Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Myth of "Avoiding the Appearance of Evil"

1 Thess. 5:22: "Abstain from all appearance of evil."

It is possibly the most misunderstood, misused verse in the entire bible. We've all had it said to us and we have probably said it to others. It's usually applied when we feel someone isn't actually sinning, but we believe that some unidentified lurking spy could misconstrue our behaviour as sin because it "looks bad."

However, this verse, as it appears in the KJV, is a poor translation, and has NOTHING to do with freedoms and liberties that could be misinterpreted as evil.

Here's the 1 Thess. 5:22 in Greek put into transliteration:

apo pantos eidous ponèrou apechesthe

The word eidos, based on meaning and context, is actually best translated as "forms" or "kind."

In every other widely used translation besides the OLD KING JAMES version, 1 Thess 5:22 reads something like this: "Abstain from all forms of evil." This has nothing to do with appearances. It's referring to actual evil, in whatever form it manifests: stealing, lying, fornication, adultery, greed, etc. Whatever form it comes in, avoid it!

Here's how the verse reads in the most used translations:

1 Thessalonians 5:22

New International Version: Avoid every kind of evil.
New American Standard: Avoid every form of evil.
New Living Translation: Avoid every kind of evil.
English Standard Version: Abstain from every form of evil.
Contemporary English: Don't have anything to do with evil.
New King James: Abstain from every form of evil. (NKJ remedied the older version's poor translation)
American Standard: Abstain from every form of evil.
Darby Translation: Hold aloof from every form of wickedness.
Holman Christian Standard Bible: Stay away from every form of evil.
New International Reader's Version: Stay away from every kind of evil.
Worldwide English: Have nothing to do with any wrong thing.

The Old King James isn't technically wrong, but being that most of us do not utilize old English, we misread it. It's use of the word appearance more accurately means..."avoid evil whenever it makes an appearance." The context of the word is as occurrence, not outward appearance.

Not only is the appearance of evil version misread, it's taken out of context. Read the verse within the context in which it's placed:

1 Thess. 5: 19-22
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.

The Message puts this verse in even simpler terms.

19-22 Don't suppress the Spirit, and don't stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.

Paul isn't even writing about specific lifestyles or what constitutes as grey areas or liberties for Christians. He's instructing on how to respond to prophecy. The text basically means: don't despise the gift of prophecy, but don't buy into everything either. Therefore, TEST ALL prophecy-keep what is good, and disregard what is evil (a valuable lesson to take heed to with today's abundant batch of false prophets). Clearly, this verse has nothing to do with how a believer may or may not appear to another person.

But for the sake of argument, let's pretend for a moment that "avoiding the appearance of evil" meant trying to avoid appearing evil to other people.

Exactly whose perspective of evil are we trying to cater to here? Believers, unbelievers, or both? How about the bezillion sects within believers: Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Calvinists, Charismatics, Mennonites, Amish, Seven Day Adventists? Are we trying to avoid appearing evil to people belonging to different religions: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Scientologists, Christian Scientists? How do we chose? Is it the ones that are most convenient for us? Is it all of them? You can see how this can quickly delve into legalism, the squelching of Christian freedom, and more obviously: IMPOSSIBILITY.

Eyes viewing life through the lens of perversion will undoubtedly pervert everything and anything. People who look for evil everywhere, find it, whether it exists or not. There are small pockets of Christians (the perverted pure) that taint nearly every activity, situation, scenario, and object.

Let's make a little list of just some of the things that appear evil to different groups, shall we?

Drums, guitars, dancing, swimming, co-ed colleges, co-ed anything, women in pants, women speaking in church, bright-colored clothing, worshipping on Sunday instead of the OT sabbath, playing cards, movies, plays, any other music beside hymns, alcohol, virgin drinks (because someone could think it's alcohol, gasp!), glass bottles (because they look like the same bottles alcohol is served in), guns, coffee, tattoos, piercings, spanking children, speaking in tongues (one could think you are demon possessed), home-schooling, chewing gum, beards, facial hair, long hair on men, jeans, bowling, eating at a restaurant with a bar in it, cigars, going into a Blockbuster or Movie Gallery, etc. etc.

The list is endless of objects and activities that appear evil to different denominations of believers. We all know it is completely impossible to abstain from the appearance of evil. We can't even abstain completely from that which is actually evil, let alone innocent liberties that could possibly appear evil if someone was walking by and squinting....

