Word of the Week: Propriety

I can remember as a child my mother scolding me for something I did in public that was improper by saying “There is a time and a place for everything. And this isn’t the time or the place.”

When we became parents, we taught our children the same value. Now they are working to pass that on to their children. Of course, it’s a never-ending job when kids are small to help them understand what is proper in private is not necessarily proper in public.

Our word of the week, propriety, sounds old-fashioned and outdated, but it is a much-needed virtue today.

By definition, propriety is “the quality or state of being proper or suitable.” It is “conformity to established standards of good or proper behavior or manners.” It has to do with “appropriateness to the purpose or circumstances; suitability; Rightness or justness.”

While the Bible rarely uses this word, it speaks to the principle of propriety. The Apostle Paul spoke to this principle when he wrote “for we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor 8:21

Propriety involves Decorum. Respectability. Morality. Modesty. And Decency. It speaks to not only our conduct but our character. It is rooted in virtue and arises out of our values. A person possessing propriety regards the sensibilities of people around them.

Granted, propriety may be tied to certain social norms and cultural traditions. These may vary from culture to culture. And they may change over time. Yet there are certain principles of propriety that are unchanging.

Propriety is more than an accommodation to societal expectations or rules of etiquette. It is unselfish in respecting the feelings of our fellow man. It is the golden rule in operation. The second great commandment in application. And love in action.

Paul put it this way when he wrote, “Love…does not act unbecomingly” (1 Cor 13:5). Other versions render this “love does not act rudely.” And “love has good manners.”

The wise man with a graphic and humorous analogy described a woman who doesn’t understand the importance of propriety. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion” (Prov 11:22).

The Bible addresses this issue with Christian women regarding their attire.  “In like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation…” (1 Tim. 2:9).

Propriety or the lack of it manifests itself in our language. Our stories. And our jokes. The Bible says that “foolish talking and crude joking” are “out of place” and “not fitting” for Christians. (Eph. 5:3-4).

In the past two decades our culture in America has demonstrated an increasing disdain for  propriety. Advertisers have appealed to this postmodern attitude with commercials like Burger King’s “Sometimes, you gotta break the rules.” Or Outback steakhouse that says, “No rules. Just right.” Or Comedy Central that boasts “See comedy that breaks the rules.” Even Purex ran a commercial that said “The rules have changed.”

While changing “the rules” for restaurants and detergent companies, may be fine, it’s important to remember that the Biblical “rules” for righteousness, godliness and spiritual sobriety are unchanging.

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Mencius” who lived 300 years before Christ, is credited with these words of wisdom. “The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity ; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness ; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety ; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.” .

Propriety is not only practical in the 21st century, but it’s an imperative virtue for everyone seeking to become more like Christ.

–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman

1 Comment

Filed under Word of the Week

One response to “Word of the Week: Propriety

  1. Wendell Ward

    Amen! And as you say, “it is a much-needed virtue today.” Thank you.

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