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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25 thoughts on “Avoid every appearance of evil?

  1. After becoming disillusioned with the fundamentalist teachings that I heard in my youth, I’ve landed firmly in the “avoid evil every time it appears” camp. The “avoid every appearance of evil” interpretation bore rotten and harmful fruit. For example, people would raise a ruckus if someone was seen drinking root beer from a glass bottle, because a “weaker brother” might confuse that for alcohol, which in the fundamentalist’s world of Gnostic dualism, was evil incarnate. But I digress.

    Anyhow, I appreciate how you’ve articulated how the “avoid every appearance of evil” mandate is applied with excessive zeal to LGBTQ people. I just wish the straight people would come to understand how harmful it is to tell someone that they’re not allowed to develop close friendships with anyone. Maybe some day…

    • Hi LJ, thanks so much for your comment. We agree that cisgender, heterosexual people would do well to consider the impact of their words. All too often it seems they use “Avoid every appearance of evil” to mean “Don’t do anything that makes me uncomfortable.” We appreciate you sharing about your approach of “avoid evil every time it appears.”

  2. “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”.

    I’ve definitely been told to “be careful” about close relationships with other females. Suggestions included: no frontal hugs, don’t sit on the same couch, never sit on the same bed… But I’ve also been told to “be careful” about relationships with men too. It’s incredibly isolating. I’m blessed to have some close friends that do know everything about me and are willing to love me regardless. But even now… it’s like it’s engrained into my brain to “be careful”. I end up pushing people back. I hit a certain point in friendships and cut people off. Like I said, it’s incredibly isolating. A fear has been put inside of me: “What if something happens? What if I end up ‘falling’ for her?” Along with the avoiding every appearance of evil, it even feels like I cannot share these honest feelings. Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m going to run off with girls that I meet or friends that I become attracted to. But I need a space to be honest about even feelings that develop. I have this sense of shame in even admitting that I find someone attractive. I don’t feel safe to discuss these things in the church because of all the automatic assumptions people have. It comes back to isolation and, sometimes, a huge sense of loneliness.

    Regardless of ‘sexuality’ we all need community. We’ve been designed for it. Sometimes community is incredibly hard and uncomfortable, but maybe if we were all willing to just try and enter into that tension. To try and actually listen… There’s many of us out here feeling isolated. Whether by fear, what we’ve been told by christians, or by removing ourselves.

    Thanks for your continuous honesty.

    • Hi L! Thank you so much for this comment. You’ve profoundly illustrated what we’re talking about in this post.

      Your comment about avoiding the frontal hugs made me laugh quite a bit because I remember hearing this too. However, I’m such a hug person that “Lindsey hugs” are best regarded as a global public good. But it’s so true that once you tell a spiritual director that you’re committed to celibacy, the list of things to avoid becomes patently absurd.

      Thank you for sharing about the “Be careful” script that goes through your head. I can relate so well to that script and the feelings of isolation that come when “Be careful” is the only thing you can hear. My Catholic friends had a word for being trapped in the “Be careful” space called scrupulosity. I have found this word helpful because I can notice when I’m being scrupulous, or being over-the-top worried about everything, and ask for God’s help in showing myself a bit of grace. I definitely isolated myself as well. If you’re interested in getting connected with other LGBT Christians where you can talk about these issues more freely, send us an email through the Contact Us page (http://aqueercalling.com/contact-us/). We have a lot of different connections to groups that have been incredibly helpful for us.

      I appreciate your courage in putting this comment out on the blogopshere. You will be in our prayers that God opens up a real community for you. In Christ, Lindsey

  3. As a trans person trying to figure out how my life will LOOK in the future (how free will my gender expression be), I definitely feel harangued by this sort of advice as well as the exhortation to “cause no scandal.” Christ discouraged Christians from needless social upheaval and rebellion when he said to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but it becomes difficult when its an issue of my basic happiness and authenticity. I certainly don’t WANT to scandalize cisgender people by not conforming to their masculine cookie cutter. However, ought I to tiptoe around their social sensibilities at the price of my own happiness?

    • Thanks so much for bringing up the “twin” exhortation about causing no scandal. All too often, this counsel alienates members of the LGBT community and forces them to walk on eggshells.

