not just protons, neutrons and electrons.

A parting thought…

Any deep study of science reveals the unquestionable fact that the world we live in – on both a micro and macro level – is incredibly complex and ordered. The math always works out. Even though many see science as a threat to religious faith, I see it as evidence of religious faith. This could not all have happened by chance. There is a spiritual reality that transcends the physical world, and our nature – our capacity for love – is proof of that.

Studying nuclear physics is like studying the primary colors and the vibrant combinations of colors on the pallet. Trying to understand how those colors are organized on a canvas to make a beautiful painting…well, that leads us to God – the master artist and Great Physicist.

Have We Tuned God Out?

We come to the right conclusion, based on 1 Corinthians 13, that miraculous gifts no longer exist, but we then make the broad statement that miracles don’t happen today. There is a difference between miraculous gifts (performed by men) and miracles (performed by God). The cessation of the former does not demand the cessation of the latter.

We go to great lengths to prove that the Holy Spirit does not literally indwell believers today. We argue that the Word indwells us, Christ indwells us, God indwells us…and because none of these indwellings are literal, the indwelling of the Spirit must not be literal. We draw the conclusion that the Spirit dwells in us representatively through the Word…so that as we study, the Spirit’s influence over us increases. Whether the Spirit literally indwells us our not, the Scriptures are abundantly clear to any honest observer that believers have a very real and very intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. And yet we detach ourselves from Him.

We argue based on Galatians 1:6-8 and Jude 3 that God’s revelation to mankind was completed in the first century. God no longer reveals law to us. We then draw the conclusion that because God doesn’t speak law to us anymore, He must no longer speak to us at all anymore. How is this even remotely a necessary correlation? And yet so many brethren mock and condemn those who believe that God has spoken to them. If someone believes that God has spoken to them in some way, and it does not represent law or a contradiction of what has already been revealed, why would we tell them that they are lying or self-deceived?

We make the case that Christians are instructed (by both command and example) to pray to God the Father through Jesus Christ. He is our Intercessor and Mediator, after all. While it is true, I believe, that we direct our requests and petitions to the Father, there is no logical reason to conclude that such a pattern forbids all communication with the Son or even the Spirit. “Talking to” Jesus and petitioning the Father are two totally different things, just as petitioning a Judge and talking to one’s lawyer or friend are not mutually exclusive.

In all of this, many believers water-down the believer’s relationship with God. We argue that God no longer performs miracles in the world, that the Spirit is no longer directly active in our lives, that God cannot speak in any way to His people (other than through the Word given 2,000 years ago), and that we cannot utter a word to Jesus, only through Him. While we may acknowledge the potential of a deeper relationship with the Father (through obedience), we have, in essence, relegated Jesus and the Spirit to the annals of history. Even though we may acknowledge the Father to a greater degree, we still limit His power and influence.

It’s no wonder that so many Christians struggle to experience intimacy with God.

And I honestly wonder how we can even develop intimacy with God if we have pushed away the Spirit and the Son. After all, God is three, but one. The unity of the Godhead cannot be broken. How can we have the Father if we have pushed away the Son and Spirit?

I resolve to begin talking to Jesus. I resolve to invite the Spirit into my life. I resolve to be open to the voice and leading of God. And I have repented of pushing God away. It’s not that I expect, necessarily, to hear God’s voice audibly, or to witness a grand miracle before the day is out, but I absolutely do not want to be guilty of limiting God. I want the fullness of the power and strength promised in the holy Scriptures, whatever that may be.

Imitating [Divided] 1st Century Christianity

In most ‘churches of Christ’ (Romans 16:16), there is a common appeal to first century Christianity. We can often be heard contrasting the myriads of ‘Christian’ denominations that exist today with the one church that existed in the days of the apostles (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:5). We condemn all of the modern divisions that plague Christianity as antithetical to our Lord’s will (John 17:20-21) and insist that unity can be achieved by a common allegiance, not to human doctrines and manmade churches, but the Word of God (1 Corinthians 4:6-7, et al).

