Do appearances matter?

Politicians know—or they should—that appearances matter. Rachel Notley, former premier of Alberta, recently got herself tossed out of the Legislature for accusing a cabinet member of lying. And over what? Over the government’s firing a senior civil servant who was investigating apparent irregularities in their party’s leadership contest.

Maybe all is actually in order, as the government maintains. But it looks bad. And Ms. Notley knew it was something she should pounce on.

My late parents raised me in the strict piety of the Plymouth Brethren. Among the many other gifts this tradition gave me was seriousness about not only doing the right thing, but appearing to do the right thing. One’s “testimony” must remain clear.

So we avoided card playing not only because it might lead to gambling, but because it was associated with gambling and other people might conclude that we were gamblers. We avoided dancing not only because it might lead to illicit sex but because other people might simply assume we were enjoying a prelude to fornication. We avoided cinemas not only because we might see something we shouldn’t but also because others couldn’t know how circumspect we were in our choice of films. And so on.

One of the favourite phrases in such circles, in fact, comes from the King James Version (of course): its rendering of 1 Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

Christians in Canada today have to negotiate a tense public space. Last week I wrote about prayer breakfasts, wondering aloud about not only what they do, but how they look to a Canadian public many of whom are understandably nervous about anything that looks like a resurgent church-state nexus, anything approaching a Religious Right cozying up to political power. Appearances matter.

As virtually any more modern translation makes clear, however, Paul’s admonition wasn’t about appearances, but about varieties. The New International Version says, “Reject every kind of evil.” And the New American Standard Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, and even the New King James Version actually agree on a wording: “Abstain from every form of evil.”

One recalls that the Lord Jesus himself developed a reputation as a “glutton and a drunkard” surrounded by wicked people (Matthew 11:19). Not only was he willing to be misunderstood, he seemed to positively cultivate a reputation of someone who frequented the company of the morally dubious as he sought friendship with those who might actually want to listen seriously to what he said.

It seems, therefore, that the penchant among many sincere Christians for a public reputation devoid of any ethical ambiguities might keep us from connecting with people who need to hear what we have to say.

At the same time, however, as people who do indeed have good news to share, we cannot be blithe about how we are coming across. Good motives and good messages aren’t enough. We must consider carefully not only what we think we’re communicating, but also what we are understood to communicate.

So it’s not enough for Kanye West to say, “Jesus is King.” How is he saying it? What else is he saying? What is he not saying? How is he living? What is the overall message he is giving to the world?

Of course Donald Trump’s favourite evangelical pastors should pray for him. But how are they praying for him? What else are they saying about him, and America, and God? What are they not saying, that ought to be said as well? What is the overall message they are giving to the world?

And, yes, Christians should pray for those in power. But should we host public ceremonies in which the influential and the famous are not just prayed for, but actually do some of the praying and the speaking? It’s good to signal to our neighbours that Christians care about more than spiritual things. But if we look like we’re angling for influence, what then? We need to check both our motives and our messages—all of them.

Otherwise people might well ask, Who is evangelizing whom?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).