True story: in the 1970s, a Canadian Reformed Church consistory made a decision that any minister who owned a television would not be welcome on their pulpit. The church was vacant at the time and so they frequently had guest ministers. Rev. W.W.J. Van Oene had a popular column in Clarion called “News Medley.” After the back pages (the “hatch, match, and dispatch”), this was probably the most well-read part of Clarion in the old days. Churches would send their bulletins to WWJVO and then he would glean the interesting points and often offer some commentary. This decision about TV and ministers was one of these items that warranted a mention in News Medley. WWJVO then commented something to the effect that even though he didn’t own a TV, this church could forget about inviting him to preach, since this decision reflected more of an Anabaptist mentality than a Reformed one. An Anabaptist approach to the world says that absolutely everything from the world is wrong and must be totally avoided. The Anabaptist approach is driven by fear and characterized by “world-flight.”
I grew up with a television. I can’t remember a time as a child or youth when we didn’t have a TV in our home. It was always there from my earliest years. My family definitely had no hang-ups about having a TV. All my friends’ families were the same. I can’t remember a single CanRC family from my youth that didn’t have a TV. It was quite normal.
At a certain point, however, I became far more conscientious about my TV watching. I credit this especially to an article I read in Clarion by Rev. Rob Schouten. There was a column aimed at youth entitled “Remember Your Creator.” Rob Schouten and Rev. George Van Popta took turns at this column. One of Rob’s columns was about being more discerning with our TV watching. He suggested taking the words of Psalm 101:3a, printing them out, and attaching them to the remote control, or maybe even the TV itself: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.” Good advice! We did that in my family home, for a while anyway.
After Rose and I got married, we only had a TV (an old black and white from Sears) for a short time. Eventually, we agreed to get rid of it and not have a TV at all in our home — not because TV was unlawful for us as Christians, but more because it was not helpful. For the next 15 years, we didn’t have one. The odd time we still watched TV in hotel rooms or when visiting with family, but it wasn’t a regular fixture in our home. In 2009, we finally bought another TV and we had it for a few years, until we moved here to Australia.
Since there are different electrical systems between Canada and Australia, we couldn’t bring the TV along. We decided not to replace it. However, when we first moved “down under” someone lent us a TV for the first couple of months. TV in Canada was often bad, but you could still sometimes find something appropriate that a Christian could watch in good conscience — although that was becoming less and less the case (hence our decision). TV in Australia is far worse, especially what’s available on free-to-air. The language on Australian free-to-air stations tends to be much more vulgar, besides the usual blasphemy and cursing. Of additional concern, some of the free Australian channels will often also broadcast lewd, even pornographic, material. We became convinced more than ever that a TV doesn’t belong in our Christian home. Our home should be a sanctuary, not a place where we have to endure people taking God’s Name in vain for the sake of entertainment, or a place where our family has to be exposed to the worldliness that’s become acceptable to the culture around us.
So the question: can/should a Christian have a TV or not? I agree with what “our beloved patriarch” Van Oene said back in the 1970s. That church was acting more Anabaptist than Reformed in barring ministers who owned a TV. There have been churches in years past that admonished members who chose to have a TV — also thereby acting more Anabaptist than Reformed. Blanket statements are not helpful, especially when there is no direct biblical command to which one can appeal. We ought not to add commands to Scripture that aren’t there. Instead, we want to teach people how to think biblically, how to apply clear biblical teaching to the decisions and choices they have to make. To that end, I’d recommend that we reflect again on the advice given by Rev. Rob Schouten.
To remind you, Psalm 101:3a says, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.” We ought to think of our Saviour Jesus and his perfect obedience to God in this respect. He had perfect wisdom in what he set before his eyes, and not only his eyes, but also his ears. What does it look like for us to live in union with this Saviour when it comes to our entertainment choices? If he is the vine and we are the branches, what does that look like when it comes to what we choose to watch on TV, or even the question of whether we have a TV at all? If you think through this carefully and you can harmonize your union with Christ with the entertainment choices you make, I will respect the conclusion you reach. This is an area where Christians, if they are being thoughtful, can legitimately reach different conclusions for themselves and their families. We can debate and discuss it, but at the end of the day, we have to recognize that if Scripture does not have a clear command, “You shall not own a TV,” then we cannot bind one another’s consciences.
By way of conclusion, I might add that advances in technology increasingly change the shape of this discussion. Not having a TV doesn’t really mean too much when you have the Internet, computers and all sorts of mobile devices. In some ways, the challenges are even greater. But the approach must be the same: rather than ban all these things outright (the Anabaptist impulse), we have to learn to use them appropriately as those united to Christ.