Examining the “Guilt by Association” Rule

Examining the "Guilt by Association" Rule

There are many things that Scripture says are right or wrong. However, there are many facets of modern choices that are not explicitly addressed by Scripture. We are required to apply Biblical principles as we navigate our daily choices. Not comfortable with that personal choice, some Christian leaders have attempted to add clarifying rules to help us choose. One of these rules, which undergirds many legalistic arguments is that things are wrong because they are associated with evil. We’ll call it the rule of “guilt by association.” But is this really a Biblically justified rule? And if we applied this rule uniformly, what other things would we end up banning? In order to evaluate this argument, we will first hold it to the light of Scripture, and then see how the rule holds up when we start to apply it fairly, not just when supporting pre-existing beliefs.

Does the Bible say to not do anything that is associated with evil?

The most often cited verse in defense of this rule is 1 Thessalonians 5:22 “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The verse does not actually say “abstain from things associated with evil,” it says that what we do should not look evil. “Association with evil” just means that an action has interacted with evil – an evil person invented it or it sits on the shelf next to something evil. “Appearance of evil” is an action that is not evil, but looks to a casual observer as if it is. This verse doesn’t actually say anything about actions associated with evil – it talks about a different, albeit related, topic.

Note that the definition of evil is also constrained by Scripture, not a subjective term that people can use to make us do what they want. “You shouldn’t listen to that music because I think drums are evil.” “Drumming” is not an evil mentioned in Scripture. The Bible still gets to define what evil is. You shouldn’t spend a night in a hotel with a person of the opposite sex that you are not married to, because it makes it appear that you are committing adultery – a specific, Biblically defined evil.

Ok, so we shouldn’t do things that make us look like we are doing evil, but our world is full of evil. A tremendous number of ordinary actions and places provide opportunities to do evil or look like you’re doing evil. What guides us as we try to avoid looking like we’re doing evil? If you send an email on your phone, someone may think you are posting hateful comments on a racist discussion forum. If you go into a restaurant that has alcohol, people might think you are a drunkard. If you talk quietly with a friend after church, you may look like you are gossiping. In Europe, gas stations very often have fully naked women on the covers of magazines in full view. Clearly, looking at such magazines is wrong, but is it wrong to go into the gas station? How do we abstain from the appearance of evil when opportunities to do evil are connected to everyday life?

There is an excellent Biblical example that gives advice on what to do when a practice is associated with evil. It is Paul’s advice concerning eating food sacrificed to idols. It seems that in Roman times, the easiest way to get meat was to buy meat from a place near a temple, where it had previously been sacrificed to an idol (go figure, the idols never actually ate it). The Bible even suggests that sometimes you would actually go into a part of the pagan temple and eat the cooked meat on the spot. This practice was deeply associated with pagan idolatry, and was sometime recommended against for new Christians who didn’t want to return to an old lifestyle.

Paul could have simply said “don’t eat food sacrificed to idols” and taken one verse to do so. Instead, he devotes four chapters to discussion of the issue. In Romans 14, Paul elaborates that eating meat sacrificed is not inherently immoral, but some are personally convicted against it. He tells us that weak Christians should not judge those who eat the meat sacrificed to idols. V 4 “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” In other places, the Bible tells us to lovingly correct Christians who are sinning, since Paul didn’t say that here, clearly eating meat sacrificed to idols can’t be sin. He also tells us that strong Christians shouldn’t intentionally do anything that may cause a weak Christian to violate their own personal conviction. V 21 “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” This is also the passage in which Paul says “let not your good be evil spoken of.” This verse is often cited in the context of the rule against any action associated with evil.

Paul delivers a similar message in 1 Corinthians 8:10, where he says even more strongly that eating food sacrificed to idols is not wrong, however “if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols” So, we see that Paul didn’t see an inherent moral problem with going to a pagan temple to buy meat that had just been sacrificed to idols, but he wouldn’t do it if he knew there was a weak Christian around who thought that he might be there to worship the idol. Or perhaps, he might buy it in the marketplace, but he wouldn’t go inside the temple to eat it.

Does this mean that a man who says “I believe it causes a stumbling block of lust if a woman shows her wrists” gets to make all Christian women hide their wrists? No. The Bible doesn’t say we must kowtow to the strictest standard in the room. Paul gives us clear liberty, but then says we must exercise that liberty with love. In 1 Cor. 8:8-9, he says “But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” So Paul calls eating meat sacrificed to idols a “liberty” – which means it is something that a Christian can do righteously. He doesn’t say “give up your liberty lest you become a stumblingblock,” he says “take heed [be aware] lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock.” He then says that while you can eat food sacrificed to idols, you should be careful to do it in a way that means you won’t confuse others about whether you practice idolatry.

