Growing up I often heard the King James Version rendition of 1 Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The implication of course was that Christians should avoid even the appearance of evil, not just evil actions themselves. Unfortunately this verse, like many others, has often been misinterpreted and misapplied.
English Translations of 1 Thessalonians 5:22
|KJV||Abstain from all appearance of evil.|
|NKJV||Abstain from every form of evil.|
|ESV||Abstain from every form of evil.|
|HCSB/CSB||Stay away from every kind of evil.|
|NIV||Reject every kind of evil.|
|NASB||Abstain from every form of evil.|
|NET||Stay away from every form of evil.|
Comparing the various English translations, we can see that only the KJV translates this verse as “appearance of evil.” There is a significant difference between “appearance of evil” and “form/kind of evil.” Hence, we note that it is the KJV against the rest of the English translations. Although some would use this difference as evidence of a conspiracy behind the newer translations to corrupt God’s word, there is a real interpretive issue here, not a conspiracy. It should also be noted that just because the KJV is in the minority here does not disqualify it as a possible interpretation.
In Defense of the KJV Reading of “All Appearance of Evil”
The central issue is how to translate the word εἶδος (KJV, “appearance”; ESV, “form”). The word certainly does take the nuance of appearance in some uses. For example, Luke 9:29 says, “And as he was praying, the appearance [εἶδος] of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.”
Furthermore, the Didache, a early Christian source from the early 2nd century tells believers, “My child, flee from every evil and everything that resembleth it” (3:1). In other words, the Didache seems to indicate it is a believer’s responsibility to avoid things that even have a likeness (but not actuality) to evil.
Why Appearance of Evil Should be Form of Evil
Although a superficial appearance is a legitimate understanding of the word εἶδος, in Greek literature it also commonly takes the nuance of form or kind. For example, in Herodotus, “Then it was that they invented the games of dice and knuckle-bones and ball and all other forms [εἶδος] of game except dice” (Histories, 1.94.3). In fact, when Josephus describes the wicked reign of Manasseh, he writes that Manasseh, “directed himself to every form [εἶδος] of evil” (Antiquities 10.37, my translation). This latter meaning, which is well attested makes most sense in 1 Thessalonians 5:22.
In context, 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is not isolated, but is linked with 1 Thessalonians 5:21. The overall message to the Thessalonians is that they must, “test everything” (v. 21a). There are two parts of testing everything. They must (a) hold fast to what is good (v. 21b), and (b) abstain from every form of evil. In parallel, through testing and discernment believers are to cling to the good and shun what is evil—any form that it takes. It could be laid out as follows.
- Test everything (v. 21a) …. With the result that the believers
- Hold fast to what is good
- Abstain from every form of evil.
Application and Thoughts as it Applies to Christian Life
The most pertinent application to this study is that this verse does not support the idea that a Christian must avoid every appearance of evil—in other words, a Christian should govern his life by avoiding all things which others may construe as being wrong. As an example, I was often told growing up that a Christian should never enter a bar because the appearance of evil is certainly present in that situation. Although I myself find nothing attractive about entering a bar, there could be scenarios where I may need to enter a bar in order to persuade a delinquent Christian to return to his responsibilities. There would be nothing inherently inappropriate about that.
Another consideration is that often this desire to abstain from every “appearance of evil” is often another name for being a people-pleaser. Having the affirmation of a specific individual or group of people will often govern our actions because we do not want to offend their specific standard of right and wrong. This is dangerous and ought not to be neglected.
Yet, with all of that being said, there are some warnings to be given. As with everything in the Christian life, freedom brings with it a tremendous need for wisdom and humility. Peter warns believers to “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). In other words, there is a temptation to use the freedom from cultural or societal standards as simply a way to disguise your desire for evil. Because this largely deals with motivation, and is thereby quite difficult to discern externally, it is an essential warning for believers to watch their heart and do not allow themselves to be rationalizing sin.
It should be added that just because believers are liberated from the “appearance of evil” standard, that does not mean there are things we should not do. One should never go against their conscience (Rom 14:23), even if the thing they are doing is not bad inherently. Furthermore, there are certain freedoms that believers should avoid because it may cause a fellow believer to participate in that action to violate their own conscience (cf. Rom 14:21; 1 Cor 8:12-13). So, for love of others, Christians are to avoid some things.
1 Thessalonians 5:22 should not be used in an effort to create a legalistic standard to which Christians must adhere on the basis on avoiding the appearance of what some might consider evil. Yet, at the same time, Christians must be humble, asking God for wisdom in making daily choices, avoiding making unwise choices and being above reproach.
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