      One thing that really helped me feel less like I needed to walk on eggshells is that I was once part of a church with my then-housemate, whom I will call Kendall. We became known as a pair: Lindsey and Kendall, Kendall and Lindsey. Being treated as a pair with someone else helped me see that Sarah and I could be normalized as a pair. I still get a big grin when I see “Sarah and Lindsey” on various church communications because it reminds me that our local church does see us as a pair.

      Thanks for the question about “tiptoeing around their social sensibilities at the price of my own happiness.” I’ve found this issue tough, but I have come to treat it on a case-by-case basis. I treat these issues in the same way that some people play chess. There are some people who, for whatever reason, just can’t handle a thoughtful conversation with an LGBT people. The Scripture that comes to my mind is “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” Safety is a real issue that needs to be regarded. One of my spiritual directors encouraged me to recite, “Blessed are you when men say all manner of evil things against you falsely.” when I felt like remarks were particularly flagrant. As trite as it may sound, that verse really helped me learn to let the most critical feedback roll off my back a bit more easily.

      Another thing I frequently think about is how quietly being myself can pose new questions for people I don’t feel safe enough to disclose fully too. When Sarah and I go to church together, so many people in our church are forced to deal with the fact that we’re there and living our life in the church together. We like to think that “Iron sharpens iron.” even when it’s not the most pleasant of experiences.

      As a final point, I’ve been surprised at how God has connected me with people who are absolutely willing to walk alongside of me (and Sarah) every step of the way. In every church community I have found people capable of restoring sanctuary once I started asking God to show me who those people are.

      Gender expression can be tricky in just about every venue. Please know that you have our prayers and support as you sort these issues. Love in Christ, Lindsey

  4. How is it possible to live together and avoid the appearance of evil?

    No matter how much you talk about being celibate, there will always be someone who doesn’t believe you. What if that person decides to follow the example she thinks you’re setting by moving in with another woman, engaging in a sexual relationship with her and then lying about it? Won’t you have led a weaker sister astray by failing to live an outwardly irreproachable life?

    At what point does your personal happiness and convenience supersede your duty to your fellow Christians?

    • Hi Stephen, you have already stated that you’re in a same-sex marriage, so we can say with a fair amount of confidence that you don’t really believe that we could be “leading people astray.” Therefore, the only way we can interpret this comment is as an attempt to provoke an argument. We would like to remind you of our comment policy that comes at the end of every post. We want to engage in thoughtful discussion with all of our readers, but if your future comments are rude and intentionally argumentative, then you will lose the ability to comment on our blog.

      Now to address the issue that you raised because other readers might have a similar set of questions. We believe that the exhortation to “avoid every appearance of evil” is disparately applied when providing counsel to LGBT Christians. The purpose of this post was to show the harmful effects this kind of counsel can have on the members of the LGBT community, especially if a particular LGBT person has sought spiritual direction to grow towards a celibate vocation. If you read the final paragraph of the post, you will notice that there is some discussion about the actual meaning of the verse about which this exhortation is usually taken. “Avoid every form of evil” has quite a different meaning than “Avoid every appearance of evil.” That does not mean that the issue of scandal is unimportant, but the point we were trying to make in this post is that “avoid every appearance of evil” is a bumper-sticker answer handed out to LGBT Christians exploring celibacy. We believe that spiritual directors have an obligation to journey alongside people, giving appropriate and timely counsel to a particular person’s unique circumstances.

      Pam below makes a great point about responsibility for one’s own actions. If a person believes we are lying about our celibacy, we are not responsible for that. If a person decides to enter a sexually active relationship, then that is his or her choice. Avoiding scandal within the church does not mean obsessing over what other people around you are doing and ways that other people around you may misinterpret or misrepresent your intentions.

      • It certainly wasn’t my intention to be rude or to provoke an argument. I’m merely trying to understand how Christians feel that 1 Corinthians 8:13 should be interpreted.

        On the face of it, it looks like a pretty clear exhortation to avoid behaviors that may lead our weaker brothers and sisters astray. I tend to share your point of view that we’re not responsible for the actions of others, but scripture seems to say something else and that when deciding how to live our lives, we should take note of how our behavior affects others and avoid anything that might encourage the weaker amongst us to stumble.

