Tuesday, July 31, 2012

You Can’t Do That! - The “Appearance of Evil”

“You Shouldn’t Do That!!”

Those of us who have been Christians for a lot of years have undoubtedly been told that there are certain things that we must not do… not because they are wrong in and of themselves, but because people might see us and think that we are doing something wrong.

“The Bible tells us to avoid even the appearance of evil!” They would say…

And… well, it is right there in 1 Thes. 5:22… in the King James Version at least.

So, we’ve been taught that if “most people” associate an activity with sin, that we should simply abstain from participation… because of the “appearance of evil.”

This is what we were told about rock music… and playing cards… and dancing… and alcohol… and movies…

But Is That Right?

That’s a very important question! If what we were told is correct, then we need to apply that passage to our lives exactly that way. So, let’s take a closer look at the text. Let’s see if this really is about “appearances.”

Here is the passage in multiple versions:

1 Thessalonians 5:22

KJV “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”
NKJV Abstain from every form of evil.”

Abstain from every form of evil.”

NIV “Avoid every kind of evil.”
Amp “Abstain from evil [shrink from it and keep aloof from it] in whatever form or whatever kind it may be.”

The underlined words above are each translated from the Greek word, eidos (G1491). It is defined in Strong’s Concordance as “the external or outward appearance, form figure, shape” or “form, kind.” It actually refers to something visible… in other words, it is something actually appearing.

Is “Appearance” Just About “How Things Appear” (but aren’t really)?

The word "appearance," as we use it in English, has the connotation of something which "appears" to be something when in fact it is not. And that’s exactly how it’s been applied to various issues like those I listed above.

But the only English translation that seems to support that idea is the KJV… all of the others seem to go out of their way to avoid wording that leads to that understanding. It’s as if the translators knew that the KJV’s rendering led to a faulty idea about “appearances” so they translated it in a way that show the actual meaning is to avoid real evil, not just something that might be thought by others to be evil.

I would restate Paul’s words this way:

  • “Avoid evil, wherever it appears.”
    or (to use the KJV’s word)
  • “…wherever evil makes an appearance, abstain from it.”

Dangerous Application…

But what if someone else really believes an activity is sinful? Are we morally obligated to refrain from an activity that we know to be morally pure (or neutral) because someone else thinks it’s wrong?

Let’s put it in more stark terms… Does the Bible teach that we are obligated to follow the moral standards of other?  

Well, that can’t be what 1 Thes. 5:22 means…  Jesus Himself didn’t practice it!

  • Religious people of Jesus’ Day considered it “evil” to work on the Sabbath. They had a long list of things which constituted “work.” Jesus was well aware of their list, but did some of those things which had the “appearance of evil” anyway: He allowed His disciples to pick grain (Mark 2:23-24). He healed people (Luke 14:1-6). He told a man to carry his bedroll on a Sabbath (John 5:5-11). When the Pharisees “reminded” Jesus that it was forbidden (read, “sinful”), He rebuked them and rejected their standard of behavior. And He did the “forbidden” thing anyway!
  • Religious people of Jesus’ Day knew that it was “evil” to be associated with “sinners.” Jesus knew of their standards yet He spent time directly with “evil” tax-collectors (Matthew 9:9-13) and adulterous women (Luke 7:36-39).
  • Religious people of Jesus’ day would never allow themselves to become defiled by touching anything that was “evil” and “unclean.” Yet Jesus touched the dead (Luke 8:40-42,49-54, Luke 7:11-15). He touched and healed lepers (Luke 5:12-13). And rather than rebuke an unclean (bleeding) woman for mixing with the pressing crowd without announcing her uncleanness, He praised her for her faith expressed through her desire to touch Him (Luke 8:43-48).

Why didn’t Jesus avoid the “appearance of evil”? He knew exactly what the religious leaders of His day thought was right or wrong… Why did he blatantly violate their standards?

The answer, of course, is that Jesus was not obligated to follow other peoples’ ideas about right and wrong.

And neither are we.

Avoiding Real Evil

As all the versions besides the KJV show, we are to avoid real evil. In other words, our measure is not others’ opinions, it is God’s Word alone.

And there are things that are truly wrong…

As biblically faithful Christians, we must not participate in or condone behaviors that are clearly contrary to God’s Word. At the same time, true Christlikeness means that we are willing to be criticized and persecuted for participating in activities that may “appear evil” to other Christians.

— Matthew Neal


In this Series:

You Can’t Do That! - Introduction
You Can’t Do That! - The “Appearance of Evil”
You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 1)
You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 2)
You Can’t Do That! – “For Conscience’ Sake”


jochanaan said...

This is so true. I wish more people would recall that Jesus and Paul were the last two people to be concerned with mere "appearances"!

Anonymous said...

I have a question about "appearance" and “…wherever evil makes an appearance, abstain from it.”

I had thought about taking our CNC group to the Burning Man Festival in 2013. There is an article at:
and I thought is was a very good review and how a Christian can approach this. Yet someone else mentioned that we cannot because of the appearance of evil.
What say ye?

Matthew Neal said...

I don't know what to think, Boyd.

I admit, that I don't know much about the event—and that article painted a very different picture than I expected—but my concern would be that Burning Man might actually constitute an "appearance of evil" (real evil showing up) that we should abstain from.

Simply because nudity is condoned there does not necessarily make it a wholesome place for a Christian Naturist activity.

If there's opportunity to attend and proclaim Christ in a dark place, then perhaps that would be a legitimate reason to attend. But that purpose would have nothing to do with nudity.

— Matt

Unknown said...

Great article, and even better, great logic! I wanted to add just a tiny thing to it, though. In your list of offensive things that Jesus did, I wanted to add John 4 - the Samaritan Woman. Jews didn't associate with Samaritans, and Jesus would have been seen as something of a mild traitor because of the heated racism between these two groups. In addition, gender roles were extremely defined, so his speaking to a woman as an equal would also have been offensive to many Jews of his day.
Just a few thoughts. Love your work! God bless.
I Peter 3:15