Back in the day (I think it was probably a Wednesday), I was attending a conservative Bible institute tucked away in the Adirondack Mountains. I had recently decided to pursue full time ministry (of some undefined capacity), and so here I was living in a part of the country that sees temperatures of 25 below in the winters, all so I could receive more Bible and ministry training.
I am very thankful for the time I had there, as it was an extremely formative year for me personally and spiritually. It’s hard to beat the kind of foundation you get from spending almost two full years tucked away from the wider world and going to intensive classes on the Bible, theology, and practical ministry.
Because the branch of Christianity this school represented had some pretty old school conservative roots, we weren’t allowed to do the typical sorts of things college students find entertaining (sex, drugs, and rock & roll) as well as some rather innocuous red-blooded American activities (movies in the theater, dancing, and traditional playing cards).
The rationale for the latter prohibitions was strained to say the least. When pressed for the reason why we couldn’t dance, it was usually argued that dancing doesn’t go anywhere good (vertical leads to horizontal it was assumed). As for the other two activities, both were tied to 1 Thessalonians 5:22 which says “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV). The point was that traditional playing cards look an awful lot like tarot cards which are evil, and there are a lot of pretty evil movies at the theater, and well, if you’re seen going, we don’t know what you’re going to see now do we?
There are at least two things wrong with this kind of reasoning. To begin, that is not the best translation of the verse in question. A better translation would be “Abstain from every form of evil” (ESV) or “Reject every kind of evil” (NIV). Paul is telling the Thessalonians to avoid participating in evil activities, not to avoid participating in activities that could be misconstrued as evil. The way the KJV renders it makes it seem like you should avoid ambiguous activities, but that’s not what Paul is trying to say.
Still, there seems to be the faint sense that we should be avoiding putting ourselves in ambiguous situations that might be construed as evil/sinful. I was reminded of this the other day (it was a Sunday), when my wife had a friend in town (who happens to be my best friend’s girlfriend). Because my wife had to be at church early to sing, her friend and I drove separately to church. And by separately, I mean we went together in the same car, separate from my wife.
A very small part of me thought, “I wonder what other people will think when they see me and this random girl not my wife drive up at church.” There was a faint sense of worry about appearances, but I knew we weren’t doing anything wrong. Plus, it seemed wasteful to drive both our cars to church when we were leaving at the same time. The only reason to even consider it would be to avoid the appearance of sketchiness.
And then, like a ton of bricks, it hit me.
The problem with thinking like this is that is assumes people are reading your actions with a hermeneutic of suspicion. If you’re not familiar with the term from literary theory, it basically means interpreting texts with the assumption that the author is up to something (usually something ideological that he isn’t just coming out and saying directly). In this case, it would mean interpreting an ambiguous action (me showing up to church with a girl not my wife) as if I were up to something. But this isn’t giving me the benefit of the doubt and is basically assuming that any ambiguous action on my part deserves a negative interpretation.
In short, this is how gossip starts. Maybe not every case, but I would be willing wager most cases. Someone does something that is ambiguous or somehow unclear. Someone else sees it, in part or whole, and interprets it suspiciously, and then passes that suspicious interpretation (notice the layer that has been added to the action) on to someone else. The circulation of the interpretation is textbook gossip, and rather than going to the original actor for clarification, we just keep debating who has the best interpretation of what might have happened (or been said).
The real problem with this kind of gossip is that it is failing to practice a hermeneutic of charity with the people around us. Rather than add a suspicious gloss, we should assume the best of those we are in Christian community with. I think as part of the call to love one another, we are called to give each other the benefit of the doubt when it comes to ambiguity in words and deeds. In doing so, we are less likely to gossip and are far less likely to call someone’s character into question without good reason. If you’re consistently assuming the best of those around you, there really isn’t anything to gossip about.
Now certainly there are still some actions that should be questioned. If someone that I went to church with saw me going into a strip club, they probably shouldn’t just give me the benefit of the doubt (“maybe he’s going to witness to strippers”), but should question me on it. But that’s certainly different than telling someone else about it, or just keeping quiet but pondering what I might have been doing there.
What I’m talking about has more to do with examples like I shared above, but it really could be anything that on the surface does not inherently suggest wrongdoing. We will find our interpersonal relationships improve greatly if we just practice charity in interpretation and assume people mean the best.
And even when sometime we’re proven wrong, we extend grace and forgive if we’ve been wronged. In the end, it is much easier to extend grace from a position of charity than it is from a position of suspicion.
Unless someone is using traditional playing cards. Clearly in that case, witchcraft is just around the corner…