This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Christianity and Appearances

I spent several years heavily involved with a certain Christian culture that stressed the appearance of righteousness and purity. 'It doesn't look good to be alone with a woman. It doesn't look good to be near liquor stores. It doesn't look good to wear shorts or skimpy clothing near the church building. So you shouldn't do it.' Why does it matter? Because onlookers may associate you with various evils and because the KJV tells us to avoid even the appearance of evil (1Thess 5:22). I myself believed and taught that approach to Christian piety for several years, and argued for it rather convincingly in the eyes of some youth who had conflicts with people over their appearances. But does this rationale accurately represent NT Christianity?

What bothered my slightly back then and what convinces me to answer "no" now is the earthly ministry of Jesus. Jesus was notorious for appearing evil. He spent time with women and spoke with them. He socialized with tax collectors--those sharply disloyal to Jewish interests. He associated with all sorts of "sinners" (Matthew 11:19) --people of low class, people who had been guilty of social taboos, people who themselves associated with the wrong kind of people, etc. He also failed to observe the customs and boundaries common to "good" and "respectable" people. He told stories that portrayed as heroes people who were publicly despised (Luke 10:25-37; 16:19-31).

Jesus frequently did things that didn't look good (and in fact looked very bad), and He was frequently harshly criticized by "respectable" people because of it. So was Jesus just a trouble maker? Did Jesus disregard appearances just for the sake of gaining a bad reputation? Did He do what He did just to upset "respectable" people? Did He do it just because He resented the cultural customs and taboos?

No. He did what He did for two reasons that I can see: (1) He broke the appearances rules for the sake of doing what's right (healing on the Sabbath, touching the "unclean", etc.). (2) He broke the appearance rules because He valued authenticity over appearances (consider Matthew 5, 6, and 23). He derided the "respectable" people for the fact that their "respectable" culture of appearanes kept them from doing the right thing and being real and genuine. "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment" (John 7:24).

Could it be the case that religious culture in the 21st century is guilty of upholding a "respectable culture of appearances" which prevents people from being authentic and doing the right thing? i'd say yes--i fear i've been quite guilty of upholding it myself. i'm not going to give a barrage of examples here (though i think there are easily a barrage or two that could be given), but instead i just want to suggest a simple strategy for solving this problem and ask a question (that i do hope some readers will respond to).

How do we change for the better and get rid of this "respectable culture of appearances"? i can't make anyone else do the right thing, but i can certainly make myself do the right thing. So...(1) Be authentic regardless of how being authentic might appear in the sight of "respectable" people, and (2) do the right thing even if the right thing won't look good in the sight of "respectable" people. Allow how things appear to God dictate how you will and won't act or speak or think, not how things appear to other people.

A question: Does Romans 12:17 defeat the point i'm making? If so, why? If not, why?


MrsHonea said...

I think you've made some very good points. I don't believe Romans 12:17 messes with your thinking. "Appearance" and "actuality" are two different things. If somebody watches the whole of your actions and sees that a Christian never betrays their morals even though they move closer and closer to something that may appear questionable, then that Christian has done right in the eyes of everybody- the Christian and the unbeliver.

Warren Baldwin said...

Mrs. Honea makes a good comment to your post - there is a defninite difference b/n how things appear and what they actually are. If you see someone going into a bar can you assume they are going in there to get drunk? Or, could it be they are going in there to "rescue" someone in there that needs help?

This issue of appearance, extended to being careful who you associate with, became a sensitive issue for us when our kids were teens (and we still have one). We wanted them to be able to associate and even minister to anyone/everyone, but I think we need time for their values, morals and faith convictions to mature so they can handle any crowd without being drawn into the crowds behavior.

reborn1995 said...


i think you're right about associations. Social association is a relevant or related issue to this "culture of appearances" business, but associations ethically involve quite a bit more to consider than mere appearances.

here i meant only to reference the portion of the association issue that is relevant to the issue of appearances. i think you're right that children ought to be taught that who you associate with is not "no big deal."

What i fear though is that we may teach our children by example and implicitly that (1) appearances ought to be valued prior to or even equal with authenticity, and (2) that appearances are a right and godly way to measure the worth or character of ourselves and others. While i believe both (1) and (2) are incredibly dominant unspoken trends/values within 21st century North American religious culture, i believe they are entirely anti-Christian. i want to work hard to rid myself of them, and to teach my son to do the same.

Dusty Chris said...

I like the way you think. Thanks for posting such a thoughtful post.

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