Corrupting Good Manners
by Rick Shrader
Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.
1 Corinthians 15:33
I have written at least three previous times about manners1 as many have done who grew up in the turbulent ‘60s when the civilities of society were turned on their head. It was John Silber, past President of Boston University, who in a 1995 graduation speech, directed our thoughts back to John Fletcher Moulton (1844-1921) or Lord Moulton, English Judge and Councillor, and to his essay on Law and Manners. Moulton described three domains of human action: total law and total free choice on the extremes, and manners in the middle keeping either extreme from becoming dominant. When manners disappears or becomes weak, totalitarianism or antinomianism will take over a society. It has been the observation of many in my life time that America, like our big brother Great Britain, has abandoned manners and unfettered freedom (disguised as individualism, human rights, etc.) is reigning. As it does, big government is attempting to establish order in the vacuum of self government.
D.A. Carson wrote, “Many observers have rightly concluded that unless a democratic state is made up of citizens who are largely in agreement over what is ‘the good,’ that state will tend to fly apart, forcing the government itself to become more and more powerful and intrusive in order to hold things together.”2 But what is “the good”? That is really our problem, isn’t it? We are at a time when individual citizens do not know what is good and how to achieve it without outward constraint from government or inward restraint from ourselves. That is, we have no manners.
In an ironic way we idolize figures who have shown us manners. Of the days of William Wilberforce and John Newton of England, both of whom are admired for putting a stop to the slave trade, Os Guinness included this note, “There is little doubt that Wilberforce changed the moral outlook of Great Britain, and this at a time when the British Empire was growing and Britain was the world’s leading society. The reformation of manners grew into Victorian virtues and Wilberforce touched the world when he made goodness fashionable.”3 It is ironic because while we idolize these men, we shudder at the Victorian virtues that came with them.
It wouldn’t hurt America to have a Victoria or even a Miss Manners again! It is still curious to watch Red Skelton read the Pledge of Allegiance on Facebook, or Paul Harvey tell the rest of the story. But in real life we have few who have taken their place. Emily Dickinson said, “The abdication of belief makes the behavior small.”4
When I was a pastor in Colorado, I liked to take the Junior kids to camp in the mountains. I spent the week telling them to wash their hands and faces, take a shower each night, make their beds each morning, and eat something besides gummy bears. After a number of years perfecting this cultural adventure, I settled on a descriptive theme verse, “And about the time of forty years suffered he their manners in the wilderness” (Acts 13:18). But one can excuse junior behavior because it is necessarily immature, even laughable. But things we laugh at about our children we should not laugh at as adults.
My childhood pastor, Harold Rawlings, used to say “The wilderness encroaches.” Unless we keep cutting back the weeds and the forest it will quickly take over our space. This has to be done with each generation or we won’t be reading about the pagans, we will be the pagans! We used to see pagans only in National Geographic magazines, and now we can have them in our living rooms through sports, music, and even politics.
Paul’s use of “Manners”
Think again of that verse in 1 Corinthians 15, “Be not deceived, evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame (vss. 33,34).” Paul was arguing for the fact and necessity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without this fact as our foundation, our house is built on shifting sand. Don’t be deceived, one who does not know Jesus Christ has no sure way of keeping the wilderness of bad manners from creeping into his/her life.
The word “manners” is not a common word in the Bible. The Greek word (ēthē) is used only here in the whole New Testament. For that reason it is translated “good morals” (ASV, NASV, ESV), “good habits” (NKJV), “good character” (NIV), but preferably “good manners” because it means a manner of behavior, a settled habit, much as we use the word manners to describe self control or good conduct. In other places we have the word “manner” (e.g. in verse 32, “the manner of men”) but that usually means the customary actions of people.
It is interesting also to realize that this is one of only a few places where Paul quotes extra-biblical sources (see also Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12). This is almost an exact quote from Menander in his Thais. Grosheide says,
It may be that this is not a direct quotation from Menander but that this line had become generally known. If so, its value as a potent argument would be greatly increased for Paul would be telling these Greek Christians, who had gone back to their former pagan customs, that their own proverb warned them against their evil conduct.5
The point is that these Corinthian Christians were carnal because they had allowed false teaching which denied the resurrection of Christ, and this false teaching was corrupting their very manners.
The Corinthians’ bad manners
MacArthur points out that the Corinthians would have been aware that many of the Greek poets and historians had advocated bad behavior based on bad theology about life after death. He writes,
The Greek historian Thucydides reported that when a deadly plague came to Athens, ‘People committed every shameful crime and eagerly snatched at every lustful pleasure.’ They believed life was short and there was no resurrection, so they would have to pay no price for their vice. The Roman poet Horace wrote, ‘Tell them to bring wine and perfume and the too short-lived blossoms of the lovely rose while circumstance and age and the black threads of the three sisters fate still allow us to do so.’ Another poet, Catullus, penned the lines: “Let’s live my Lesbia and let’s love, and let’s value the tales of austere old men at a single half penny. Suns can set and then return again, but for us when once our brief light sets there is but one perpetual night through which we must sleep.’6
Paul knew that bad manners results from bad theology. As only Paul could do, he scolds the Corinthians for their historians’ advice by quoting their historian’s advice. No theology is as bad as denying the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lenski writes,
Paul intends to say in the present connection that association with deceivers who are full of skeptical ideas is bound to react hurtfully on the good ways of life (ethe) of Christians. Instead of letting the divine truth mold their manner of living they let the false and insidious ideas of their associates mislead them. Even one bad apple spreads rot among many others. He who rejects the resurrection cannot live and act like one who truly believes this divine reality.7
Paul said the same thing twice, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6, Gal. 5:9). The Corinthian problem permeates modern Christianity too. We borrow manners or habits or lifestyles from the world without a care that they were born into the world by bad theology. We sing the world’s music, we exercise to Yoga, we watch movies from New Age astrologers, we mark our bodies like pagan sun worshipers, we even riot in the streets like Nazi Brownshirts. Evil communications have corrupted our manners.
