Every now and again, one runs across ideas or proverbs which are frequently thought to be Biblical in nature, but which, in truth, have nothing to do with what the Bible teaches.
Take for example the oft-cited proverb, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” This quote, first attributable to John Wesley (c. 1791), is not actually a Biblical doctrine. Wesley, we concede, certainly approached it as a biblical principle and in his sermons frequently preaching in favor of cleanliness and against slovenliness. But, in fact, in one of the few places that actually addresses the issue, Jesus pointedly said once, “…to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone (Matthew 15:20b; ESV).” Despite this, there are many, who if pressed, would answer affirmatively that such a proverb is indeed to be found somewhere in the Bible. But it is not there and it has never been there, popular perception notwithstanding.
Another example of such a non-biblical proverb, this one particularly insidious in its ramifications, is this: “Everything in moderation.”
This philosophy of all things in moderation is not the product of biblical thought but comes to us from the Greeks. The original quote seems to have originated with a Grecian poet named Hesiod about 700 BC, so it is certainly an idea of some antiquity. But merely being an old idea does not make it a true idea or even a good idea.
Despite the actual history of the saying, there are quite a few who think that the idea that all things should be done in moderation is a biblical quotation or doctrine, and perhaps you have even heard someone claim practicing this principle is a valid Christian activity. After all, it is assumed, if a thing is in the Bible, then certainly it is a principle we should hold to. And though this would be true if it were from the Bible, again, the Bible never claims such a thing. Indeed, the Bible teaches just the opposite: moderation can be a vice.
From a Biblical perspective, there are three sorts of activities in life: matters of no importance, matters of righteousness, and matters of sin. Concerning the first, matters of no importance one way or another, such as what you might eat, moderation is probably not a bad idea lest we make the activity or thing into an idol or distraction from those things which are important. Concerning such things we read in the Bible, “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12; ESV).”
However, in matters of sin or righteousness, there is no place in God’s kingdom for moderation.
Concerning sin, the Bible teaches abstinence is always the rule, never moderation. A little sin condemns just as readily as vast amounts of sin. We understand this in matters of criminal law. Who would argue before a judge that they murder only in moderation? Or steal in moderation? Or drive drunk in moderation. The idea of moderation in “all things” quickly breaks down when applied to such things. In the same manner, moderation in those matters contrary to God’s law: adultery, drunkenness, anger, covetousness, and the like… this is never acceptable to the Father (cf. Galatians 5:19-21). The Bible says concerning the very idea: “a little leaven, leavens the whole lump (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-7),” meaning that a little sin, excused, soon spreads and grows. The correct answer to sin is to seek to rid one’s life of all sin.
Contrarily, concerning righteousness, the Bible teaches that zeal is the rule, not moderation. Jesus condemned the Laodicean church for its moderation, calling them “lukewarm (cf. Revelation 3:15-16).” The Lord’s path to the cross was not one of moderation and Jesus Himself had no moderation in His own spirituality. His disciples saw in Him the fulfillment of that Scripture that said, “Zeal for your house has consumed me (cf. Psalm 69:9; John 2:17).” He gave Himself wholly to the service of God.
Concerning the zeal expected of us, we read in the Scriptures, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord (Romans 12:11; ESV).”
Moderation in wickedness is never a virtue. Likewise, moderation in matters of righteousness is never commendable. If a thing is good, we should be zealous in that good, fervent even, never moderate.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.