An Ethic of Naivete? Of Being ‘Infants in Evil’

Instructing the Corinthian church in the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul moves to expound the different functions of prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.  In preparing the readers for an Old Testament reference that sheds light on the matter, the apostle writes,

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in thinking, but be infants in evil, and be complete in thinking (1 Cor. 14:20).

Obviously, the point of chapter 14 concerns spiritual gifts more than it does being childlike with respect to evil, but I think the moral innocence piece here is worth pondering.  On the one hand, it seems that becoming mature in one’s spiritual thinking entails knowing something about various evils and the perils they hold for the church and for believers.  On the other hand, there is, apparently, a certain sense in which we ought to be rather unschooled in the way of ungodliness.  I’d like to hear some thoughts on potential implications for Christian engagement of culture.  Does the text in some way commend naivete as an appropriate modus operandi?  Does the text in some way chastise the pursuit of relevance?  What does it look like for the church and for believers to be appropriately unacquainted with evil?


6 thoughts on “An Ethic of Naivete? Of Being ‘Infants in Evil’

  1. This specific biblical text in Paul has indeed troubled me; is God commanding us to be naive? Uneducated?

    Particularly, is Paul’s telling us to be naive, uninformed, on specifically, the subject of evil? It would seem that 1) surely it could not be saying that. Since, those who know very little of evil … will surely be particularly vulnerable to being exploited by it.

    And indeed, 2) there are other, countervailing texts. Particularly, note, Paul himself elsewhere warns about evil. Particularly 3) evil masking itself as the very good and holy; “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” etc..

    Are 4) these two themes, voices, though, simply contradictory? Paul on the one hand telling us to a) know little of evil; and thus ordering to be prey to it? Likely not, since b) he and the Bible elsewhere, try to at least briefly describe the ways of evil over and over, to us. In order for us to combat it.

    So how do we deal with these two particular contrasting themes? 5) Perhaps they might be partially reconciled. By looking more closely at the translation of the first passage. Perhaps “knowing” etc., should be meant something more like … telling us not to PARTICIPATE in, evil. Though presumably of course, we must always “know” – in the sense of being intellectually able to see – evil.

    Any good linguists here? Regarding the original Greek?

    In the meantime though? It 6) would almost seem as if, by those who present us with just the first, “be simple” message,” we were being commanded to be naive about evil. Which would of course, have the effect of making us all, all the more easily fooled and exploited. Especially say, by evil persons posing as our very holiest leaders; by “false prophets,” bad “priests,” unreliable “churches” and “temples,” and so forth.

  2. In order to keep from being or following, one the many foretold false religious leaders? 1 Corin and the Bible overall, ultimately seem to set up a distinction between advancing or following 1) a “child”like theology of blind optimism, childishly following religious authorities and so forth. Versus 2) a heaven-shattering moment when we are no longer “children in your thinking” (1 Corin. 14.20). When we are hear the fuller command. To “be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults” (14.20).

    Briefly the predicted, foretold corruption in religion, even Christianity, the Bible seems to suggest, turns out to be following too simple religion (the preceeding example in 1 Corin. was “speaking in tongues”). A corruption that happened long ago. And the remedy? Seems to be “mature” or “adult” “thinking.”

    Which is to say? Religious Studies/ Theology, likely

    Over and above too simple religion of blind “child”like trusting – is critical Theology. “Thinking.” And the “mind of Christ.” As it turns out ,elsewhere.

    So that we are not being told to be naive; far from it.

  3. I am not a biblical scholar nor am I sufficiently acquainted with the Greco-Roman culture – thank God that not everyone has to be, though I for one would thoroughly enjoy it! I will say that more often than not, for all our intellect, knowledge and study, it is all the more easy to make any text say what we want it to or at least to justify or excuse texts one way or another. So, though I do not advocate an entirely literalistic reading of the scriptures, as I think that would be misguided, I will say that many times the text simply says what it is. It kind of lets its yes be yes and its no be no, if you know what I mean.

    So with that in mind, it does seem to me that, in this specific instance, Paul is warning against the tendency towards knowledge/experience acquisition in regards to evil. The plea for naivete is important and one to be weighed with a plea for contextual and cultural understanding.

    In a culture of where relevance, novelty, and relativism are emphasized, the call for moral, ethic, and spiritual purity is well-met and appropriately-timed. Thank you Paul and Steve Duby

    A great place to find this sort of naivety of evil at its best, look to the main character in the book At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. The book is simply empowering to those who seek to do God’s will in the small things set before them. The interesting thing to note in the book is how the main character acts towards evil and how others act towards the character because of his perceived “childlike” experience with evil. Fantastic source for this particular topic.

    In addition, here’s a song about naivety with regards to Christianity, enjoy:

  4. Stephen M.:

    Good comments. But…?