        That the Church applies this rule unevenly is pretty indisputable, so I think you’re right to raise that as an issue. However if heterosexuals are allowed more leeway than homosexuals, surely the Biblical answer would be to rein the straights in rather than giving us greater freedom. Rather than arguing for more understanding for us, shouldn’t you be arguing for less understanding for them?

        Remember that these are questions rather than beliefs on my part. As you point out, I myself am partnered and therefore already state fairly publicly where I stand on this issue. My relationship may well cause gays who believe in celibacy to stumble, but I’m OK with that because I don’t believe I’m my brother’s keeper and I also believe in personal responsibility. Yet scripture doesn’t seem to agree with me.

        I can live with that because I don’t have a particularly high view of scripture and certainly don’t view it as inerrant. Neither am I a member of any Christian church, so I don’t feel bound by the moral codes of any particular faith tradition. But you are fully participating members of one of the most conservative faith traditions. So isn’t there a disconnect between the views you’re stating here and the teaching of your church? At what point does dissent spill over into disobedience and have you reached that point?

        • Focusing a question on one verse of Scripture is engaging in proof-texting. In some Christian traditions, proof-texting is the norm for discussing issues of life in that tradition. Other Christian traditions advocate for different approaches to Scriptural text. Our Christian tradition does not hold to proof-texting as a way of discerning one’s way of life. We would also like to remind you that we have not publicly identified our Christian tradition on this blog, so we’re not sure why you’re saying we belong to one of the most conservative Christian traditions.

          When looking at how grace is extended in the arena of sexual morality, it seems that grace falls disproportionately to cisgender, heterosexual males. We focus on the need to form the consciences of individuals through spiritual direction that acknowledges each person’s unique set of circumstances. Mandating appropriate conduct from “on high” (whatever that means) in a black/white, right/wrong manner is rarely relevant to real-world situations that are full of gray and need to be treated carefully.

          We do take considerable care to practice what we preach by seeking spiritual direction in our own lives that challenges us to grow towards Christ. Moreover, we constantly discern how God is calling us to grow in love in our relationship. We are not practicing dissent. Our spiritual directors are very aware of our situations (both as a couple and individually) and support us.

    • Stephen, I think that you bring up a great point that is relevant in many areas of life. I think that ultimately it is a sort of cost benefit analysis that must be done.

      There are some people, that no matter what you do, will assume the worst. There is really nothing that can be done about this. But I do agree with the idea that there are weaker siblings in the faith that we can ‘help’ to stumble by putting ourselves and our wants over that person’s needs. I have had this very issue come up in my life…and I still haven’t figured out the best course of action (though I do think that part of my problem comes from caring more about my wants than the other person’s needs).

  5. Wow. I was not actually going to leave a reply but what Stephen just wrote spun me around. If another woman decides to engage in sexual behavior and then feels the need to lie about it, it is her responsibility, her fault, her error. Nothing that Sarah and Lindsey ever said or done could change this. People are responsible for their own behavior, that is all.

  6. “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.”

    You might have addressed this elsewhere, but in explaining/defining a life a celibacy like that, how do you differentiate it with just being a follower of Jesus? Radical hospitality, vulnerability, shared spiritual life, and commitment sound like, to me, all things that anyone who wishes to follow Jesus would be wise to cultivate.

    • Hi Rhea. Discerning vocations involves living out the commands of Jesus in a particular set of circumstances. As a couple, we need to sort the specifics of how we practice radical hospitality, we work towards being vulnerable with each other, we share our spiritual life with each other, and we make a commitment to one another. One could make an argument that “loving children” is an essential part of modeling Christ to the world. Yet, the couple who is married with children has a particular vocation to loving their very specific children in addition to the more general command of “loving children.” Similarly, prayer is an essential spiritual discipline of all Christians. Yet, a monastic makes a particular commitment to interceding for the world through his or her prayer life.

      In saying that celibacy is marked by these four virtues, we are not suggesting that these four virtues are absent in other vocations. We believe that celibates are called to emphasize these four virtues differently than married people.

