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Whenever I quote the above passage to my students as an illustration of the Bible’s ambiguity with respect to ethics, reactions always seem to be directed toward the phrase: “do not be overwicked…” The question is raised, usually with a timid smile: “Does this mean I can be a little bit wicked, then?”

Many Christians would have no trouble answering such a query: it would never be permissible to be “a little bit wicked.” More thoughtful Christians will ask the question, “What did Solomon mean by this statement? Why would he seemingly indicate that one can be ‘overly righteous’ and/or ‘overly wise?’ Is that even possible? And what, then, would it mean to be ‘overly wicked?’ Is it not preferable that we remain ‘black or white’ in our approach to ethical decision making? Would it not be better to be’“hot or cold,’ as opposed to ‘lukewarm?’”

For many, I’m sure, a simplistic extremism is preferable to the kind of ambiguity found in Ecclesiastes. But the Bible reflects a worldview that is much more complex than the “black and white” molds into which many Christians generally try to squeeze everything. The Word of God often speaks in terms of “tensions” and “paradoxes;” seemingly irresolvable “contradictions” that force us to deviate from our predispositions and launch out into the sometimes relativistic world of “the real.”


Originally published as:

Poston, Larry. “Shrewd As a Snake, Innocent As a Dove: The Ethics of Missionary Dissimulation and Subterfuge,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly v.49, no.4 (October 2013)