The real issue is that JESUS appeared evil ALL the time, especially to religious people. He ate and drank (wine, not grape juice, baptists), he turned water into wine to keep the festivities going for people who had been drinking all day, hence the accusations of being a wine-bibber and glutton. He hung around with tax collectors and prostitutes and went into places deemed "unclean." He didn't perform the ceremonious hand cleansing rituals. He didn't follow the man-made religious traditions of the sabbath. He was with the woman at the well all alone, a Samaritan no less. People accused Jesus of being demon possessed because of how he appeared.

The misused version of this verse only heightens our already unhealthy fixation on appearances and superficial piety instead of true substance. The terms of what appears evil are usually defined by those who are offended with a particular activity that can't be classified as real sin, thus it appears evil. The whole thing breeds suspicion, judgmentalism, and even idolatry. When we start assigning more power to inanimate objects or activities than they actually possess, it can turn to a form of idolatry. Drums are not evil in and of themselves. Can they be USED for evil? Absolutely. However, they can also be used for good. Is alcohol evil in and of itself? No. But when people abuse it by drinking too much of it, the sin is the person getting drunk, not the alcohol.

Most of the time, people unknowingly misuse this verse with the VERY BEST INTENTIONS, because they desire to appear their very best, so they can lead people to Christ. It's actually very admirable, but usually ineffective. One thing people in the world are good at is spotting phoniness, even good-intentioned phoniness. The Bible says people will know us by our love, not by our ideal personas (which are false representations, no matter how you spin it). In an attempt to show how separate we are from the world, we kill the common ground of humanity, which is essential for loving people to Christ. Totally abstaining (or pretending to abstain in public) from things that are harmless in moderation or completely innocent only strangle the joy out of Christianity, and the world can see that, too.

If someone has a personal conviction about an object or an activity, then they should ABSOLUTELY ABSTAIN, not because it may look bad to someone else, but because it tempts that person to actually sin. If you know someone has a drinking problem and cannot have a drink without getting drunk or wanting to get drunk and you have them over for dinner, don't serve alcohol, not because it looks bad, but out of respect and love for the other person. We shouldn't hide our liberties, if we drink with dinner, or go to a movie, or play cards, or whatever. The problem with always trying to cater to various people’s views of evil is that one, it is impossible and two, it usually backfires. We end up creating a disconnect between who we are in public and who we are in private, creating the plastic Christian image that makes us completely unrelatable to the very people we are trying to reach. Plus, secrecy gives birth to sin and can transform something innocent very easily into actual sin. The stumbling block warning is not a suggestion to keep our liberties a secret from one another, as if to lead others to believe that we never drink, dance, play cards, or whatever. We don’t have to cater to people’s judgmentalism, but to our brothers' and sisters' weaknesses and personal convictions-honestly and openly. Big difference. When we keep our liberties a secret in the name of “avoiding the appearance of evil,” we compromise the unity, transparency, and accountability (not to mention honesty) within the body of Christ and that isn't good for anyone.


DeeAnn said...

Was that some sarcasm about NKJ?

Tia Lynn said...

Oh no. I actually prefer NKJ to most translations. I was trying to highlight the fact that NKJ corrected the poor wording of the Old King James to give a clearer understanding of the real meaning. :)

PSSH...I'm surprised at you Deann, you should know sarcasm is a foreign practice to me! (wow, I couldn't even type that out without laughing). :)

Anonymous said...

When I was in school, wearing the color red was considered the appearance of evil. I wonder how many generations of Christians have thwarted the enjoyment of innocent freedoms for themselves and others? Probably too many.

William said...

It's true that much has been done to stifle the lives and freedoms of Christians based on a bad interpretation. A lot of us hold onto incorrect teaching that is the polar opposite of what the Holy Spirit would lead us to. Instead of focusing on what appears evil, we need to focus on what IS evil.

Christa said...

Oh, if I had a dime for everytime I heard the appearance of evil accusation! Thank you for posting a thorough look into that verse and its actual meaning. It makes much more sense! I'm sure you have taken some heat for it, since you are essentially stripping away the justification for outer superficial judgments.

"Wolfgang" said...

Thank you for writing this! I sent links to your post to two friends of mine and included a link in the post I wrote about the same subject over on my blog. I discovered you through a Google search, BTW. Great blog!

dave said...

thank you thank you

this is the best thing i have ever read on this verse...i have been preaching it for years, but you have said it better..

amazing and ironic how important the correct interp and context is to our times. IF Jesus was accused of appearing evil all the time by religious folks...we should do.

