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.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
1 Thess. 5:22: "Abstain from all appearance of evil."