Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:22
“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (KJV)
Frequency of proposed error (1-5): 5
Certainty that it is an error (1-5): 5
There are few passages of Scripture so frequently abused in preaching as this one. So frequently is it abused, whenever I hear it quoted in the KJV, I expect it to be misused. It is short, easy to remember, and is the best verse for establishing a (so it is supposed) very important principle for Christian living: you shouldn’t do things that look bad, even if they aren’t actually bad at all.
At least, that’s what they say. The problem here comes from a misunderstanding of the text of the King James Version, particularly the word “appearance.” Consulting a modern translation can usually pretty quickly clarify the meaning of the verse:
“Abstain from every form of evil.” (ESV, NKJV)
“…abstain from every form of evil.” (NASB95, NRSV)
“…reject every kind of evil.” (NIV11)
“Avoid every kind of evil.” (NIV84)
“Stay away from every kind of evil.” (NLT, HCSB)
“…and stay away from everything that is evil.” (NCV)
These translations give a consistent understanding: the thing which we are to avoid is that which is actually evil. These translations have accurately conveyed the sense of the original: evil can take on various forms and we ought to avoid all of them.
Yet despite the testimony of modern translations and proper biblical exegesis, this verse continues to be the single proof text (even among those who do not primarily use the KJV) of the idea that we ought to abstain from things that, though not evil in themselves, nevertheless appear to be evil. Variations of this are used to argue that Christians should not go into movie theaters (because a long time ago, people made out in theaters—something I have never seen happen; or because people seeing you go in don’t know whether you’re going to see a family-friendly film or an R-rated comedy), or that an unmarried couple (a guy and a girl, even if not in a relationship) should not be in a car alone together (another place where people make out), or that (even once a moderationist exegesis of the Bible’s “wine” passages is admitted) Christians ought to abstain from ever drinking alcohol.
How important is that verse in supporting that principle? I’m not sure, but I will say that the most common response I get from friends when I’ve corrected their use of that verse is to ask me where in Scripture I would go to support that teaching. When I turn the question back to them (since they were the one attempting to make the case for it), they usually have no other Scripture for that principle. That is disconcerting. It seems at that point that their commitment is less to the Scripture’s teaching, and more toward their ability to hold up an idea even once their only know Biblical support is shown to be insupportable.
But I leave that as an open question: can that general principle—that we ought to abstain from things that look evil, even if they are not—be given genuine and unqualified support from Scripture? I’m going to let that question be answered in the comments, since it goes beyond the scope of this exegetical fallacy.
I have two problems with the principle: 1.) Selective application. When people quit applying it just to the standards and convictions they are trying to uphold, and apply it consistently to all of life, it tends toward a very damaging kind of legalism, and an impossible kind of life. 2.) Implications when applied to the life of Christ. The way many people apply this verse, Jesus himself would be condemned. This could argue even against the “wisdom” of such a principle.
But I have to come back to one other question of exegetical concern: did the KJV get it wrong? No, it didn’t (at least, not necessarily). We got the KJV wrong (I think). See, the English word “appearance” can be used when one thing looks like another. When I did a Google search, I got this as the second definition:
2. An impression given by someone or something, although this may be misleading: “she read it with every appearance of interest”.
In the Oxford English Dictionary, I had to look all the way down to the 8th definition before I found a definition that (sort of) matched this:
8. The action or state of appearing or seeming to be (to eyes or mind); semblance; looking like. to all appearance: so far as appears to anyone.
But the far more common definitions tend to be along this lines: The way something looks. For example, the first 7 definitions in the OED, and the first definition from my Google search:
1. The way that someone or something looks.
The point is this: according to our dictionary definitions, the preferred way to interpret the KJV’s English rendering of this verse is in the same sense as those other translations listed above: Whenever, and in whatever form, evil appears, avoid it. As far as I can tell, this is exactly what the translators of the KJV had in mind, and I intend to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Here are some helpful comments from the Commentaries:
The need to test everything and then either accept or reject it on the basis of whether it was good or evil had general relevance to every aspect of Christian thought and behavior. (C. A. Wanamaker, NIGTC, 1990)
The Thessalonians were to embrace those prophetic messages that were found to be genuine, but they were also called to reject those that were otherwise. The call to reject the inauthentic prophecies is the final exhortation of this cycle: Avoid every kind of evil. The language is strikingly similar to that of Job 1.1, 8, where Job is descrived as a man wo “shunned evil.” While the exhortation to separate themselves from evil had wide applicability, in this context the command is put into service to guide their reaction to prophecies that were considered false. They should shun every kind of evil, whatever its nature, including false prophecy. The term translated kind appears in other contexts with the meaning “appearance,” but only in the sense of external appearance that reflects internal reality. But it frequently is found alongside the word every, and in these contexts it means every kind, giving us the rendering of the NIV. (G. L. Green, Pillar, 2002)
Every “kind of evil” translated a word (eidous) that refers to the outward appearance of a thing. But eidous is not used here in a superficial way. There is no intent to draw a contrast between appearance and substance in this verse. Whatever “appears” evil upon careful examination by the fellowship is assumed to be evil in fact. Thus the various “kinds” of evil, whatever their particular shape, are what the apostle admonishes the church to avoid. (D. M. Martin, NAC, 1995)
Evil refers to something that is actively harmful or malignant. Such evil, which includes lies and distortions of truth as well as moral perversions, appears in many forms. Because of its many manifestations (cf. Matt. 5:11; 12:35; 15:19; Mark 7:23; John 3:19; Rom. 1:29-30; Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10; James 3:16), the apostle warned the Thessalonians to shun every form of evil. Paul’s exhortation was a general call for believers to discern truth from error, good from evil, righteousness from sin, and a command to shun any of the negative teachings, influences, or behaviors that would displease God. (J. F. MacArthur, Jr., MNTC, 2002)
In many cases the Christian should not abstain from what has the semblance (“appearance”) of evil, though really good. Jesus healed on the sabbath, and ate with publicans and sinners, acts which wore the appearance of evil, but which were not to be abstained from on that account, being really good. I agree with TITTMANN rather than with BENGEL, whom ALFORD follows. The context favors this sense: However specious be the form or outward appearance of such would-be prophets and their prophecyings, hold yourselves aloof from every such form when it is evil, literally, “Hold yourselves aloof from every evil appearance” or “form.” (Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, 1997)
Appearance (ειδους). As commonly explained, abstain from everything that even looks like evil. But the word signifies form or kind. Comp. L. 3:22; J. 5:37, and see nearly the same phrase in Joseph. Ant. x., 3, I. It never has the sense of semblance. Moreover, it is impossible to abstain from everything that looks like evil. (M. R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 1887)
Ειδος [Eidos] (from ειδον [eidon]) naturally means look or appearance as in Luke 3:23; 9:29; John 5:37; II Cor. 5:7. But, if so taken, it is not semblance as opposed to reality (Milligan). The Papyri give several examples of ειδος [eidos] in the sense of class or kind and that idea suits best here. Evil has a way of showing itself even in the spiritual gifts including prophecy. (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 1933)