Christians are told to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22 ASV). Not only are we to abstain from it, we must abhor it (Romans 12:9;). This goes for the more subtle forms as well as the more blatant forms. Let’s look at three basic forms that Christians would do well to avoid.
Things Unconditionally Sinful.
There are certain things inherently sinful. It is never right to engage in such things. I know that Paul wrote that there is “nothing unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14). He also wrote that we are to “come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing (2 Corinthians 6:17). Did he contradict himself? Not at all. The verse in Romans has to be taken in context. In this passage, he was dealing with problems that arise over things not inherently sinful. It is like where he said in other places that “all things” are lawful (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:23). The “nothing” and “all things” are not universal, but limited to the context.
The Scriptures plainly speak of things that simply should not be done – period. The works of the flesh and the like are unconditionally sinful. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Peter 4:15). Some things are condemned by name, others by principle. Things like gambling or cheating on school exams, are not named, but they violate principles taught in the scriptures and thus always sinful.
Things Circumstantially Sinful
Some things may be good and lawfully permitted in some circumstances but not in others. The eating of certain meats are discussed in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. While some think that in Romans he may have included the meats forbidden by the Old Testament, for the most part he is speaking of meat that had been offered to idols in both cases. At any rate, he makes it clear that whatever meat he had in mind was “clean of itself” under the present order. Ordinarily, it was not a sin to eat it. It was just meat – like any other meat.
He is speaking of things that Christians may do but nothing they must do. Ordinarily, they can either do them or not do them and be pleasing to God. Yet, there were certain conditions that would make them wrong, yea, even sinful to do them. There were certain “ifs” that must be considered.
Let’s notice a few circumstances mentioned by Paul that would make that which is ordinarily lawful sinful: 1) When it becomes a spiritual stumbling block to weaker brethren – thus influencing them to sin. 2) When done in doubt, i.e., without full assurance of faith (Romans 14:23). Such would override the conscience, which must not be done, lest the conscience be seared. 3) When done at the wrong place or wrong time. In 1 Corinthians, circumstances are given where meat sacrificed to idols could and could not be eaten by Christians. It could be bought in the marketplace and eaten (10:25-26). It could be eaten at an unbelieving neighbors house if the host simply served it without religious significance. But, if the neighbor said, “This is offered in sacrifice unto idols,” it would take on religious significance. That would indicate that this feast (or meal) was being dedicated to the idol. If the brother continued to eat with him, it would indicate, at least in appearance, if not in fact, that he was worshiping the idol. Both the eighth and tenth chapters show why they must not participate at all in the feasts at the idols temple.
I can think of a number of things that are ok in one setting but not in another. There are items of apparel that are not inherently wrong but become wrong if worn in mixed company – say at the beach or the pool or the gym or any other place where both men and women are present.
There are things, biblically speaking, that are not condemned but have a “bad name” in the community in which we live or may be questionable in the minds of many in the church. What should a Christian’s attitude be about such things? What would be the charitable thing to do? Always insist on exercising our Christian rights (not duties) regardless of the consequences? Ponder what Paul says in Romans 14:16-19. He basically tells the brethren that the kingdom of God and things pertaining it (like peace, edification, and good will) are more important than a piece of meat or glass of wine (even the unfermented kind): “Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.” (Romans 14:16-19 KJV)
While things unclean of themselves cannot be made clean by circumstances, some things clean of themselves can be made unclean by circumstances.
Things Potentially Sinful
Then there are some things, though we are not be able to prove them sinful, that are so unwise that they should be discouraged (though not strickly forbidden). The seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians deals with some marriage questions under what Paul calls “the present distress.” (v. 26). Given these circumstances, he strongly advises against marriage without outright forbidding it. In fact, he says that if one married they would not sin, but it would not be good under the circumstances. Sinful of itself? No. Unwise? Yes.
For examples, one may not be able to find a passage that teaches that it is absolutely sinful for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, he can find many reasons for its being unwise and potentially sinful. They would be entering into the relationship with different interests and values. The influence, for good or bad, of one spouse on another is immeasurable. As wise as Solomon was, it was said of him:
“Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women.” (cf. Nehemiah 13:26 NIV).
Someone said that “Solomon drank the well of wisdom dry, turned off the fauset, and jerked up the pump before he died.” Of course, Solomon sinned when he married foreign or pagan women because such was forbidden under the old law. Our purpose in using him as example is to show how strong the influence of these women were upon him. Even if he had not sinned in marrying these women, they would have likely led him into sin.
Over the years, I have known religiously mixed marriages to work out beautifully in a goodly numbers of cases. The non-Christian is converted and things seem great. But, that is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases it brings many problems and heartaches – often divorce. In most cases, even among those that “work out,” the couples strongly urge their children and others to marry Christians because the potential for sin is so great.
One other piece of advise: When looking for a Christian to marry, don’t merrily look for one who “got baptized” thus a “member of the church.” Look for one who is a “disciple indeed” and it is demonstrated by his life day by day.
There are other potentially sinful things, though not necessarily sin within themselves. Certain close companionships or friendships have the potential for corrupting one’s morals. (1 Corinthian 15:33). There are certain relocations in life that one would do well to avoid because of the potential for adverse influence on his family. Lot is a good example of this kind of move. In order to pursue the “well watered” land around the Jordan River, he “moved his tent as far as Sodom” (Genesis 13:12). This resulted in the loss of most of his family due to sin. It was predictable because Sodom was no place to raise a family. While all Christians must raise their families in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, some places are worse than others. One should not allow the lure of a “better job” to buy “more and better” things for himself and his family to blind him to the potential disaster awaiting down the road.
In fact, we would do well to avoid joining ourselves into any arrangement that puts us at a disadvantage morally and spiritually. This would be an unequal yoking. (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14). This could apply to business, social or civic arrangements. The prohibition is not merely yoking together but rather an unequal yoking. This is illustrated by the Old Testament prohibition of yoking of an ox and donkey together. (Deuteronomy 22:10).
Things unconditionally sinful are relatively easy to spot because they are generally plainly spelled out in the text. But, spotting things circumstantially or potentially sinful takes more maturity and knowledge. This is why we should constantly be growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. I suspect that this might be one of the reasons why the Lord commands that the overseers in local churches be men of age and maturity rather than novices. There are many times when they need to know what circumstances would make an otherwise innocent thing sinful. Also, they need the ability to see the potential for sin in certain practices that people are trying to introduce into the church.