TV is a relatively recent invention, so there are no Biblical commands that would specifically address it. It is up to believers to apply Scriptural principles to form a judgment about TV watching. Our thinking may be helped by considering the Biblical distinction between “sins” and “trespasses,” which we consider in this article. While we need to weigh carefully whether watching TV is a sin, the wisdom of Scripture indicates that we also need to ask whether it is a trespass, which is also a serious matter.
Is it a sin?
The Bible’s guidance suggests that it is sin for believers to watch certain programs, including those that contain gruesome violence, nudity or sex, or that are filled with crude language. The fact that the vile behavior displayed on TV programs is often presented as exciting, glamorous, or, by subtle implication, part of a “normal” existence that “everyone is experiencing” (shouldn’t you?) makes it all the more abhorrent to the Father who created the world to be filled with His glory.
There are many verses that could be brought to bear that warn against viewing the lewd shows that appear on TV. An identification of all of them is beyond the scope of this article. There are certain principles, however, that should be highlighted because they have application beyond the vilest of TV programs.
Three important principles
The first of these principles is that approval of wickedness is displeasing to God.
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa 5:20).
Instead of having “fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness,” believers are supposed to reprove them. Paul told his readers not to even speak of sinful deeds (Eph 5:11-12). If we should not even talk about them, how could we justify watching them, given the greater power that visual images can have on us?1
The second principle is that we are called upon to be spiritual warriors who win over people in the world and persuade them to follow Christ (Eph 6:11-17). It would be hypocritical to do our duty in that regard by talking to people about the Gospel during the day only to return to our houses at night and choose to watch the very behaviors on TV that we had been urging people to forsake.
“Son of man, have you seen what the responsible men of the children of Israel do in the dark, every man in his room of pictured images? for they say, The Lord does not see us; the Lord has gone away from the land” (Ezek 8:12 BBE).
The third principle is that there are many good images that the Bible provides us to fill our heads with (e.g., Ezek 1).2 But we can only fix them in our minds by studying the Bible enough to understand them, and we can only keep them in our heads by meditating on them frequently. The dramatic scenes created by the masters of the entertainment industry can endure for many years and can crowd out space on the walls of our minds, as it were. We do not want to drive the Bible’s images from our thoughts by filling them with scenes from the TV instead.
Many believers would never watch the lewdest programs that are on TV. We might, however, watch “family” comedies, instructional programs on home improvement or cooking, or sports. These programs are less obviously harmful, but there are still dangers associated with them that we should be aware of.
“Family” comedies frequently convey subtle messages that are contrary to the teachings of the Bible. They may make disrespect to parents and other authority figures (e.g., teachers and bosses), promiscuity, and substance abuse look funny, appealing, and commonplace. The messages they convey about the conduct of relationships (e.g., physical attraction is paramount) are particularly insidious. Characters that are reluctant to engage in what we would regard as wrongdoing (e.g., having sex before marriage) are often depicted as repressed and timid. Instead of being presented as courageous individuals who boldly choose to serve God, they are shown as weak people who need to be “fixed”. Another drawback of “family” comedies is that they often convey unrealistic depictions of what life (especially life in the Truth) is like. For example, challenges in our lives are not solved in an episode of thirty minutes or an hour. Instead, the Bible shows that God works with us to address our problems over periods that can last years or even decades. Also, real people are, in general, not as wealthy or attractive as those on TV. We have responsibilities, so we cannot just lounge around and spend the day talking. Given our natural inclination towards ingratitude, we need to be wary of influences that could stir us to become less appreciative of what we have been given.
If we are not careful, lack of thankfulness can also be encouraged by shows on home improvement and cooking and other similar programs. They can fill our minds with appealing images of rooms, decks, and foods that that we do not have, which can leave us feeling dissatisfied. The advertising that sponsors those shows is intended, in combination with the program, to make us want more. We need to be particularly wary of the influence of commercials. They are intended to promote covetousness, the modern-day equivalent of idolatry (Col 3:5).
As believers, we should be thankful to God for the riches that we have received in Christ, as well as for our natural blessings. Paul used the concept of thankfulness to add perspective to a controversy that occurred in the first-century ecclesias, and his judgment on that matter can help to guide our approach to TV viewing. When writing to the Romans about whether it was acceptable for believers to eat meat or only herbs, Paul said that either choice was permissible because the person eating was thankful to God (Rom 14:1-6). We may wish to use thanksgiving to God as a criterion for evaluating whether it is acceptable to watch a certain TV program. If we can genuinely thank our Heavenly Father for a show (e.g., a program on the Six Day War that reminds us of God working among the nations), then we can feel comfortable viewing it. If we cannot thank God for it, then we are probably better off not watching it.3
Is it a trespass?
