Biblical Social Ethics: Association Principle

God has given us various principles in His Word that can be applied to help us make godly decisions in our lives. These principles should be used when the Bible does not specifically state whether an activity is right or wrong. However, you should avoid applying these principles to that which God has already prohibited or approved in His Word. Using biblical principles to justify an activity that is expressly prohibited will cause confusion.

Association Principle: Defined

God has told us to abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Something might, in and of itself, not be wrong; however, we are told in the Bible that we should not even do the things that would make others think we might be doing something inappropriate.

Association Principle: Clarifying Questions

  • Will this activity require you to associate with that which is evil?
  • What is the present dominant association of the activity?
  • What does society immediately associate with the given activity?

Playing cards with moneyWhile God’s Word never changes, the associations of activities change. A simple example of this is playing cards in the United States. There was a time when cards were only associated with gambling. The dominant association of cards for both the world and the church was with an activity that has its roots in greed and laziness—both of which are sins that the Bible condemns. But there is nothing inherently wrong with pieces of paper which have numbers and pictures on them.

Today if you saw a mom, a dad and two kids playing cards there is really no association with gambling. The present dominant association with cards today is an activity that people play at family reunions where no money is involved. This is an example of where an activity and its association has changed over time. There was a time when playing cards would have been wrong for a Christian, but those days are gone (though they could come back).

Do people still gamble with cards? Absolutely. However the present dominant association with cards today is not with the activity of gambling.

Thinking a bit further through the example though, there may be a time and place where playing a game of Go Fish isn’t appropriate. If I were visiting my friends who live in Las Vegas, I would abstain from playing Go Fish (or any card game) in a public location. Playing with my family at the family reunion down by the lake is different from playing with a group of men at a coffee shop in Las Vegas.

Association Principle: Biblical Basis

A key passage on biblical decision making is 1 Corinthians 8:1 through 11:1. Paul goes into great detail on applying ethical principles when deciding what is appropriate or not. Was it wrong for Paul to eat meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8)? There was no difference in the meat before and after it was offered. If the meat was fine to eat previous to being offered, then it was fine to eat afterwards. The idol does not change the meat in any way. However, the present dominant association at the time was that eating the meat put your stamp of approval on the activity of idol worship. Eating the meat was strongly associated with the idols. Therefore, out of principle, Paul said that he would not eat the meat (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Here are some passages that help us understand the Association Principle. 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 and Ephesians 5:11, 12 talk about our associations with people. Disassociating yourself from evil things is discussed in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1; Romans 14:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:22.

Association Principle: Application

Here are some activities you can run through the filter of this principle. Using the other biblical principles in this series, you can make your own decision about these activities.

  • Should Christians go to the movies?
  • Is it OK for Christian men to have facial hair?
  • How long is too long for a man’s hair?
  • How short is too short for a lady’s dress?
  • Is it appropriate for you to play cards where you live?
  • Should a Christian go to an office Christmas party? At a bar?
  • Would you go to a restaurant that bills itself as a “Bar & Grill”?

We know that the Bible is a book of absolutes in the matters it discusses, but there are always new activities that we need to evaluate according to God’s principles. Some of the above activities would probably never change, however the present dominant association in your culture may be different than what it is in mine.

What other questions do you think the Association Principle can help answer? Do you have a question about one of the biblical principles of social ethics that you want to ask? Leave a comment below.

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