What Does It Mean to Avoid Every Appearance of Evil?

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 03/01/2014

Dan Wallace says the King James translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (“abstain from all appearance of evil”) has led to a misunderstanding of the text, causing many to say that if anyone thinks a particular action is wrong (e.g., drinking, smoking, playing cards, etc.), then no Christian ought to engage in it.

Does it really mean that even if something looks like it’s evil to some, we can’t enjoy it? Hardly.

The Greek text really should be translated, abstain from every form of evil. There is a genuine correspondence between form and the state of being evil: that is, stay away from evil things. But the reason that form (or, in the KJV, appearance) was used is because Paul is speaking about false doctrine. This verse, in fact, was more often attributed to Jesus than to Paul in the early church, suggesting that Paul got this line from the Lord and that it was one of the sayings which for some reason didn’t make it into the gospels, but was nevertheless an authentic saying of Jesus. It was used with literal reference to coins. Thus, to abstain from every form of evil was to avoid counterfeit teaching. Further, in the context, it seems clear that Paul is speaking about false teaching. Verses 19–22 read as follows:

Do not quench the Spirit;

Do not despise prophecies;

But examine all things: cling to the good, abstain from every form of evil.

In context, Paul is saying that false teaching should be avoided, but true teaching should be what believers follow. They shouldn’t be duped, shouldn’t become gullible, but must test prophets and see whether they are from the Lord. They need to examine all these teachings and cling to the good and throw out the bad.

If we look at the broader context of the New Testament as a whole, we see that Paul was certainly not speaking about avoiding every appearance of evil in 1 Thessalonians 5. His own mission was governed by the mantra, I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some (1 Cor 9.22).

In a similar post, Walt Russell breaks down the passage this way:

“Do not quench the Spirit” (v. 19) (the general exhortation);

“Do not despise prophetic utterances” (v. 20) (the specific negative aspect of the exhortation).

“But examine everything carefully” (v. 21) (the contrasting positive aspect of the exhortation);

“hold fast to that which is good” (v. 22) (what to do with good prophecies after examining);

“abstain from every form of evil” or “every evil form of utterance” (v. 23) (what to do with the evil prophetic utterances).

Wallace concludes:

To wield 1 Thess 5.22 as a weapon to restrict a believer’s personal freedom is against the general tenor of the New Testament and of the Lord’s life in particular. Ironically, to avoid every appearance of evil is far more in keeping with the Pharisees’ model of righteousness than with Jesus’!