Appearance of Evil

  If you have darkened the door of most any church, you will most likely have heard the words "abstain from the appearance of evil" with the intent to convince someone to stop doing a certain action, go to certain places, or wear certain things. These few words have caused much contention and confusion among many churches and believers, and it's no wonder as to why. I mean, if a Christian is ordered to abstain from all appearances of evil...that could include a great many things. 

     While growing up Independent Fundamental Baptist, I heard this phrase kicked around all the time. When I later surrendered to ministry and went to Bible College, I heard it used even more. This phrase is all too often casually and nonchalantly thrown around and slapped on anything that the reader may find questionable. This is difficult, because various people view things as evil, wrong, unwise, or questionable. Creating a melting pot of ideologies that can contradict one another while catching other Christians in the cross-fire. One group will view going to Applebee's as an appearance of evil, while others might view going to Target as an appearance of evil. The list is endless as are the disagreements. 

So all of this controversy starts with this simple verse:

1 Thess. 5:22 Abstain from all appearance of evil (KJV)

     Now, at first glance, this verse would really put the Christian at the mercy of the perceptions or preferences of others. If we take this too literally we would live our Christian life overanalyzing everything, walking on eggshells, and constantly looking over our shoulders to be sure that what we are doing is not appearing to be something of evil intent. This is the way that I was taught to interpret the verse, but what if I told you it has a much simpler yet more important meaning?

     In the Greek, the word for appearance is eido. This word actually means a few things and this is important. eido (to see/to know) We use the English word 'see' similarly to this. In phrases like "Do you 'see' what I mean?" We are not asking if you actually see what we are talking about with your eyes, but if you understand or know.

Eido (e?d?)
1. To See (Lke. 3:22, 5:27, 2 Cor. 5:7, Jhn. 5:37)
2. To Know (I Thess. 5:22)

     In this instance, it is not referring to appearance as physical sight. It's referring to a mental understanding of evil. What this verse is saying is to abstain from every evil that appears before you. Avoid knowing evil. Flee from evil. This verse is telling us something much less complex than the confusing subjectivity of previous interpretations, while at the same time teaching us something deeper and more important. Run away from every kind of evil. Do not dabble in it. Do not entertain it. Run from it entirely. Even the KJV translators were meaning it in this way. They meant it as "abstain from every appearance as evil appears" not "abstain from every appearance that others may perceive as evil." This is clarified in other translations.

1 Thess. 5:22 Abstain from every form of evil. (ESV/NASB)

     One thing that is vitally important when studying scripture from the KJV is to remember that it is over 400 years old and language changes drastically over time. So when reading verses like this, in our modern understanding of grammar usage, we may misinterpret the original meaning of the older English speakers and writers. So tread carefully before you start running with a possibly wrong interpretation of a verse.

     This interpretation is entirely consistent with other passages. The Bible tells us not to be man pleasers (Gal. 1:10) and tells us our expectation is from God (Ps. 62:5) so of course this verse would not be referring to the judging eyes of the onlookers. Because the Bible also tells us not to judge that which we do not know. "Judge not or you will be judged" this is referring to judging someone's thoughts, heart, or motive. Do not concern yourself all that much with the perception of others.  May I remind you the dangers of being a man pleaser. Instead, live in the liberty of God's expectation of you...not of man's. If you're not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to be ashamed of. 

     If you're going to the movie theater to watch a wholesome family movie and someone drives by and sees you walking into the theater and their first thought is:

 "I wonder if they're going to go see that raunchy movie playing there?" 

     Then honestly, they have a judging problem. Not the other way around. You know your conscience and you know that what you are seeing is wholesome and you ought not to be ashamed of that. Remember, your expectation is from God not from what others might perceive of you. If someone is thinking the worst of you, then they need a heart check and to stop being so presumptuous. 

     Have you been presumptuous with someone? Honestly, we all have at some point, but that does not mean we ought to expect others to change their entire lives because of our lack of ability to control our own judgmental spirit. This hit me right between the eyes when I realized this. All of those times I was accusing someone of having an "appearance of evil," I was really judging them and inserting their heart or motive into what they were doing. This also served as a weight taken off my back when I realized that I did not have to constantly look over my shoulder and tip-toe around everything I did for fear of sinning against fellow Christians.