This is an appeal that we ought to make! And these are all valid points that far too many religious people today have failed to grasp.

But I wonder sometimes if we who stand on this soapbox even understand the nature of New Testament Christianity – and what the New Testament says to us and shows to us about Christian unity.

It’s true that Jesus desires the unity and fellowship of His people. While on earth, He prayed that His disciples remain unified (John 17:20-21). The apostle Paul once wrote, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and let there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The theme of unity is interlaced throughout the New Testament. There is hardly a book that does not in some way promote Christian unity – unity in spirit as well as in doctrine and practice. Those of us in ‘churches of Christ’ are right in stressing the importance of such unity.

But we often ignore the overwhelmingly obvious fact that even the first century churches struggled with division constantly!

The Corinthian church was plagued with every kind of division imaginable. Sects had formed within the church (1 Cor. 1:11-13). There was an ungodly tolerance of immorality (1 Cor. 5). They were suing each other (1 Cor. 6:1-8). They weren’t united in their observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-34). The assembly, regrettably, wasn’t a time of encouragement and worship, but rather a time for gloating and selfish ambition (1 Cor. 14).

This was a church where the members didn’t get along and the assemblies were an embarrassment to the name of Christ…and yet Paul still thanked God for them (1 Cor. 1:4), considered them sanctified (1 Cor. 1:2), and continued to work and worship with them.

Paul didn’t condone their divisiveness or their immaturity, but neither did He alienate them or refuse to associate with them. He didn’t react by saying, “I just can’t be encouraged by a church that has so many problems…and so I’m going to go where I can be encouraged.” He didn’t make it about him. Instead, he recognized that this was the Lord’s leaving-arrivingchurch in Corinth and was willing to do whatever it took to help them.

Now, there were other churches that did bring Paul much greater joy. For example, he had a great relationship with the brethren in Philippi (Phil. 4:15-19). Likewise, there are churches today that are strong just as there are churches, like the Corinthian church, that have plenty of issues. You might walk out of some church assemblies feeling like you’re on cloud nine, but then walk out of other church assemblies feeling empty or cheated…maybe even upset.

And while it’s true that churches ought to promote unity (Phil. 4:2-3), be sources of joy and comfort to us (2 Cor. 2:3), and conduct assemblies and studies that encourage us in our walk with Christ (Heb. 10:24-25)…

…we must also understand that churches are filled with flawed people…people with a very broad spectrum of personalities and problems.

And therefore, we must cherish the unity we have when we have it, and soak up all of the encouragement that we receive from our brethren and from our assemblies, but we must also accept the reality of the battle we’re all fighting and resolve to stand with our fellow soldiers of Christ through thick and thin, remembering that Satan is our “adversary” (1 Peter 5:8), not we ourselves.

That’s what real unity looks like! It’s not this idealized scene of Christians holding hands and singing Kumbaya…while also remaining in perfect unity on every doctrine and principle of Scripture. Real unity is the shared willingness to stand together and remain committed to each other through every trial, every disagreement, every personality clash as we seek greater unity. And even when divisions occur and brethren have to part ways for the sake of the work (Acts 15:36-40), such chasms need to be quickly and eagerly bridged (Col. 4:10).

On a more practical level, when your church is stained by scandal or infighting or controversy, don’t react by saying, “This isn’t what we find in the New Testament.” No, it’s exactly what we find in the New Testament. You may be discouraged and even reach a point where “going to church” is no longer enjoyable. But do you remember what Paul wrote? “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).

And what did John say about it? “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Our brethren are sometimes not worth loving, and we may want to give up on them. But we weren’t worth loving and God should have given up on us…yet God did love us and did not give up on us. And this is the kind of unrelenting love we’re told to imitate within the church. Let that sink in.