So, for example, how would we deal with the person who thinks women should cover their wrists? First, we must ask if we are really going to make him or anyone else stumble. In 98% of cases with such an extreme rule, that answer is no. Such a claim is made to be controlling, not out of a humble cry of weakness. Second, if we think he could really stumble, we should probably take action to strengthen his faith, so that he is not always so weak. Third, if the guy is really this weak, maybe women should stay away from him for a while. He sounds kind of creepy. These actions would allow a Christian woman to exercise her liberty of showing her wrists, while dealing with another person in love, so as not to be a stumbling block to him.

The Bible teaches that exercise of Christian liberty is a loving give and take – not a “demand and do.”

Even in the very passages that detractors cite, the Bible is overwhelmingly clear that we can morally partake in practices that are associated with evil. As long as you exercise your liberty in love and with caution, it is your right to do things that are associated with evil, as long as they don’t make you look like you are acting in an evil way.

In light of this, how do we solve the problem of whether we can go into a gas station with provocative imagery? Does that violate the Biblical principle of not looking like you’re doing something evil? The answer is that it is a case by case determination, guided by Biblical principles. A man spending a night in a hotel with a woman to whom he is not married has very few explanations other than adultery. Going into a gas station has plenty of reasonable explanations other than satisfying lust. But even with the same case, the best course of action may depend on the person. At one extreme is a married woman, who is in no way tempted, nor viewed to be tempted by lust after pictures of provocative women – I see no reason why she shouldn’t be able to buy a soda at that gas station. At another extreme is a man who was just converted last week and is in the habit of thumbing through the magazines every time he goes in – he should probably pay at the pump or his friends will think he’s gone back to his old ways. Where you fall is a matter of your discretion, which will increase in accuracy as you “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior” and follow the guidance of the Spirit.

How does the “guilt by association” rule work in practice?

The Bible explicitly contradicts the idea that you can assert that all things that are associated with evil are therefore evil. The Bible teaches that preventing others from stumbling is complicated, based on love, and cannot be practiced simply by applying a guilt by association rule. In addition to that, the guilt by association rule doesn’t work very well anyways, because many ordinary things are associated with evil at some point. There are three main versions of this rule, that I will analyze in turn. I’m not going to analyze the all the facets of the example statements here, I’ll just show that the argument itself is insufficient to support the restriction.

A) The Recent Past

For example, “Women shouldn’t wear pants, because they are associated with aspects of the feminist movement, which rejects the Biblical truth that men and women are different.” If this is a good argument, what else is true? Women working outside the home is associated with the feminist movement. Women voting is associated with the feminist movement. Women having the right to own property is associated with earlier parts of the feminist movement. Women wearing bras instead of corsets is associated with the feminist movement. Women going to college is associated with the feminist movement. If the feminist movement associations are a good reason not to wear pants, then women shouldn’t ever work outside the home. I’ll bet your great-grandmother who never wore pants probably didn’t have a college degree either.

B) The Distant or Pagan Past

For example, “Wedding rings are wrong, because they were invented by the pagan Greeks and therefore associated with paganism.” If this is a good argument, what else is true? The pagan Greeks also invented the shower, the spiral staircase, democracy, the truss roof, and many other things which we would also have to throw out. The names for the days of the week, months of the year, planets, and the words “Easter” and “Hell” are all derived from pagan gods. The bouquet, bridesmaids, and the veil of the bride were all pagan traditions which originated to distract and ward off evil spirits. Bronze, paper, the ox drawn plow, the sickle, the modern alphabet, the sun dial, the calendar, toothpaste, glass, shaving, high heels, and breath mints were all invented by the pagan Egyptians – some in conjunction with pagan worship. Pagans invented temples before God ever instructed His people to build one. Paul quotes pagan philosophers in 1 Corinthians 15:33, and does so positively.

C) The Biblical Past

For example, “Makeup is wrong, because it was associated with the wicked queen Jezebel.” If this is a good argument, what else is true? Jezebel also was the only one in Scripture to talk to someone from a window (which she did as a part of her plan to deter Jehu from killing her, just like the makeup). “Graven images” or statues of any kind, are always associated with idol worship – that would include any ceramic figurine (essentially a higher tech clay idol) or wooden carving. “Scarlet” or red clothes are both associated with the prostitutes in Scripture. A platter or a “charger” is only associated with the decapitation of John the Baptist. The instruments that were used to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image were the same ones the psalmist used to praise God. The phrase “I love you” is only found in Scripture referring to anyone other than God, when Delilah said it to Samson. Washing hands is explicitly associated with the Pharisees, but not the disciples. “Long prayers” are exclusively associated with the Pharisees. Baldness is always associated with the judgement of God.

In summary, the “guilt by association” rule is not found in Scripture, and is undermined by Pauls’ statements that Christians can eat food that was associated with the evil of idol worship. Furthermore, we find that this principle is only applied when convenient, to justify pre-existing beliefs. If we applied it more fairly, none of us would shower, own figurines, or hope our daughters go to college. What the Bible teaches instead is liberty to make our own choices about things not addressed in Scripture, as long as we do so with love and awareness of the people around us.

-Nathan Mayo

Find this interesting? Check out all of our articles here.