Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 The. 5:22). Many people, including preachers, have taken that sentence in a vacuum and used it to make the argument: “If anyone could possibly perceive of an action/deed/statement being wrong, you are to abstain from it.” Is that what Paul is really saying, and should we be using this passage for such an argument? Consider two different points relating to this Scripture.
The context and statement of the verse. Most important of all in recognizing the interpretation of a Scripture is analyzing what the verse says and in what context it is being written. Though many have taken this verse to mean: “If it appears (to anyone) to be evil, stay away from it,” that is not what Paul actually said. The actual statement in the Greek is “Abstain (refrain yourself) from every kind of evil.” That is a very different statement than what is commonly observed. Paul says that they are to keep themselves from every kind of evil, he does not say that if anyone perceives it to be evil it must be so.
Additionally, within the context it must be understood that he is talking about prophesies. Verses 20 and 21 of the text read, “Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Therefore, the argument is that they are not to despise (hold in contempt) all prophesies, but are to put them to test. They must then hold strong to those that are good, and to keep themselves away from every kind of evil that may be purported through such prophesies. When understood from the standpoint of the context, the statement of verse 22 is nothing more than the second half of a command pertaining to their analyzing of prophesies; if they are evil (whatever type it may be) they are to have nothing to do with it. Therefore, it is a gross misuse of this text to utilize it after the manner many have so flippantly inserted it.
Understanding Scripture about the perception of evil. Even if it were not for the fact that the passage does not actually say what many think it does, nor is it used in the context many think it is; the Scriptures make a number of statements that demonstrate the fallacy of the argument that so many try to make from this verse.
Friends, there are only two types of actions: good (righteous, lawful) and evil (unrighteous, unlawful). There is no category of “appearing to be evil.” An action, practice, or statement is either evil or it is not. The framework of ambiguity used in this idea of “appearing evil” is detrimental to good reasoning and has been utilized in times past as a basis for turning people from actions that someone did not like, but were not wrong.
Jesus was adamant that the way something appears does not necessarily make it so. In Matthew 12, Jesus is confronted by the Jews about his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath as they walked through the field. In verses 3-8, Jesus explains with two different examples that just because something appears to be unlawful does not mean that in actuality it is so. Though David’s actions, as Jesus references them, appeared evil (and have even been ascribed to be such by some brethren), there was no law pertaining to what the priests could do with the leftover bread once it had been removed from the table of shewbread and eaten before the Lord. Therefore, it was not unlawful for the priest to give it to David, though from outside perception it could appear to be so. Neither was it wrong for priests to work on the Sabbath when they were expressly commanded to do so by the law in offering the daily sacrifices for the people. Even though it appeared to be violating one command to accomplish another, the laws of offerings superseded the laws of work for the priests.
In another place, Jesus said in dealing with the same topic, “Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Just because something appears to be wrong does not necessarily mean that it is. We must ensure that our actions are in accordance with the positive commands (things we are supposed to do) and the negative commands (things we are not supposed to do) of Scripture. However, just assuming that something is wrong because it does not look or feel right to us is not proper Biblical justification for condemning it.
Additionally, it must be stated that the laws of freedom and responsibility discussed in First Corinthians 10:18-33 and other places apply to this situation as well. We may know that an action is acceptable under the law, but that doing said action would place a stumbling-block before a weak brother or one we are trying to teach the Gospel; we then have the responsibility to, “Give none offense” (1 Cor. 10:32), so that we may benefit others and not stand in the way of their salvation. We must fulfill the law, but in matters of allowance we must be aware of our responsibilities to not stand in the way of another just because we want to do something. The principle of looking out for others above yourself (Phi. 2:3-4) certainly applies here.
It is clear from the text of First Thessalonians 5:22 that it does not mean what many have ascribed to it. It is also clear that the Scriptures do not teach the principle that many try to take from it. Therefore, let us be sure we handle God’s Word correctly, not purporting it to say things it does not in order to prevail ideas not supported by Scripture.