We need to remain committed to our brethren – fellow sons and daughters of God with whom we hope to one day spend eternity in His house – because they are our brethren, not because they are perfect. Like with any family, we need to work through our problems and continue to love each other…because that’s what families do. It’s sometimes ugly. And maddening. And disheartening. But the bond we share is worth fighting for! And the joy we bring each other at the end of the day – because of that bond – is sweeter still than any temporary pain or discomfort we sometimes inflict on each other.

And as we fight these battles together in the trenches of this spiritual war, and as we sometimes even fall prey to friendly fire, we learn more and more the true meaning of love and sacrifice. This is New Testament Christianity; this is true Christian unity – not the Kumbaya nonsense.

Sometimes, discipline has to occur within the family (1 Cor. 5). Sometimes, we have to publicly denounce error that is being touted by fellow saints (Acts 15:1-2). Things can get ugly. But our goal, through it all, is to work through these problems together (1 Cor. 5 –> 2 Cor. 2; Acts 15:1-2 –> the rest of the chapter) and emerge from the trenches more unified, still walking hand in hand. When that doesn’t happen and brethren leave the faith, those who remain must press on!

Yes, we ought to imitate the first century churches, but in doing so, we’re necessarily imitating [divided] first century churches. The hope today, just as it was two thousand years ago, is that we will remain unified through it all so that, in the end, we can bring glory to our God.

“I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.” (John 17:20-21)

A Balanced Approach to Liberty

Jesus, our King, has given us a law to govern our lives. We find that law in the New Testament. From Matthew to Revelation, we find laws and principles that govern the activity of the church (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:15) and even our personal behavior and conduct (e.g. Gal. 5:19-26). When we violate this law, whether it’s by committing fornication, getting drunk or disregarding God’s plan for the organization of the church, we are guilty of sin (1 John 3:4).

As Christians, if our desire is to submit to Christ, then we must “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). And what is the standard by which we determine whether something is “good” or not? We’re told that the Scriptures are what “[equip] us for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But, not every aspect of our lives is specifically governed by Christ’s law.

Sure, there are principles that ought to guide our decisions in these areas (and all areas, for that matter), but because there are no explicit rules, these decisions must be relegated to personal judgment.

Because these are matters of personal judgment where there is no predetermined right or wrong – what Paul calls “doubtful matters” (Rom. 14:1) – we’re to refrain from judging and condemning those with whom we disagree, allowing them to make their own choices for their own reasons. It’sromans 14 like Paul says in Philippians 2:12 – we each have to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”

In matters of revealed law, we need to hold each other accountable to God’s law, recognizing that sin threatens our fellowship with God. But in these matters of liberty, or personal judgment, we cannot take the same approach. We can advise and counsel, but at the end of the day, we cannot pass judgment (Jas. 4:11-12). To pass such judgment is a direct affront to Christ, and I’m afraid that there are many Christians out there who will have to answer to God for their Pharisaical approach in many of these areas.

Having said that…

The fact that we have liberty in Christ doesn’t mean that we are free to do whatever we want. The fact that I “have the right” to do something doesn’t mean I should, or that others don’t have the right to disagree or share their counsel with me.

Consider with me a few principles that ought to govern our understanding of the liberty we have in Christ:

  • The fact that something isn’t inherently sinful doesn’t make it right, or wise. This is the entire point of Proverbs. Paul echoes this thought in Ephesians 5:15-16 when he writes, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Now, there are going to be things that some people view as wise and others view as unwise. This is where we have to be patient with each other.
  • In both Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, we learn that we should be willing to sacrifice our liberties in cases where we have weaker brethren whose faith will be destroyed by our example. It’s important to recognize that Paul isn’t talking about brethren who are offended by your actions, or who disagree. He’s specifically telling us to forgo our liberties if exercising those liberties will cause a weaker Christian to stumble and fall.
  • In Galatians 5:1, Paul tells us to, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” But then he says in verse 13, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Many Christians abuse their liberty. They use liberty as an excuse to be worldly, and to satisfy their fleshly desires. This is wrong! We cannot forget that while we are free in many respects to make our own choices, that we are still “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). In everything that we do, we must seek to make sure that Christ is honored.

