“Abstain from all Appearance of Evil.”

Adam CozortArticles, General9 Comments

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.

9 Comments on ““Abstain from all Appearance of Evil.””

  1. During my lunch break today, I have two questions. First, didn’t the gift of prophesy (and other actions performed by the Apostles) go away when all the Apostles died?

  2. 2nd question. I am a “straight” Christian, but I have faith problems with how most conservative Christians think about the current debate on gays. They make the gay issue all about moral sin and close their eyes to the sins of bigotry and discrimination that is also occurring. Isn’t this also an example of cherry-picking scriptures to make something a single black/white issue, when its more comprehensive? I sure don’t have the answer (civil unions maybe?) but its something I struggle with.

    1. It is true that homosexuality is defined by Scripture as a sin (Rom. 1:26-28; 1 Cor. 6:9). However, it is also true that the Bible does not place that sin as being any greater or different than other sins. In fact, in the places it is mentioned, it is done alongside fornicators, drunkards, and those who are envious, covetous, and deceitful. Therefore, to argue that this sin is the greatest of all, or to sin in response to one guilty of that sin is equally wrong and reprehensible.

      I am not sure it is so much a cherry-picking of Scripture as it is a cherry-picking of our reactions to those Scripture. People have a tendency to react differently toward various sins (especially if they are not ones with which they personally struggle), but such should not be the case.

      However, we must also be careful when talking about the “sin” of discrimination. The word discriminate simply means to recognize a difference between things. People and businesses discriminate all the time (will they accept checks, will they require shirt and shoes, etc.) it does not mean it is sinful. What is sinful is demeaning someone and berating them as though they are a lesser human being or one that God does not love. Sometimes the two responses are seen as the same, but they are not and cannot rationally be utilized as such. Thanks for your questions!

  3. Adam — Generally — If I go to a Church in the Northern U.S. (more liberal), Biblical interpretations are much different than in the Southern U.S. (more conservative). A major point of difference between so-called liberal vs. conservative are the interpretations of St. Paul. Conservatives believe St. Paul’s teachings are very clear (in black or white terms). Liberals often use the phrase “one needs to understand the context of Paul’s writings”. For a Christian truly seeking to understand and live by God’s Word, how should we deal with this? If this question is too general, lets pick just one subject — the role of women in the Church.

    1. It has been my observation that often when that statement is being made it is with the insinuation: “They lived under in a different society with a different culture, so let me tell you why that does not work today.” Do not get me wrong, context is very important; especially within a book of Scripture itself or in reference to its application to the lives of the people to whom it was originally written. But oftentimes when men begin to make this “societal context” argument against Paul they forget one very important factor: Paul is not the ultimate author of these writings, God is (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3, 20-21). These are the commands of God through Paul, not Paul’s arbitrary opinions. God’s commands when it comes to morality, worship, and service do not have societal boundaries. Even in Paul’s time there were places the Gospel went that were outside of the full influence of the Roman Empire. Those commands did not change when borders were crossed, and they are the same today as they were then. Many will not accept that because it is inconvenient to their expectations of how they want to live, but no man has the authority to alter the commands of God. Therefore, if I have to explain away Paul’s writings in order to hold to a more “modern” view of Christianity, what I am really doing is removing Christianity and making my own religion by my own rules. God’s Word means the same thing for us today as it did then. People have not changed, neither have their needs, nor have the requirements for their salvation.

  4. Thanks. I agree that on the “nature” of man and need for salvation that Paul’s and all Biblical writings are timeless and from God. But is “everything” Paul wrote from God? Parts of his writings are like a personal email today (like when he was just cold and needed a coat). At times, I see St. Paul walking on eggshells trying to be a super diplomat between Jews and Gentiles (saying different things at different times). I see the Council of Jerusalem which doesn’t “fit” with Church local authority organization and structure per Acts. How could Southern Churches in the 1800’s (organized correctly per Acts) be so wrong on the institution of slavery — where Northern Churches like the Methodist Church (organized incorrectly per Acts) get it right on slavery? The role of women (different from men) in the Church really confuses me. Maybe you can do a series on “Biblical Authority” to help me and others that struggle with this.

  5. In discussing “NT Authority”, could you also talk about what our “New Covenant” replacing “Mosaic Law” exactly means? Just seems like a lot of “cherry-picking”, “closed eyes”, and rationalizations (by BOTH conservatives and liberals) going on today as to “specific sins”. The “New Covenant” replaces “Mosaic Law” to the path to salvation, but does not simply eliminate “Mosaic Law” as standards to live by. So, how does one choose which “Mosaic Laws” are applicable and those which are not? Seems like a slippery slope in today’s culture wars (as it was in the time of Paul).

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