I Thessalonians 5:22 – Abstain From Every Form Of Evil?

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent question. It is amazing how one little word can change a meaning so much. I bet a lot of puritanical church rules were generated by a concern to avoid even the appearance of evil. Matthew Henry’s commentary (from 1706) says:

    We should therefore abstain from evil, and all appearances of evil, from sin, and that which looks like sin, leads to it, and borders upon it. He who is not shy of the appearances of sin, who shuns not the occasions of sin, and who avoids not the temptations and approaches to sin, will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin.

    In addition the Geneva Bible Notes (1576) say:

    Whatever has but the very show of evil, abstain from it.

    It is clear that both of these commentaries had the same opinion as the KJV. However, it is remarkable to note that the NKJV, which is an attempt to keep the KJV but in modern English, felt the need to correct this verse. Below are both translations side by side:

    1Th 5.22 [KJV]
    Abstain from all appearance of evil.

    1Th 5.22 [NKJV]
    Abstain from every form of evil.

    Furthermore, every single modern translation I checked likewise opposes the KJV by saying something like “stay away from every form of evil.” The question really turns on the translation of a single Greek word eidous (εἴδους) which can be translated as the following (according to BDAG lexicon):

    1. the shape and structure of something as it appears to someone, form, outward appearance

    2. a variety of something, kind

    3. the act of looking/seeing, seeing, sight

    Under definition #2 this lexicon specifically sites our verse (1 Thes 5.22) along with other Greek texts (outside of the Bible) which use the exact same phrase. This, for me, is good evidence that we should go with the modern translation. This is probably partly due to the fact that Greek lexicons are always improving as more ancient Greek literature is discovered, studied, and cataloged so that today we have a much better grasp of the biblical Greek vocabulary than was available three hundred years ago when Matthew Henry wrote his notes.

    So what are the options for interpreting this verse? If we go for the outdated translation “abstain from every appearance of evil” we are going to set hedges around things that might be perceived by others as sinful. This can easily lead to legalism as is the case with alcohol in some parts of the south. When I was attending Atlanta Bible College a native Georgian told me that if a minister was ever seen in a restaurant with a glass of wine that would be the end of his ministry. Shocking. And I bet this verse is their primary one for justifying such a mentality. Of course, Jesus did not keep away from every appearance of evil. He went to dinner parties with prostitutes, tax-collectors, and sinners. He feasted so frequently (which included drinking alcohol) that his enemies called him “a glutton and a drunkard.”

    So what is the other option? The verse more likely means that we are to keep away from every kind of evil. The Apostle is just finishing his letter to the Thessalonian community and in this portion he is machine-gunning them with brief instructions:

    1Th 5.16-22 [NRSV]
    16 Rejoice always,
    17 pray without ceasing,
    18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
    19 Do not quench the Spirit.
    20 Do not despise the words of prophets,
    21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;
    22 abstain from every form of evil.

    I think he is simply urging these brand-new Christians to stay away from evil. I don’t interpret this as a particularly deep command that needs detailed explanation, rather I see it as a simple command like a father would give his son just before leaving for a business trip: “son, while I’m gone, listen to your momma.” or “keep your nose clean” or “stay out of trouble”–something like that. As Christians we are to stay away from evil.

    Reply

  2. Sean, thanks for taking the time to look at this. I think your findings are very helpful.

    Let me ask this in addition to what you have written – why would we want to give the “appearance” of evil (in accordance with the more traditional understanding of this verse)? Do we have Scriptural support else where that we should be concerned about giving off the appearance that something we are doing is evil?

    I think your point about Jesus spending the time with sinners is very helpful in this conversation. Jesus was concerned about the welfare of these individuals so much so that he was willing to put himself in a situation where he could help them, that meant going to them.

    That being said though, I don’t think Jesus’ ministry strategy was to only go to the bars and stay there – he wanted the people who were gluttons and drunks to leave that life and follow him out of the darkness and into the light. That would mean that his only dealings with these individuals initially might be at their parties and on their streets and in their homes even – but he would eventually be seen with them not in the brothels and bars right? (I know we don’t necessarily have Scriptural evidence, so this speculation based on what the gospel asks)

    Q – would Jesus go to a prostitute’s home nightly so that she could hear the gospel and be discipled? Would Jesus be concerned about people thinking he was doing more than just teaching even though he knew that he wasn’t. The religious leaders were overly critical about his behavior and he was not concerned about this critique – but what about the common folk, the neighbors of the prostitute? Their default setting was probably set on “think the worst about this situation” rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt. Should he be concerned about this?

