Sunday, March 31, 2013

Legalism and the Tyranny of Outward Appearance

As bad as legalism is - the adding of extra-biblical rules to either define sin and righteousness or to add requirements to salvation - the extra emphasis placed on outward appearances as part of that legalism is much worse.  A church can teach no drinking, no smoking, no dancing or no going to movies in its legalism and produce some self-righteous people, but when it teaches to refrain from making any outward appearances that reflect any of these things in the way we live, dress or move to a new apartment, it can create some pretty hard core Pharisees with very toxic doctrine.

I've had the misfortune of attending several churches where a heavy emphasis was placed not only on do/don't rules, but on outward appearance.  Or maybe it was fortunate in a way because now I know how to notice those things and avoid them, and tell others.

One of the verses often twisted out of its true meaning is 1 Thessalonians 5:22, "Abstain from all appearance of evil." KJV  I'll give an example of how this is used with relation to drinking, smoking and moving to a new apartment.  Back in the day before either self-storage or cardboard recycling became popular, when people had to move the best source of cardboard boxes to pack one's belongings was the grocery store. So, we'd go to the store and ask for boxes, and the stores were more than willing to give the boxes away because that relieved them of breaking all the boxes down and placing them in the garbage dumpsters.  Many of the boxes were empty cases that originally contained alcohol and cigarettes.  So when you moved, those boxes were visible to those who helped you move or to bystanders in your new and old neighborhoods.  By using a Marlboro or Budweiser box to move, the outward appearance driven legalists would claim that you were giving an "appearance" of evil, even though anybody with half a brain could deduce that you were merely using discarded cardboard boxes to move.  It simply didn't matter.  This placed a heavy burden on anybody when moving, because they had to take extra care to pick and choose wisely which boxes to use.

Another personal example is in driving expensive cars as giving an appearance of evil of spending lots of money on vanity and ego when you could drive a modest car and give the rest of the money to print gospel tracts or similar spiritual things.  My brother has spent his entire career in the auto service/repair field.  The shops have great policies for family members of employees, namely that repairs are performed "at cost."  Our m.o. was to have me swap cars with him in the evening, and he would drive my car to work the next day, have it fixed, and swap back that evening.  Well, one time my brother got a great deal on a used BMW 5-series car, and I needed a repair that could only be performed over the weekend.  So we swapped cars...and it dawned on me that I had to drive to church on Sunday!  In a BMW!  The Pharisees would certainly notice my display of vanity (it would be assumed until proven otherwise that I was acting quite worldly), and I was trying to figure out how to park several blocks away without anybody noticing, etc.

Every area of life imaginable was subject to the outward appearance nazis, and they certainly made their fair share of comments about anything you could imagine.  They also made their fair share of judgments about people in their hearts without ever saying anything, thus condemning others without anybody (except God, hahaha) knowing about it.  I should know, I was taught to be such a person, and it wasn't until later that God was merciful in showing me the tyranny of this way of thinking and living.  Your rich uncle buys you a pair of designer sunglasses (costing nothing to you)?  Tough, you're putting worldliness on display.  Being thankful to God and your rich uncle for providing a helpful item at no cost, is, well frowned upon becuase of the outward appearance. 

People subject to this type of legalism can be spiritually crippled for a long time, even eternally.  We shoud instead learn from Jesus when he says, "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” John 7:24.


  1. I remember talking about this one with you years ago. I thought you were going to talk about the understanding of the word "appearance", as in something that looks like something else, or as in something showing up or revealing itself. I don't think I have ever heard it preached that it could mean a revealing of something, although that would make much more sense. Otherwise Jesus would have broken that so many times it's not even funny! He did things that looked evil to others all of the time. That's why they called him the names that they did. But that understanding doesn't appear to appear among many preacher's thoughts, or if it did, they hid it well and kept it from appearing! :P
    You should write one on that issue. I know you'd do it better than I can.

  2. Steve,

    When our family moved to seminary we used many different types of liquor boxes. The boxes were both strong and the perfect size. I recall trembling a bit at what others would think when we arrived. No one said anything, but I felt nervous nonetheless.

    1. Eric, we are interesting creatures. To clarify a bit, and not that you didn't get this already, but feeling awkward about how things might look or what people might say is natural. It's the idea that people expect a complete avoidance of such as a requirement for righteousness that is the problem. If anybody made a judgment about your character or standing before God because of the boxes, then that is the issue. We should treat each other with liberty in such situations.

  3. Steve,

    In my previous life as a religionist this was drilled into me constantly. I thought I had worked through all my religion-warped notions but I missed this one. Until today I had the idea that this verse was saying to avoid the "appearance" of evil. It only took a simple comparison of translations to see I was wrong.
    Thanks for bringing this up. You made my day.


    1. Bob,

      Thanks for commenting, and I hope this helps you in the future. One thing I've come to say about the appearance of evil is that evil has to actually appear for there to be an appearance of evil.

    2. Exactly. BTW I shared this with my family and my teenage daughter said "Cool!" Any day I can get that kind of response from her is a good day.

  4. I remember hearing about a young man I know who refused to continue dating a young woman because...she had a Coach bag! Proof positive that she was materialistic and high maintenance, out of his high school price range. Never mind that the only way middle class girls her age ever get Coach handbags is in the form of a hand-me-down from their mothers.

    Loved this post. Mind if I include it in this months Christian Blog Carnival?

    1. Jennifer,

      Yes, you may include it. I would be honored.

      Now if I only knew what a Coach bag was! Time to Google (verb). :) Thanks for the story.