Applications to make
1) Even lost people should have basic manners. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God their Creator. We are not animals even though we may receive life and breath from the same source (Acts 17:25). When any society forgets this, their civility will quickly be lost. Kenneth Myers said, “If the Noble Savage is the highest form of man, you can hardly protest if his table manners are deplorable.”8 A whole society can be brought to a higher level by the influence of a few believers or by laws that reflect their belief. Of course, the Devil hates this, and the lost soul soon loathes the misunderstood restrictions. As Chesterton said, “It is assumed that equality means all men being equally uncivil, whereas it obviously ought to mean all men being equally civil.”9 Look now at Western Europe and Great Britain that were influenced for centuries by the Reformation. Now they loathe the expected public demeanor. America is also losing its patience with a Christian history that has given us good manners as well as morals. They will soon cast it off because the lost soul will not abide a lifestyle formed by a theology it no longer believes. Don’t be deceived, Paul said.
2) Manners is not the same thing as salvation. We often make the mistake of meeting someone who believes in God, maybe goes to church, and does a lot of good things, so we call him a Christian. Again, human beings are capable of many good and wonderful things. But good and wonderful works do not magically become grace. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Vance Havner said, “Greatness does not excuse unseemly behavior, it only makes such misconduct more serious.”10 The lack of civility ought to teach to repent rather than trust our own goodness.
3) A believer has a new source of information. Once we are saved, regenerated by the Spirit of God, we are introduced to a whole new avenue of information: revelation from God! Now we will accept the Bible as the Word of God and we have a built-in interpreter, the Holy Spirit. Paul was glad for the salvation of the Thessalonians because, “when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thes. 2:13). John told his readers, “But the anointing [Holy Spirit] which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you” (1 John 2:27). John was also aware of false teachers who brought in error and bad manners with it. “They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know ye the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:5-6). These were “evil communications” that were corrupting good manners.
4) The believer’s new life raises his manners above his fellow earth dwellers. We are not so much reclaiming a fallen culture as we are living out a new culture created in us as new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul showed that the works of the flesh are “contrary” to the fruit of the Spirit and that you “cannot” do the thing which is contrary to you (Gal. 5:17). “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him; rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught” (Col. 2:6-7). Again, Havner said, “Age and experience in the things of God do not accentuate our crudities, they remove them.”11
5) A believer’s manners are for the purpose of drawing the unsaved to Christ. One way in which we see manners corrupted in our day is because we think we must become more like the world to win the world. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The Spirit desires the lost person to see his sin and then desire righteousness and then choose righteousness over sin. “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). When Paul witnessed to Felix and his wife, “he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled” (Acts 24:25). Years ago Eric Sauer wrote, “Enriched in Christ, the practical realization of these riches is now our duty. This is at once our task and privilege. The redeemed must live as redeemed. Bearers of salvation must walk as saved. They who possess heaven must be heavenly-minded.” C.S. Lewis said, “Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.”12
6) The believer’s manners should not, therefore, be corrupted by the world. Paul has warned us, “Be not deceived’ (1 Cor. 15:33). We should not let our manners be corrupted first and foremost because God has warned us not to let this happen. That must be our highest priority. We cannot apply a popular pragmatism and argue that we will accomplish more for God if we become like the world to win the world. We can call it reclaiming culture, or following a cultural mandate, or even loving them so much we’re willing to change. That would be a mistrust in what God has said. Rather, we must strive to be what God has called us to be and trust that this will be the best for all these purposes. Surely having God on our side is the best we could do.
C.H. Spurgeon wrote, “If Christ has died for me, ungodly as I am, without strength as I am, then I cannot live in sin any longer, but must arouse myself to love and serve Him who hath redeemed me. I cannot trifle with the evil which slew my best Friend. I must be holy for His sake. How can I live in sin when He has died to save me from it?13
And So . . .
If the ship of state goes down, the church of Jesus Christ will not. The future of Christ’s church depends not on any human organization but on the promises of God. Yet the church has often, and will yet, go through troubled waters. If those waters are created in this beloved country it will be because it loses its manners. When the middle ground of manners disappears either totalitarianism or antinomianism will take over. Right now we are watching the fight between these two, even in the extremes of political candidates.
How great it would be if Americans could again practice self-government or manners. If we could police our own language, have respect for other peoples’ property or businesses, obey the laws of the land even when they are inconvenient, refuse to flaunt our crudities and nakedness in public, and even allow our neighbor to practice his faith in private and in public, we would keep the unwanted extremes from happening. But the believer will do these things regardless of what the world does, and he will find his rest and inward peace in knowing God is pleased.
- See my Aletheia website for articles from 10/95, 3/99, 6/02. www.aletheiabaptistministries.org
- D.A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Chicago: Eerdmans, 2008) 137.
- Os Guinness, Character Counts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999) 87.
- Quoted by Bruce Lockerbie, Dismissing God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 35.
- F.W. Grosheide, Commentary on First Corinthians, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, Gen. Ed. (Eerdmans, 1979)378.
- John MacArthur, First Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984) 429.
- R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of I and II Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub., 1963) 699.
- Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton: Crossway, 1989) 142.
- G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (New York: Doubleday, 1990) 99.
- Vance Havner, Rest Awhile (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1941) 84.
- Ibid., 83.
- C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns (New York: HBJ, 1986) 80.
- C.H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, Vol. I (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992) 99.