Avoid every appearance of evil?

When it comes to the relational life of a celibate, LGBT Christian, many spiritual directors are quick to challenge a person to avoid every appearance of evil. It can be all too easy for a celibate, LGBT person to be perceived in such a way that suggests that person is living a life far removed from a traditional sexual ethic. We’ve observed that the exhortation to “avoid every appearance of evil” is often applied to cisgender, heterosexual people differently than to LGBT people.

We are not trying to suggest that this counsel is only given to LGBT Christians. Cisgender, heterosexual people are frequently exhorted to avoid every appearance of evil… or more specifically, the appearance of sexual immorality. Men and women are encouraged not to spend time together behind closed doors. Married people are cautioned against having exceedingly close “best friends” of the same gender as their spouses. In churches that practice prayer ministry, men often pair with men and women often pair with women because of perceived emotional connection and comfort. Male pastors are exhorted to avoid giving female members of their congregations rides home at odd hours. Youth workers and teachers receive counsel that an adult should never be alone with a child.

When the exhortation is given, it’s frequently used to help pastors and other adults working in the church avoid accusations of sexual immorality. Indeed, we consider it wise to hold pastors to a higher standard than the rest of their congregations in matters concerning sexual ethics. A sexual scandal is a surefire way to shut down a local church and discourage its members from ever participating in a church community again. Similarly, “avoid every appearance of evil” can be provided as sound advice when unmarried heterosexual couples are trying to navigate important boundaries. Thinking about perceived impropriety can help some people consider what their boundaries should be. The exhortation is writ large where an unmarried dating couple can ask themselves questions about whether their own conduct is likely to create potential for accusations and to conduct themselves appropriately. For example, it might look completely scandalous to drive one’s significant other home at 4 o’clock in the morning, so the couple might decide that they would like to end their time together by midnight instead. There’s flexibility for the unmarried, heterosexual couple to figure out how to negotiate those boundaries. However, when the exhortation is applied to LGBT people, it seems to suggest that every relationship the LGBT person has carries with it the risk of misconduct accusations capable of bringing scandal upon or even shutting down the local church.

When it comes to a spiritual director in a Christian tradition with a conservative sexual ethic advising an LGBT person interested in living into the fullness of that tradition’s teaching, we think “avoiding every appearance of evil” often enters into the conversation because many spiritual directors may associate particular behaviors with being LGBT. An LGBT Christian ought to avoid any hint of immoral behavior. For churches that are inclined to present LGBT Christians with a celibacy mandate, many other situations might be regarded as little more than a “near occasion of sin.” Sometimes it seems the mere mention of one’s LGBT status can trigger up the absolute worst associations for spiritual directors.

There is a point at which a spiritual director’s discomfort with the broader LGBT community can trigger certain auto-tapes. If you yourself are a spiritual director who defaults towards using specific scripts around LGBT Christians, we’d encourage you to read a bit more about why these scripts are not helpful. We think that “avoid every appearance of evil” comes into spiritual direction with LGBT people because it’s a convenient bumper-sticker kind of answer that does not offer a positive vision for how LGBT people can live. When LGBT Christians start asking questions about how to apply that counsel to their lives, they might get answers like 1) Avoid cultivating friendships with people of your same sex, 2) If you need help paying for housing expenses, always have at least two roommates, 3) Do not find yourself alone with a person of the same sex or of the opposite sex, and 4) Only develop a close relationship with a person of the opposite sex if you regard that person as a potential spouse. This sort of “practical” advice can easily be interpreted as “Don’t develop close relationships with anyone. It’s best for you if you figure out a life-sustaining way to be a hermit.” In the end, it’s not so practical at all, and it can lead to feelings of isolation and a sense that the Church has no empathy for the life situations faced by LGBT Christians.

Now what about us? We’re a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple who has lived together for quite a while now. Do we look like we’re up to no good? Maybe. But making that sort of assertion means zooming in on our relationship to think about what we’re doing behind closed doors. You might say that you wouldn’t ever find it appropriate for heterosexual people of opposite sexes to live together before marriage. But let’s think about that for a second: as a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple we are not interested in cultivating a vocation to marriage. We are very interested in cultivating a vocation to celibacy. So a more appropriate line of questions might begin with, “Do our lives show evidence that we are committed to a vocation of celibacy?” For this reason, we make earnest recommendations that Christians investigate what their traditions teach about celibacy in order to help spiritual directors recognize if and how a person is cultivating a celibate vocation. As we’ve mentioned time and time again, we do not think it’s appropriate to define celibacy merely as the absence of sexual relations, and instead we see celibacy as life marked by radical hospitality, vulnerability, shared spiritual life, and commitment.

(Concerning the scriptural verse often used as the basis for this exhortation, Sarah thinks it worth mentioning that the Greek word often translated as appearance in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 might be more appropriately rendered as form. If you’re a Greek geek, check out for yourself what others have written on that topic here, here, and here.)

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