    To be sure though? The very same passage that seems – in some translations but not all – to have Paul telling to us be “naive”, has Paul saying next, “but in your thinking be mature.” To try to reconcile these two different voices? I’d still like to maintain say, an “understanding”/”enacting” distinction. We are called to intellectually “know” or understand evil; but not to take it into our lives, and “know” it, even biblically.

    And as a matter of fact? There are some famous figures in literature that seem to speak against being naive; and/ or thinking to much that you are “good.” Characters like Billy Budd come to mind. And then one or two Dostoyevky’s characters.

    I think that there’s a kind of case to be made, to be sure, for a kind of innocence. But? The Bible is full of warnings about bad people; warnings that seem clearly intended to educate ourselves in the ways of evil.

    Indeed, in many theologies, you can’t really be good at all; until you learn to see and “confess” your sins.

    So that? Being able to see sin – especially in yourself – is absolutely necessary, to be good.

    Otherwise? As many writers have noted, those who think that they are “good,” are in a sense, always lost in illusion and vanity. We are lost in a kind of vanity: the vanity of thinking that we are good. When we are not. When “no one is good but God” himself.

    I’d even assert that learning to see bad, evil, in the “Good” in fact, is the very essence of being mature. And then finally, it is the key to seeing God more fully.

    To think of yourself as very, very “good” after all, is a form of Vanity; a very great sin. I’d submit that a wiser, more mature person, knows that even the “good” sin greatly.


  5. It does seem that Paul is making a specific distinction regarding naivety, at least in kind. For he entreats the church at Corinth to be naive in regards to evil, rather than a more generalized naivety, and then further goes on to clarify that this should not hinder their pursuit of thinking with maturity and completeness. So in Paul’s mind at least, these concepts were not mutually exclusive.

    The understanding/enacting distinction can be helpful at times, but at some points becomes misleading as it maintains itself as a neat, theoretical guideline for the messiness of life that doesn’t always fit nicely into the segregated categories that we make for it.

    But I like where you are going with the notion that maturity breeds the sort of self-awareness and honesty that enables us to see both the good and the bad in all things. That is quite true. But I do not think that Paul’s slight at maintaining a sort of purity goes at all against this notion.

    Actually, in one of the best books that, in my opinion of course, psychology has ever given the Church, this tension between a religious purity code and an ethic of the embrace of love is expounded and explained. The book is called Unclean by Richard Beck and you can find it here:

    It is a fantastically insightful and helpful read that anyone with a heart for the contemporary church would find both revealing and empowering.

  6. SM:

    Of course, we should not just junk purity. Though still, I see so much conflict between 1) the rather extreme notion of not knowing anything about evil, vs. 2) constant biblicaol implications that we need to know something about it. There seems to be such an irreconcilability between these two positions. That finally I’m am attracted to what at first seem to be mere technical considerations, as a way of resolving or harmonizing out, this apparent conflict. But in the end? Maybe these apparent technical resolutions are real enough.

    Just re-translating our Bibles might seem like a cheap way to sidestep apparent conflicts. But bear with me for a second, in looking at some of the nuances of translation.

    Especially? In addition to 1) the possible distinctions within a term like “knowing”? I also notice in many translations from the original Greek, that 2) the exact phrase – and indeed the very keyword – in question, from Paul, is translated a little different than what we’re used to. In say Robert Brown and Phil. Comfort’s translation:

    “Brothers, not children be in your minds, but [as] to malice be childlike, and in understanding be mature” (adapted from the Greek translation, p. 612, “The New Greek English Interlinear new Testament,” Trans. Robert K Brown and Phil Comfort, Tyndale Pub., 1990).

    In this translation, the apparent conflict noted above, seems to vanish. In that in this translation, we are not being told to ignore or be ignorant of “evil” at all. But we are instead simply told not to be “malicious.”

    I know that these technical solutions to apparent biblical conflicts, are not quite as satisfying as a fullblown attempt at harmonizing apparent intellectual conflicts, theological conflicts, in a theological way; resolving apparently conflicting ideas, with a master concept as yet unseen. Still? For me this far, without such a solution, we are left with apparently strong contradictions, that are still hard to intellectually/spirituality resolve.

    So I still feel that if we go with the common translation, we are still left with the apparent conflict between 1) an apparently enforced naivete/purity. Vs. 2) the command to look for a root out evil, especially through mature knowledge and so forth.

    But you’ve mentioned a book, that might resolve this? Maybe you’d like to give us an idea of what the book says? (Since I’m too cheap to buy books!).

    Or offer another idea?

    Or maybe someone else would like to offer another alternative?

    So far too be sure, I’m not entirely satisfied, even with my own solution here. So I’d like to hear some more suggestions, and discussion on this.

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