Experts on the media often say, “If the product is free, then the product is really you”. Many TV programs are available for free to viewers, who are then subjected to advertising. The viewer is the “product,” who is “sold” to the advertisers. As a result, programming on those channels is deliberately designed to encourage people to keep viewing so that they will be exposed to more advertising. The strategies that TV producers employ to keep people watching for as long as pos- sible are numerous. Dramas and reality shows build up excitement about some revelation in plot that does not occur until the end of the show or in “next week’s episode”. News shows mention interesting upcoming segments at the beginning of a broadcast but then do not play them until the very end of the program. TV channels air tantalizing advertisements for the program coming up next so that viewers are tempted to stay in front of the TV longer.
TV is addictive by design. Its ability to steal so much of time is one of the greatest dangers that it poses to believers. Sins were not the only type of wrongdoing that the Israelites could commit under the Law. They could also commit “trespasses,” which were violations of the property of another, including God.4
It is noteworthy that a leper had to offer a trespass offering under the Law when he was healed (Lev 14:1-2, 10-14). The reason was that he had not been able to render service to God during the time in which he had had the disease. The requirement that a healed leper offer a trespass offering is a powerful reminder that God owns our time. He expects us to use it in service to Him.
TV can steal time that we owe to God. There are many activities that bring glory to God that we excuse ourselves from on the grounds that we are already too busy. But when we are assessing our schedule and how full it is, we should consider whether TV watching is taking away an hour, or two, or more a day. What if we reclaimed that time? How much more could we do?
A related danger of TV watching is that it can lull us into a comfortable stupor of complacency. There are Bible classes to teach, Sunday School classes to lead, preaching campaigns to join, ecclesial websites to create and update, and meeting halls to repair. Not only are there quite obvious activities that need to be done, but there are also opportunities to engage in the “house-to-house” ministry that was so essential to Paul’s preaching and ecclesia-building work (Acts 20:20). Those opportunities can go unnoticed if we are not actively looking for them. We have struggling people in our ecclesias who are in need of a call or a note, distant friends in the Truth who would love to hear from us, and interested friends that we need to follow up with. Great men and women of faith in the Bible did not just strive to meet the obvious requirements of service to God. Instead, they thought about how they could do more. TV can distract us and blind us to the many pressing needs that are all around us.
Faithful individuals in the Bible recognized the importance of being careful about what they saw. Job made a covenant with his eyes (Job 31:1). David “set no wicked thing” before his eyes (Psa 101:3). Some believers find the temptations associated with TV to be too great and choose not to have one in their homes. Others insist on having the Bible Readings done before the TV is turned on. Some limit their exposure to advertisements and reduce the amount of time they spend watching TV by record- ing programs that are worthwhile and then skipping past the commercials. Believers considering getting rid of their TV but who are reluctant to do so because of one appropriate program that they enjoy watching, may want to consider placing a stationary bike in front of the TV and resolving to only watch it while riding the bike. This approach ensures that there is some benefit associated with time spent watching TV. Since a bike can only be ridden for so long, it also places limitations on the amount of TV that can be watched. In summary, what we watch and how much of it we watch has bearing on our life in Christ. We are admonished to think on things which are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report (Phil 4:8). We can have an easier time doing that if we exercise control over the scenes that we allow into our minds. Spending time in front of the TV can result in us committing sins and trespasses. We need to be thoughtful and keep the Scripture’s teachings in mind when considering whether we should have a TV and, if so, what programs are appropriate for us to watch.
Ryan Mutter (Baltimore, MD) Notes:
1. For example, which is more powerful – a description of a terrified child of a video of one?
2. Can you describe the scene in Ezekiel 1 in detail? (Don’t cheat.) Now can you name the show time, channel, and the main characters of a sitcom or the key contests in a reality show?
3. For an elaboration on this point, see page 125 of Brother Alfred Nicholls’ book, Letters to Timothy and Titus
4. The Bible provides a catalog of trespasses in Lev 4:14-6:7. There was an offering under the Law for trespasses. Lev 5-7 provides the details of what it entailed.