     This application makes sense in so many ways. Think about it...what is sin? Sin is disobeying God and His law. Is God the author of confusion? No. He is one of order. Did He not clearly communicate with mankind that which is sin? He most certainly did. God, being the God that He is, gave us His Word where He clearly communicated that which is sin. He created language so that He could communicate to us His will and His ways. So throughout scripture, we can see what is a sin. Not what 'appears to someone' is a sin. This is the freedom that exists only in Christ. This means that we do not have to be tossed back and forth by what man perceives as wrong, but that we may be anchored to the truth of God and what He says is wrong and what He says is pure.

Read the entire context around this verse and you will see that it is referring to sin against God...not the perception of others.

1 Thess. 5:19-23 Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

     Misapplying this verse could lead to a very damaging position for a Christian. If you misinterpret this verse, then where do you draw the line? If you do not attend movie theaters because of the "appearance of evil" but then still go to Walmart where these movies are sold, then it's still the same thing. Trust me when I say the world will notice this fallacy and will call you a hypocrite. If you were to be consistent in literally avoiding all "appearances of evil," you soon wouldn't go anywhere. Why? Because sin is everywhere. Sin exists no matter where you go...not including what someone might perceive/judge. Christians have to learn to live in the world and to avoid every form of evil whilst living among the people of this world. Remember, God told us to be separate from the world...not to run from it. This verse, however, simply means to avoid that which God says is evil. Not what others might think is evil. 

     Take a moment to think: If we truly believe this means what could "appear by someone" is evil, then what do you make of Christ sitting with the woman at the well? Was she not immoral and of the opposite sex and sleeping with a man that wasn't her husband? I wonder what that appeared like before others. What about when Jesus went to the house of Zacchaeus the lying and stealing tax collector? Wonder what that looked like? What about the time when those men hid in the house of Rehab the Harlot? You see, all these things could've 'appeared' to be evil, but the hearts of those involved were pure and were working toward the cause of God. If we as Christians aren't engaging with the sinners of the world, then what exactly are we doing here for God in the first place? We can't expect them to come to us. We must go to them. 
           I think by looking at the definitions of the word and reading the passage; we can understand that this is a charge to avoid that which is evil and strive to do that which is good. You see, the book of Thessalonians is a fantastic book for Christians to read. It deals with avoiding evil and sin and tells us that we, as Christians, should abstain from all evil. Then it focuses on responding to evil actions with love and holiness in a way that is pleasing to God. We Christians are to be set apart from the world. This doesn’t mean that we can’t attend theaters, play with cards, or go to restaurants. This means that we are not to be participating in sin. The Bible clearly points out that which is sin. If something was sinful, God would be sure to point it out. He doesn’t have us flying blind or operating in a moral limbo. That would make God unfair and therefore unjust. So God, being just, instructs us exactly what sin is. To say otherwise, is to place ourselves in a very subjective position that would lead to more hypocrisy.

           Our Lord, who loves us so much, already showed us what sin is and the dangers it brings. So avoid all sin and remember your expectation is from Him. We, as Christians, are charged with the Gospel of Christ. We are to share this with the world and our motive behind it should be Christ. Nothing in our ministry should be done to please people, but only to please the Lord. When contemplating your outward testimony...don’t worry about the judgment of others, but worry about your accountability to Christ. Because when we are paranoid about what people think around us, then we put ourselves under the shadow of the opinions of others. This is not Biblical. I understand that we need to watch our outward testimonies (not being angry/violent, dressing modestly, not being a drunkard, etc.) but may I remind you that those things I just listed are actual sins that God has stated are sinful.

     I hope and pray that this helped you understand the meaning of this passage as it helped me. It is important that we take the original meaning of the verse into account and not to flippantly use the verse out of context. So let me encourage you reader. Live in accountability to Christ. Follow that which God lays out before us as holy living. Don't live in fear of what man might see, but instead live in God's expectation of you. You will find that when you live to God's expectation that everything else takes care of itself. Follow His way and His righteousness. Not the foolish observations and subjective morality of man. 

1 Thess. 2:4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our