The fact that we have personal liberty in Christ is a blessing (Gal. 5:1). In Romans 14, it’s interesting to note that the stronger, more matureChristians were the ones who had a greater understanding of liberty and felt free to exercise many of those liberties. And it’s clear that we must allow for diversity in these areas, and leave ultimate judgment to God.

But, I hope I have shown that liberty is not a license to just do whatever we want, without any concern for the consequences. We have an obligation to walk in wisdom, to be considerate of our brethren, of our influence in the world, and of the reputation of Christ.

Because even though something might not be inherently sinful, we are guilty of sin when we willfully cause weaker brethren to stumble (1 Cor. 8:12), and also, a carnal mind is “enmity against God” (Rom. 8:6-7).  So the consequences of our decisions as well as the attitude motivating our decisions can make something absolutely wrong that is not inherently wrong. We must, therefore, handle our liberties with extreme care and caution.

 

I’d like to close this article by sharing two guiding principles that, if followed, will resolve most of these disagreements and help us tremendously in our walk with Christ:

  1. Each of us must “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). This should be a mantra for each of us as we seek to serve and honor Christ.
  2. In terms of how we deal with disagreements in these matters: “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ…Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:10, 13). Advise and counsel, study and pray…yes, yes, yes! But at the end of the day, leave judgment to God, and seek peace with your brethren.

So often, there is a one-sided approach to liberty. I’ve tried, in this article, to share a more balanced approach.

I hope it helps.

Fighting for Rights I Don’t Necessarily Endorse

In the last couple of months, as I have articulated the importance of recognizing and respecting Christian liberty (the realm of personal judgment) in numerous articles, Facebook posts, and in-person discussions, many have incorrectly drawn the conclusion that I am endorsing certain behaviors and activities that I believe fall within the realm of liberty.

I have spoken often of things such as prom and tattoos. My point has not necessarily been to endorse these and other such choices, but to point out that these ARE, to varying degrees, matters of liberty or personal judgment, and that we cannot, therefore, unilaterally condemn those who make such choices (to get a tattoo or attend the prom). Both of these are either widely condemned or, in the very least, STRONGLY discouraged by those in “conservative churches of Christ,” so my argument that we cannot unilaterally condemn or judge such actions has been interpreted as endorsement or approval.

This is not a fair or logical response.

One isn’t endorsing a thing simply because he/she doesn’t condemn it.

Think of the American soldier who goes to war to preserve our freedoms and liberties as Americans, even though he doesn’t necessarily personally agree with the exercise of some of those liberties – for example, the right to protest the very war being waged by the soldier.

On a spiritual level, I absolutely do not endorse the prom. In fact, I would try to discourage any young Christian person from going – for many of the same reasons touted by those who condemn it outright. But at the end of the day, because prom isn’t condemned in Scripture (or even dancing, for that matter), but rather lust, lasciviousness, ungodly attire and the carnal mind, I’m not going to condemn prom outright. And just like that American soldier who fights to protect even those liberties that he may not personally endorse, I will stand against brethren who condemn that which God has not condemned just as I will try to reason with the young Christian who has expressed a desire to attend.

In texts such as Matthew 12:1-14 and Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus staunchly opposed the Pharisees for creating laws and bylaws that God had not Himself created in the written Word. There is a real problem when we draw lines that God has not drawn and condemn others for not complying with our lines.

“He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” (Prov. 17:15)

“In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9)

“There is ONE Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” (James 4:12)

Oh, and just read Romans 14 again…and then again, and go ahead and read it a third time for good measure.

I agree that we have to walk in wisdom (Eph. 5:15), but wisdom is often adjusted and/or defined by one’s particular personality and circumstances. I agree that we are not to make provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14), but, again, each of us has to make this decision based on our own unique circumstances. I agree that we are to shine as lights in this dark world (Phil. 2:14-15, et al), but that may look differently for different people.

