Christians have a bit of a reputation problem.
Really, the problem isn’t that we have a reputation for being judgmental. It’s not that we have a reputation for being angry or negative. It’s not that we have a reputation for being hypocritical. Those might be problems, but they’re problems that somebody else’s blog can address.
Instead, the problem with Christians and our reputation is that we worry about our reputation way too much.
To a degree, it makes sense. “Avoid the Appearance of Evil.” You know. It’s scriptural.
Except that it probably isn’t. At least not in the sense that we tend to use it. See, typically we read that as “Avoid looking like you’re involved in Evil.” Which seems like generally good advice, right? Don’t put yourself in situations in which others might think you’re sinning, because then you tarnish your ability to witness. Seems like wisdom, doesn’t it?
But that’s actually not what the text says. The word for appearance doesn’t involve other people’s perception at all. It might be better paraphrased as, “Evil manifests itself in many different ways. Avoid engaging in all of them.” Or as most modern translations put it, “abstain from all forms of evil.”
This may seem like a silly translation quibble, and not the kind of thing you want to take time out of your day to read, but it’s very important in its application, because it fundamentally alters the way we engage with the world. If our focus is on the appearance of evil, we’re severely limited in our ability to perform actual ministry in the world. If the filter by which we engage with people is, “Does this make me look bad?” then we can never engage with people the way that Jesus did.
Think about it. Who did Jesus spend the most time hanging out with? Illiterate fishermen yes, but also prostitutes, greedy traitors (mostly knows as “tax collectors”), murderers (or Zealots), and unclean people. Jesus is so immersed in “sinful” people, that the Pharisees talk about him behind his back, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2).
But you notice, Jesus doesn’t hop up and say, “Well now hold on fellas. I was just trying to tell these people about God. I don’t condone or endorse their sin, and I’m sorry for giving off the appearance of evil. I won’t do it again.” Instead he tells them a parable about sheep. About losing sheep. About how when a shepherd loses a sheep, he has to leave the rest of the sheep and go look for the sheep in the countryside so he can bring the sheep back and rejoice.
But before we get to the finding of the sheep and the rejoicing, let’s take a minute to appreciate what a shepherd has to do here. He has to go out to the lost sheep. He has to enter into the very environment that the lost sheep is in. Rather than yell for the sheep to come back or else it will
burn in hell be eaten by wolves, he goes out and finds the lost sheep and brings him back.
But what if the sheep takes a while to find? What if the sheep is unwilling to come back to the pen? What if the shepherd is gone a long time? What if other people start to think the shepherd is lost too?
It doesn’t matter. The shepherd will risk it to save the sheep. He leaves the safe sheep, risks his reputation as a shepherd, and seeks out the lost sheep. Because finding the one sheep is better than maintaining your good reputation with the other shepherds.
What the Pharisees think doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to Jesus is taking care of the people he’s with.
What we get is this great lesson that the seeking the lost is more important than hanging out with the un-lost. But I wonder if somewhere over the last 2,000 years, we’ve let go of that understanding of Christianity.
It seems like every day, somebody on my Facebook newsfeed posts something about how somebody somewhere is upset about a business run by Christians that won’t serve gay people. Invariably, people from both sides of the issue will show up in the comments section, and someone will wind up saying something like, “I love gay people, I just don’t want to endorse their sin.”
Translated: “I don’t want other people to think I’m okay with this.”
Now look, this doesn’t just apply to homosexuality, although that’s the example that got me thinking about this. There are all kinds of things we avoid just so that other people won’t think we’re sinning. I have friends that think drinking is a sin, and therefore they wouldn’t even set foot in a bar, just in case someone sees them there and thinks they’re sinning. As a minister, I’ve been cautioned about going to watch certain movies, or admitting to liking certain TV shows, or browsing certain websites because it might be seen as an endorsement of all of the content. It’s common advice (particularly for teenagers) that you should only surround yourself with positive influences, and not hang out with people who engage in morally bad or questionable activities. But if that’s true, who’s looking for the lost sheep?
At some point we have to step back and ask ourselves – Is the fear of what people will think about me keeping me from living the kind of life that Christ intended for me? Am I missing out on opportunities to love and care for other human beings because I don’t want to perceived as endorsing their behavior?
And if the answer to those questions is yes, perhaps it’s time to break up with our reputations.
As in the parable of the sheep, the sheep can only come back to the fold if the shepherd goes looking for them. The sheep can only be found if there’s someone out there finding them. Let’s face it, very few people come to a lasting relationship with Christ because they thought a church’s billboard was funny so they went to church. Even fewer people come to know Christ because someone yelled at them that they were sinners.
It’s easy to stick with the 99 sheep. The 99 sheep are relatively well-behaved. They stayed with the herd. It’s hard to put our reputations in the line and engage in ministry and service that might look bad. But that’s the life of service that Jesus called us to. Abstaining from the appearance of evil is often what gets in the way of real ministry being done. But the sheep will be brought back by the one that dines with them. The lost will be found by one who goes looking for them.
And you know what’s interesting? Despite the fact that Jesus hung out with tax collectors, murderers, prostitutes, unclean people, and all manner of other sinners, he managed to escape with a good reputation anyway. Despite the fact that he stepped in and saved an adulterous woman from her just punishment, everyone still knows Jesus is opposed to adultery. Nobody reads that story and says, “Jesus endorsed adultery.” Instead, they see a shepherd who leaves the 99, finds the lost sheep, and brings it back.
So maybe, if Christians would stop being so worried about the Appearance of Evil and turn that focus onto the lost sheep, we might actually be able to speak Christ’s love and grace into the lives of people, instead of alienating them as evil and wrong. If we can engage with integrity in the world, rather than run away from it, we might be able to bring in all the lost sheep. And that would be cause for celebration. But if our focus is on our reputation as Good Christians™, we can never be the type of servants that Jesus called us to be. And there’s no celebration for having a good reputation. Only for lost sheep coming home. May we abandon the quest to be well-liked and highly regarded, and instead join the search party.