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  3. Posted by sean on October 24, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Victor,

    You bring up some good points here. It is clear that you are looking at the issue from the other side. From one side the pitfall is legalism–worrying so much about what people think that we actually do the same as the Pharisees by creating fence laws and then treating them as if they areinspired. The other pitfall is thinking that since we cannot be judged for putting ourselves in questionable circumstances that we should regardless of its effect on us.

    First off, let me reiterate that 1 Thes 5.22 does not actually bear on our discussion since it merely instructs us to not participate in every kind of evil–in other words, don’t sin. But what we are talking about here is whether or not we can get really close to sin without actually being tainted by it. Here, the primary concern must be motivation.

    If we are cozying up to sinners because we want to have fun or we are interested in a relationship with one of them, this would be wrong. (BTW, “sinners” in the Bible are those who have not yet repented and begun to follow the way of Jesus. This is why never are disciples of Jesus called “sinners.” )

    However, if the motive of the person’s heart is redemptive then she or he should feel the freedom to join company with sinners in order to genuinely love them and bring the message of the kingdom to them. Of course, everyone should be aware of our own shortcomings and weaknesses and not put ourselves in a position where we are likely to sin. So, if someone wants to go to a dinner party where some prostitutes are likely to be that would be fine if their motives were pure. However, if there was going to be nudity there or worse he would have to excuse himself. I think a lot turns on the opportunity to share the message with people. The only reason to put oneself in a situation of temptation like this would be to share the gospel with people and help them to come to God. The idea is to be free from sin but available to sinners so that they too can experience redemption and transformation. We don’t become sinners to save sinners but we cannot reach them if we seclude ourselves either.

    Does that make sense?

    Reply

  4. Yes I think it makes sense. Good points.

    Do you think we can apply the principle here of not putting a stumbling block in front of a weaker brother as well? If a young man has a young woman over to his house between the hours of 10p-2a 3x a week and a new believer in the church lives near his house or passes by on a commute, the new believer could be tempted to think that there is something in appropriate going on – even though they are having a Bible study and prayer time.

    If the young man finds out about this neighbor’s concerns – should he just expect the neighbor to “get over it?” Is there something this man can/should do when he becomes aware of this brother’s thoughts?

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  5. Posted by Jeanette on October 24, 2009 at 11:59 am

    This is a very interesting discussion that I have some strong ideas about.

    I firmly believe that there is no possible way to live your life so that everyone you know, or everyone that sees you, thinks that you are doing no evil. Jesus’ life is a perfect example of that as is stated above, in that he mingled with the sinners. His efforts to the very opinionated people that surrounded him were very little. When he was confronted by a Pharisee he basically just shot some one liners at them and walked away, or vanished.

    Some more clarity on this verse for me would be to know who wrote it, where they were and what had just taken place in their life. I know when I go through something terrible the first thing I think of is advising my sister or someone that is close in my life to take certain steps in certain situations. Not to say that the writer didn’t think about what he wrote before he wrote it, but in times of emotional toil, things that are spoken can be very urgent, like the list of many things written in this passage. What situation was the writer in when he wrote this that made him so adamant about getting his point across?

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  6. Posted by Brenda on October 24, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    I think being so focused on refraining from what may appear “evil” to others could very well lead us to do what verse 19 instructs us not to do.

    Reply

  7. Posted by sean on October 25, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Jeanette!
    How are you doing? Are you still living in Ohio? Great to see you. As for Paul’s context when writing 1 Thes. I really don’t know. Most people say it was written very early, maybe even his first epistle (the other possibility is Galatians). Maybe Dustin can help us on this one. It is a bit easier to figure out what was going on in Thessalonica since we can infer things from the epistle. I think the quick fire remarks at the end are simply some last minute instructions to keep in mind.

    Victor,

    Perhaps these verses are more in line with your hypothetical. As I said before 1 Thes 5.22 simply cannot be used to say what the KJV says.

    Phi 2.14-15
    14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing;
    15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world,

    1Pe 2.11-12
    11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
    12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.

    Tit 2.6-8
    6 Likewise urge the young men to be sensible;
    7 in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified,
    8 sound in speech which is beyond reproach, so that the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us.

    Reply

  8. Sean, these verses are excellent – exactly what I was looking for.

    Would it be wrong to conclude from these three sections (setting I Thessalonians 5:22 aside for the moment) that we should have a concern about what our reputation is among the nations – so that we do not provide a legitimate stumbling block to them hearing the gospel? Jesus was looked at as a friend of glutton and sinners, but then when some of those who were accusing him spoke to him, dined with him, etc, their minds were changed. He wasn’t concerned about his reputation in that sense – but at the same time he did not give people a legitimate reason to call him a sinner (because obviously he wasn’t) for example by only hanging with the prostitutes in the brothels.

    Brenda,
    That’s a good point. Do you have any other thoughts on this?

    Reply

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