We can and must teach these biblical principles, but we have to be careful to avoid condemning others based on our own personal, somewhat subjective application and commentary of these Scriptural principles. Teach the principles and counsel others based on your wisdom, but let each one work out his/her own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

These are points I’ve made before.

My main point in this article is that just because I fight to preserve the realm of liberty that Christ died to establish, and just because I oppose those brethren who, like the Pharisees of old, teach as law their own unspoken set of bylaws and rules…does NOT mean that I unilaterally endorse each and every liberty that I mention or speak of.

I know that this is a battle worth fighting because it’s a battle Jesus fought time and time again. Why? Because God alone is the Lawgiver and Judge, and it is flat out wrong, if not blasphemous (and arrogant) to assume these roles for ourselves.

I hope this makes sense.

Avoid All Appearance of Evil

In 1 Thessalonians 5:22, we find a verse that is often quoted, and I believe, often misused…

“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (KJV)

Many Christians interpret this to mean that we should avoid doing anything that could potentially “appear” evil…whether it’s evil or not. You could be doing something that is absolutely innocent, but if someone might interpret your actions as unwise, wrong or evil…then you should “abstain.”

Another verse that seems to support this interpretation is 1 Corinthians 10:31-33…

“Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”

We shouldn’t do things that might appear offensive or hypocritical to those in the world, because our goal is to save them, not turn them off.  So instead of exercising certain liberties, we should “abstain from all appearance of evil.”

While this sounds reasonable enough, the fact is that this position simply isn’t tenable. Think about it. Almost everything we do could be misinterpreted by someone.

  • Two men who live together as roommates might be seen as homosexual partners, so should men never be roommates?
  • Eating at Applebees or Chili’s might give some the impression that we’re drinking at the bar, so should we avoid eating at restaurants where the bar is a major focus?
  • Spanking your kids in public might offend a great many people, and even give the appearance that you abuse your children, so should we avoid disciplining our children in public?
  • Jokes and satire, especially on Facebook, are misinterpreted as offensive all the time, so should we avoid humor altogether just to be safe?
  • Owning a nice home and driving a newer car might offend certain folks in the lower class, or make it appear that you are worldly or attached to your riches, so should we avoid the appearance of evil by living in older homes and driving older cars?
  • A lot of folks think that organized religion is corrupt, so to avoid the appearance of evil, should we give up our church buildings and a lot of the traditional formalities that characterize modern churches and make our churches more organic and informal?

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point. Almost everything we do might appear evil to someone who has a certain radical belief system, or to someone who is just hyper-sensitive and hyper-critical.

And then I think of Jesus…

Did Jesus avoid every “appearance” of evil?

Not if this is what it means.

  • To the Jews, the tax collectors were the dirtiest, rotten sinners in the land…maybe even worse than the dirty, rotten Samaritans. Many of the Jews, and especially the Pharisees and other religious elite, refused to associate with such people. And yet Jesus went into a tax collector’s home and ate with the tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:10-11). The Pharisees saw it and had a cow (vs. 12)! To them, his actions appeared evil. Did Jesus stop? Did He apologize? Nope. In fact, He publicly defended his unconventional actions.
  • Jesus knew how his Jewish brethren felt about the Sabbath. To many of them, it was sinful even to heal on the Sabbath Day. Did this stop Jesus? Nope. On multiple occasions, He healed people and did things that some of the Jews interpreted as “work,” knowing full well that it would offend them and appear evil to them (Mt. 12:1-8; Mark 3:1-6, et al). He could have told these people who were sick and lame to come back the next day, but instead, He healed them right then and there, knowing that it would create a problem.
  • The Jews had a harmless tradition of washing their hands when they ate bread, and yet Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands. This most definitely offended the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 15:1-2. It appeared evil to them! Did Jesus apologize and encourage His disciples to sacrifice their liberty for the sake of appearance? Nope. Instead, He chastised the scribes and Pharisees for the way they elevated their traditions above God’s commandments (vs. 3-9).
  • As I mentioned before, the Jews despised the Samaritans just as they despised the tax collecters…so much so that the Jews who traveled from Galilee in the north to Judaea in the south, took a longer route around Samaria just to avoid the region. And yet Jesus passed right through Samaria and even spoke with a Samaritan woman alone (John 4). Even His own disciples, when they saw him talking alone with the woman, they “marveled” (vs. 27).

