In the wake of my comments last week about scandalous housing arrangements, I’ve been pondering the degree of responsibility we bear as followers of Jesus for how we are perceived by others. Is it our job not only to avoid sin in our own lives, but also to avoid giving other people the impression that we might be sinning?
The affirmative answer to this question certainly has a hold on the white evangelical Christian consciousness. We see it, for instance, underlying the now-(in)famous “Billy Graham rule,” in which Graham and his (all-male) ministry team committed not to meet one-on-one with a woman, even in a public setting. Graham explained their reasoning this way: “We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.” For Graham and his compatriots, public encounters with women did not need to contain any actual compromise in order to be rendered off-limits; the mere appearance of compromise was sufficient to prohibit them.
Granted, you could argue, maybe Graham and others like him are making this choice for themselves for the sake of their own public ministry reputations, rather than implying that every Christ-follower ought to behave the same way. Maybe so. But Graham does give the impression of universality in one of his follow-up comments: “We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: ‘Flee … youthful lusts’ (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV).” By linking his own actions to a biblical mandate (even one given to a budding minister), Graham suggests that he’s motivated by more than mere personal preference.
Embodied: The Latest from Preston Sprinkle
Foremost among my concerns with the Billy Graham rule is the way it reduces women to sources of sexual temptation, making “flee youthful lusts” functionally equivalent to “flee women.” Such a reduction dishonors the imago Dei, limits women’s access to mentorship and opportunity in a male-dominated society, and perpetuates the very kind of oversexualization that it purports to address. Far lengthier treatments could be (and have been) written on this subject by thinkers far more qualified than I.
But for our present purposes, I’m not so much interested in the particulars of the Billy Graham rule as I am in its exemplification of a larger narrative that calls on Christ-followers to avoid the appearance of evil.
This language comes from the King James Version rendering of 1 Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” About ten other English translations also use the word “appearance” to translate this passage. And a few simplified translations expound the principle still more plainly; the NLV, for instance, renders this verse, “Keep away from everything that even looks like sin.”
So then, that settles it, right? If the Bible calls us to avoid every appearance of evil, that’s what we ought to do?
Well, yes and no. Words don’t always mean what we think they mean; especially not when they’re ambiguous English words standing in for Greek words.
Before we get to the Greek, let’s start with the ambiguity of the English word appearance. This word has (at least) two very different sets of meanings. In one set of meanings, the appearance is a façade, a mistake of perception that has no bearing on reality. In the other set of meanings, the appearance indicates perceptions linked to concrete realities. Consider the following example sentences:
- “Her smile had the appearance of warmth, even though I could see the dagger raised in her fist.”
- “I’ll make a quick appearance at the party if you promise not to force me to sing karaoke with you.”
- “After the teacher’s sudden appearance, the students climbed down from their desks with chagrin.”
- “The water I spilled on my shorts has given the appearance that I peed myself.”
In sentences A and D, the appearance in question has no bearing on the reality of the situation. In sentences B and C, the appearance represents an actual physical presence being correctly perceived by those to whom it appears. Which kind of appearance is 1 Thess. 5:22 prohibiting: the kind that looks like evil (even though it actually isn’t), or the kind that actually is evil?
The answer to this question becomes clearer when we look at the Greek word that the KJV renders as appearance. This word is eidos, the cognate noun to the verb form eidon, meaning “to see.” An eidos is the visible shape or form of a thing—a thing that is seen because it actually exists. This meaning is clear in the other four New Testament uses of the word:
- Luke 3:22: “The Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form (eidos) like a dove.”
- Luke 9:29: “As he was praying, the appearance (eidos)of his face changed.”
- John 5:37: “You have never heard [the Father’s] voice nor seen his form (eidos).”
- 2 Cor. 5:7: “For we live by faith, not by sight (eidos).”
Because the Greek word eidos offers more clarity than the English word appearance, the vast majority of English translations (including commonly used translations like the NIV, the ESV, and even the NKJV) render 1 Thess. 5:22 “every kind of evil” or “every form of evil.” Both of these translations capture the intention of the text far more clearly. Paul’s admonition is not to stay away from anything that might look like evil, but to stay away from evil in every form it appears.
Just in case the superiority of this translation were in doubt, we can double-check it by holding it up against the life of Jesus. Did the savior of the world, in the time he was on earth, make it his mission to avoid giving other people the impression that he might be sinning? If so, why did he party with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other ambiguously identified “sinners”? Why did his critics call him a glutton and a drunkard? Why did he have a private conversation about personal topics with a Samaritan woman gifted in husband-acquisition, and allow another unnamed woman known by her sinful reputation to anoint his feet with perfume and wipe them with her hair? (One-on-one encounters with women? Imagine the “appearance of compromise”!)
When we claim that our Christian obedience calls us to avoid the mere appearance of evil, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of holiness than the only perfectly holy human being who ever lived.
Of course, none of this solves the question of how and when we ought to restrain our actions for the sake of other people’s consciences. “It is better,” Paul tells us in Romans 14:21, “not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else” that will lead a Christian sibling into sin in their own lives.
But whatever the situations to which this important principle applies (which might someday comprise a fitting blog post topic of its own), we can be sure that Paul is not forbidding us from ever acting in ways that some people might misunderstand as sinful. After all, this prohibition doesn’t work on Jesus. Jesus didn’t bend over backwards to avoid scandal. He prioritized his relationships with the marginalized over his pristine reputation among religious people.
If it’s good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for you and me.
 Which was, incidentally, Graham’s preferred Bible translation for preaching.