In 1 Thessalonians 5:22, we find a verse that is often quoted, and I believe, often misused…
“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (KJV)
Many Christians interpret this to mean that we should avoid doing anything that could potentially “appear” evil…whether it’s evil or not. You could be doing something that is absolutely innocent, but if someone might interpret your actions as unwise, wrong or evil…then you should “abstain.”
Another verse that seems to support this interpretation is 1 Corinthians 10:31-33…
“Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”
We shouldn’t do things that might appear offensive or hypocritical to those in the world, because our goal is to save them, not turn them off. So instead of exercising certain liberties, we should “abstain from all appearance of evil.”
While this sounds reasonable enough, the fact is that this position simply isn’t tenable. Think about it. Almost everything we do could be misinterpreted by someone.
- Two men who live together as roommates might be seen as homosexual partners, so should men never be roommates?
- Eating at Applebees or Chili’s might give some the impression that we’re drinking at the bar, so should we avoid eating at restaurants where the bar is a major focus?
- Spanking your kids in public might offend a great many people, and even give the appearance that you abuse your children, so should we avoid disciplining our children in public?
- Jokes and satire, especially on Facebook, are misinterpreted as offensive all the time, so should we avoid humor altogether just to be safe?
- Owning a nice home and driving a newer car might offend certain folks in the lower class, or make it appear that you are worldly or attached to your riches, so should we avoid the appearance of evil by living in older homes and driving older cars?
- A lot of folks think that organized religion is corrupt, so to avoid the appearance of evil, should we give up our church buildings and a lot of the traditional formalities that characterize modern churches and make our churches more organic and informal?
I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point. Almost everything we do might appear evil to someone who has a certain radical belief system, or to someone who is just hyper-sensitive and hyper-critical.
And then I think of Jesus…
Did Jesus avoid every “appearance” of evil?
Not if this is what it means.
- To the Jews, the tax collectors were the dirtiest, rotten sinners in the land…maybe even worse than the dirty, rotten Samaritans. Many of the Jews, and especially the Pharisees and other religious elite, refused to associate with such people. And yet Jesus went into a tax collector’s home and ate with the tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:10-11). The Pharisees saw it and had a cow (vs. 12)! To them, his actions appeared evil. Did Jesus stop? Did He apologize? Nope. In fact, He publicly defended his unconventional actions.
- Jesus knew how his Jewish brethren felt about the Sabbath. To many of them, it was sinful even to heal on the Sabbath Day. Did this stop Jesus? Nope. On multiple occasions, He healed people and did things that some of the Jews interpreted as “work,” knowing full well that it would offend them and appear evil to them (Mt. 12:1-8; Mark 3:1-6, et al). He could have told these people who were sick and lame to come back the next day, but instead, He healed them right then and there, knowing that it would create a problem.
- The Jews had a harmless tradition of washing their hands when they ate bread, and yet Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands. This most definitely offended the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 15:1-2. It appeared evil to them! Did Jesus apologize and encourage His disciples to sacrifice their liberty for the sake of appearance? Nope. Instead, He chastised the scribes and Pharisees for the way they elevated their traditions above God’s commandments (vs. 3-9).
- As I mentioned before, the Jews despised the Samaritans just as they despised the tax collecters…so much so that the Jews who traveled from Galilee in the north to Judaea in the south, took a longer route around Samaria just to avoid the region. And yet Jesus passed right through Samaria and even spoke with a Samaritan woman alone (John 4). Even His own disciples, when they saw him talking alone with the woman, they “marveled” (vs. 27).
Jesus did many, many things that were unconventional and even counter-cultural…things that appeared evil to many of the very people He was hoping to teach and win over.
Did Jesus’ actions violate the principle of 1 Thessalonians 5:22? If we’re to abstain from every “appearance” of evil, and if Jesus did many things that appeared evil, stirred up controversy, and offended people, then it’s safe to say that He violated the principle of 1 Thessalonians 5:22.
Can you believe that? I can’t.
The only alternative is that we’re misunderstanding the verse in question. In fact, I think that’s exactly what’s going on here. At the beginning of this article, I quoted the KJV’s rendering of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Let’s notice this verse in the NKJV…
“Abstain from every form of evil.”
This is a better rendering of the Greek. Paul isn’t telling us to avoid doing things that might “appear” evil, but rather to avoid every kind of evil…not just some kinds, or some forms. So it has to be inherently evil to be evil.
Jesus did things that “appeared” evil, but He never did anything that was evil.
When we use this verse in 1 Thessalonians 5 to condemn things that might “appear” evil or offensive to the world, we’re misusing the verse, and drawing a line that we have no right to draw. In fact, Jesus’ very example ought to teach us that it’s okay, and sometimes even good or necessary, to be unconventional, if, in the end, it’s a good thing to do.
To put it another way, we are not obligated to avoid doing things that might elicit damning snap judgments from others, whether Christians or not.
I’d like to delve into Christian and non-Christian judgments for a few minutes…
As far as Christian interactions and judgments are concerned:Christians have an obligation to “not judge according to appearance, but…with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Also, if you see a fellow Christian do something that “appears” evil, you have an obligation to go to them privately and seek clarification (Mt. 18:15-17). When you see a brother or sister in Christ do something that looks fishy, you do not have the right to assume the worst, or condemn them. Don’t make snap judgments, or judge according to appearance.
As far as non-Christian judgments are concerned…
I agree, based on 1 Corinthians 10:25-33 and other texts that we as Christians need to be willing to give up things that might hurt our influence in the world. To most effectively lead people to salvation, we must become all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22), which may mean making adjustments to our lifestyle, depending on the culture in which we find ourselves.
But we can’t make make broad, condemning judgments about certain activities and behaviors on the basis that “it might appear evil” to someone in the world.
First, we don’t have the right to make rules that God hasn’t made.
Second, this is something that each of us has to work out for ourselves based on our own unique circle of influence. What is true for you may not be true for me. And what’s true for me may not be true for you.
Third, there is a difference between things that might cause some in the world to question you in some way, and things that will be so culturally offensive that your influence is lost. In the former case, their judgment may be based on some misunderstanding or assumption and the confusion is easily dispelled. In the latter case, you’ve lost your chance of ever even getting your foot in the door.
What is the conclusion?
There are cases where we should sacrifice our liberties for the sake of our influence, especially when dealing with outsiders. Paul had Timothy circumcised for the sole purpose of maintaining a positive influence with the Jewish people they were trying to reach for Christ. Even Jesus tried to avoid offending the Jews at times (Mt. 17:24-27).
But the command to “avoid every form of evil” doesn’t mean that we have to avoid all things that might appear evil. Among Christians especially, snap judgments should NOT be made and accusations should NOT be thrown about carelessly. If Jesus’ example teaches us anything, it’s that being unconventional and counter-cultural is sometimes necessary.
And we shouldn’t shy away from that.
Or be ashamed of it.