Jesus did many, many things that were unconventional and even counter-cultural…things that appeared evil to many of the very people He was hoping to teach and win over.

Did Jesus’ actions violate the principle of 1 Thessalonians 5:22? If we’re to abstain from every “appearance” of evil, and if Jesus did many things that appeared evil, stirred up controversy, and offended people, then it’s safe to say that He violated the principle of  1 Thessalonians 5:22.

Can you believe that? I can’t.

The only alternative is that we’re misunderstanding the verse in question. In fact, I think that’s exactly what’s going on here. At the beginning of this article, I quoted the KJV’s rendering of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Let’s notice this verse in the NKJV…

“Abstain from every form of evil.”

This is a better rendering of the Greek. Paul isn’t telling us to avoid doing things that might “appear” evil, but rather to avoid every kind of evil…not just some kinds, or some forms. So it has to be inherently evil to be evil.

Jesus did things that “appeared” evil, but He never did anything that was evil.

When we use this verse in 1 Thessalonians 5 to condemn things that might “appear” evil or offensive to the world, we’re misusing the verse, and drawing a line that we have no right to draw. In fact, Jesus’ very example ought to teach us that it’s okay, and sometimes even good or necessary, to be unconventional, if, in the end, it’s a good thing to do.

To put it another way, we are not obligated to avoid doing things that might elicit damning snap judgments from others, whether Christians or not.

I’d like to delve into Christian and non-Christian judgments for a few minutes…

As far as Christian interactions and judgments are concerned:Christians have an obligation to “not judge according to appearance, but…with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Also, if you see a fellow Christian do something that “appears” evil, you have an obligation to go to them privately and seek clarification (Mt. 18:15-17). When you see a brother or sister in Christ do something that looks fishy, you do not have the right to assume the worst, or condemn them. Don’t make snap judgments, or judge according to appearance.

As far as non-Christian judgments are concerned…

I agree, based on 1 Corinthians 10:25-33 and other texts that we as Christians need to be willing to give up things that might hurt our influence in the world. To most effectively lead people to salvation, we must become all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22), which may mean making adjustments to our lifestyle, depending on the culture in which we find ourselves.

But we can’t make make broad, condemning judgments about certain activities and behaviors on the basis that “it might appear evil” to someone in the world.

First, we don’t have the right to make rules that God hasn’t made.

Second, this is something that each of us has to work out for ourselves based on our own unique circle of influence. What is true for you may not be true for me. And what’s true for me may not be true for you.

Third, there is a difference between things that might cause some in the world to question you in some way, and things that will be so culturally offensive that your influence is lost. In the former case, their judgment may be based on some misunderstanding or assumption and the confusion is easily dispelled. In the latter case, you’ve lost your chance of ever even getting your foot in the door.

What is the conclusion?

There are cases where we should sacrifice our liberties for the sake of our influence, especially when dealing with outsiders. Paul had Timothy circumcised for the sole purpose of maintaining a positive influence with the Jewish people they were trying to reach for Christ. Even Jesus tried to avoid offending the Jews at times (Mt. 17:24-27).

But the command to “avoid every form of evil” doesn’t mean that we have to avoid all things that might appear evil. Among Christians especially, snap judgments should NOT be made and accusations should NOT be thrown about carelessly. If Jesus’ example teaches us anything, it’s that being unconventional and counter-cultural is sometimes necessary.

And we shouldn’t shy away from that.

Or be ashamed of it.