Once again, the evangelical classic interpretation teaches us to understand the opposite of original intent

Tia Lynn said...

Yup, dave. Context is king...if we don't understand the context, we can't possibly understanding the original meaning. Thanks for reading!

dave said...

St Tia..this is where i was headed for the second half of my sermon Sunday,,,so watch for the podcst soon on www.3dff.com if interested I will surely quote you.

Thanks again

Tia Lynn said...

will do!

Amber said...

Thanks to Dave for pointing me here. Love your thoughts on this. =)

Shelby Humphreys said...

Hey Tia,

I'm a new reader to your blog (I found it from a blogroll at minnowspeaks.wordpress.com.) I really like your style. You've got great design, insightful writing, and you do your research (I really enjoyed your sleuthing on the "appearance" of evil.)

I look forward to reading more from you. Do you mind if I add you to my blogroll at radicallyauthentic.wordpress.com?

P.S. Cool that you have music attached to your pages. How did you do that, girl?

Thanks and best blessings,


Steve said...

Sorry to try to throw a wrench in the machine, but I have one question. Has anyone ever noticed that 1 Thess. 5:22 doesn't use correct English grammar for the way people directly interpret it? It says, "Abstain from all appearance of evil." I searched out a KJV online concordance and looked up the word "all." Continuously in the verses, you'll find that the word "all" corresponds with a correct PLURAL word. But why doesn't it have a plural form of "appearance" along with "all" in this verse?

I wondered why the verse didn't say "every appearance of evil," so I looked to see if "every" was used correct in other verses, and it was. It has to be saying something different by saying "all."

I went even further by looking up whether "appearances" was ever used in the KJV just to see if the men of old even had a plural form of "appearance." There was only one occurrence in Ezekiel 10:10 : "And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel."

I argue that the word "appearance" in 1 Thess. 5:22 is not talking about looks at all but is referring to when something or someone "makes an appearance" at a certain place or time. For example, "Lady Gaga made a red carpet appearance tonight." Or another example that can be just as confusing as the verse, "An appearance of ghosts hovered around my head." That is just a shorter or different way of saying, "Ghosts appeared and hovered around my head."

I searched the concordance for "appearance" and found 21 instances spread in 16 different verses. The only other verse besides 1 Thess. 5:22 that I can see has nothing to do with the appearance of how something looks is Ezekiel 43:3 : "And it was according to the appearance of the vision which I saw, even according to the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city: and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face."

I wouldn't say that the KJV is a flawed translation; it supports itself without contradicting itself and even defines its own words within itself. It's a very misunderstood translation, though. So in understanding 1 Thess. 5:22 in the way I've described the word "appearance," how would we interpret this verse's meaning? "When evil comes to you, stay away from it." Newer translations say it easier when they say "Abstain from all forms of evil," but it is basically stating the same meaning as what I've just defined.

Thanks and sorry for the biblical rant. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm not a Baptist but I don't agree that Jesus drank fermented wine. I have lots of reasons for that (I did some research on this, because of a discussion on a forum) and I am convinced it is incorrect to think he ever drank alcohol or gave alcohol to people.

It would take too long to go into that in depth right here and now though.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget: Blood Transfusions appear evil to Jehovah's witnesses and some few super Fundamentalist Christians. Remember, as James 1:12-15 says, intentions of one's heart has to be behind the act of sin. For example, if someone a man is wearing a bathing suit to sunbathe and make himself lighter for swimming than God sees no evil in that. But if his intent is to cause girls to stumble on purpose, then yes, that act is sinful. Same thing for blood transfusions, if you are taking in blood or drawing out blood for some pagan ritual stuff, then yes that is sinful. But if you are donating blood or getting a blood transfusion to save your life or the life of someone else, then there is no sin at all, even though it looks evil. In fact, with blood transfusions and blood donations, it does something pleasing to God because God commands us to help out others.

Joe Pip said...

So i have a question about this one:

My girlfriend was having serious financial troubles and broke down one night asking me to move in with her. I decided to do it in spite of certain misgivings because I love her and in order to help her out. Due to a couple circumstances, we can't get married at the moment but will be within 6 months. There is no sex involved and I am even sleeping on the couch at night just to be sure. We are both Christians and intend to wait on that. Is any biblical command being violated by this temporary arrangement? I've thought much about it, and besides giving "an appearance of evil," I cannot see that I'm sinning here. Any thoughts?