Do not be deceived: “Evil company corrupts good habits.” Awake to righteousness and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. (1 Corinthians 15:33–34—NKJV)

Verse 33 is translated a number of different ways in current translations, and with good reason. Though it is a simple, short verse, the words are rich with meaning. It is a verse that both speaks to the individual Christian and to the greater society at large. It is a call to excellence. As we review this text together, I am certain you will see the relevance to our nation and to our day.

There is no question that the ethical standards of our society are declining. Do you recall the “old-world” and “old-fashioned” ideals of yesteryear? Remember the phrase “a baker’s dozen?” It was a common occurrence to find thirteen donuts in a box when I was a kid. It was in my childhood that I read of Civil War soldiers being hailed for their “gallantry” on the field of battle. It was actually a commendation that superseded battlefield courage for it was reserved for conspicuously outstanding acts of bravery. The term “gallant” was also used by women to describe a man who stood out in a crowd for his mannerly politeness and attentiveness to a woman.

Other “old-fashioned, old-world” ideals these days include chivalry, good manners, Puritan work ethic (“going the extra mile”), according dignity to all men (respect of self and others), pride of ownership, common sense, and truth-telling. Each one taken on its own is a character which requires a lifetime to build. Try this experiment the next time you meet someone on a professional basis. Inform them of your ethical standards and be certain you will follow through. Tell them that you are what you say you are, that you have no hidden agenda, that you will strive to make your words a solemn promise, and that you expect the same courtesies in return. You will probably be greeted with a bit of surprise mixed with a slight sneer of disbelief.

These “old-world” ideals are what used to be thought of as “American.” They have their roots deeply anchored in Christianity. It was once the “ethos” of our culture. Ethos is related to the Greek word for “habits” in our text and it is the basis of our word “ethics.” Ethos is distinct from pathos. It is representative of distinguishing characteristics of race, occupation, and culture. This is why the word is translated “manners” in some Bibles. There are general and universal standards that apply to societal cohesiveness which may seem extravagant, impractical, or even silly. These are the mores and the norms as opposed to the “pathos” which is more emblematic of the passions of the moment (the word pathology speaks of a disease or an affliction that has arisen).

It is “ethos” that sets man apart from animals. Without it he will simply be animalistic. Animals have their instinct and their nature, but they cannot rise to the level of ideals like gallantry, pride of ownership, dignity, truth-telling, Puritan work ethic, or good manners (part of the image of God in man). Notice, ethos is degradable as our text states. “Corrupt” means to pine, to waste, to decay, and it is used to describe the destruction wrought upon a dead body (1 Corinthians 15:42, 50). What brings about this decay in manners? “Company” characterized by “evil.” The Greek word for company is homiliai, from which we get the words homily and homiletics. It is a message from your pastor who lives the preached truth before you, an “admonitory or moralizing discourse.” No wonder the word is sometimes translated “company.”

Those with whom you associate will have a definite impact upon your ethical mannerliness, let alone the passions which may rage and romp through your association. The worthiness of the association will be determined by the influence upon you for either good or bad. “Evil” is the Greek word kakai, meaning harm, base, depraved, malicious, while “good” is the Greek word chrestos, meaning kindly, gracious, and goodly.

Paul’s quote of a common proverb from his day is worthy of your consideration in your day. Do not be afraid to be “old fashioned” in a godly sort of way. Standards of manners and ethics must never be considered fads and options. Choose your associations wisely, with God-honoring purpose. Trust and obey.