    • Any comment that is not in accordance with our comment policy will be deleted. This is necessary in order to foster civil dialogue. When you comment in the future, be mindful of the comment policy at the end of every post.

  7. My husband and I have dealt with some of these issues a few times during our marriage. While not the exact same scenarios here are a few things that we have decided for ourselves.

    –There is a difference between your responsibility to not cause another Christian brother or sister to “stumble” and not causing another Christian brother or sister to “stumble” into judging you. For example, we were at a church once in Tennessee where the pastor was very against the fact that my husband would have a drink or two in public. Now, this same pastor would drink on occasion, but only in his own house and with the curtains closed. While my husband and I had a few friends that we knew about who did struggle with alcoholism or drinking too much when they went out, we knew that those were people that we would not drink in front of because we might legitimately make things more difficult for them. But to not drink in front of someone because they might judge you is a completely different issue. At the time, my husband actually held a part-time job at a bar and he was able to show the love of Christ and bring more people to church by working at a bar than in any other area of his life. I think a lot of that had to do with being in the Bible belt and a drinking pastor was more of a phenomenon than it is now in Los Angeles.

    –Unfortunately, we’ve had to tighten the reigns a bit in how we handle relationships with our church staff (with my husband being the senior pastor). His initial policy was that he would not meet in a private space with a person of the opposite sex. However, we had a situation where he was out in public (at a restaurant), and a woman came on to him and in a nutshell, encouraged him to divorce me because I was not a “good enough” “pastor’s wife” (a title which I maintain should not have a job description. We were concerned because even though they were in public, she could accuse him of saying whatever she wanted. And that is, in fact, what happened. Thankfully the few people that she did end up telling that he came on to her, knew not to believe her because of her background. But now he is forced to bring another person along when he is meeting with someone of the opposite sex. But now we are starting to have more gay people in our church. At this point, all of the gay men that are a part of our congregation are people that we know well and trust. But at some point I would imagine that this policy might need to extend to anyone, which is unfortunate–because obviously most people do not want to meet with a pastor and have nefarious intentions.

    • “There is a difference between your responsibility to not cause another Christian brother or sister to ‘stumble’ and not causing another Christian brother or sister to ‘stumble’ into judging you.” I agree with this wholeheartedly. Most of the time when people urge others to avoid the appearance of evil, they seem more concerned with feeling uncomfortable than with helping others to avoid sin.

      I’m very sorry to hear that you and your husband have had a tough time with some members of your congregation. We will be praying for you as your faith community becomes a home for more and more LGBT Christians.

      Sarah

      • It’s interesting because we just had to address this issue again today. My husband had a meeting with a guy who is the head of GCN here in L.A. He wanted to facilitate a meeting with a friend of his who is a lesbian. Hearing her story was heart-breaking. She used to be very conservative, was in the closet to everyone including herself and thought that all gay people were going to hell. She was a part of a very fundamental mega-church here in L.A run by John MacArthur (at this point I’m so angry at what they did that I don’t even care about calling them out but I’m happy to edit that out if you’d rather). Over the years as she’s started realizing her sexual identity and came out, she was banned from the church. Literally. She attended the memorial of one of her parents at the church and afterward received a letter from the church saying that as long as she was “living in sin” that she was not welcome on the church property. Unbelievable. Even if you believe such a thing, I can’t imagine showing that little concern for another human being and their well being. My husband is planning on meeting with her at some point in the near future because she is showing interest in attending our church (which she says is a phenomenon because we are a non-denominational Open and Affirming church). While we are planning on registering at GayChurch.com we would not ever put out a rainbow flag because we don’t want to be the “gay church” just like we don’t want to be the “white church” or the “black church” or the “rich church”, or whatever other singular identity. But he was talking to me today and saying that it would probably be OK to meet with her in public alone since she is homosexual. It just made me laugh a bit because I had just left this comment in the last 2 days! Whatever he decides, I’m happy that we are having this “problem” because I think it means we are doing something right!

        • It’s so hard to see how Christians respond to members of the LGBT community with varying forms of “tough love.” Praying for you as you consider how to present your church as a place of sanctuary for all people seeking refuge.

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