Boundaries, Hints of Impurity, and the Appearance of Evil

1 Thessalonians 5:22 was often used to bring about some really crazy making forms of legalism a few decades back. Consider the KJV translation

Abstain from all appearance of evil.

Certainly avoiding the appearance of evil in accordance with the scriptures is a good thing… but when it comes to matters of faith, corruption is often waiting right around the door, and it showed up in spades with the misapplication of this verse.

Consider the following from Mansfield’s “Everything I Learned About Theology” This often leads to stringent rules, cultural traditions and behavior that have little to do with authentic Christianity, sometimes humorously categorized as “I don’t drink, I don’t chew, and I don’t go out with girls that do.”

The absurdity of misapplying the verse even made it into a movie.

Insert Footloose Trailer here

And of course, even if you couldn’t dance, drink, or chew, it was perfectly ok to practice racial or gender discrimination, throw the big deal aspects of Matthew 25 under the bus, or lie, cheat and steal in one’s business affairs.

Thus, lots of folks looked to the Greek and took a close look as to whether “appearance” was truly the right word to use or not.

Consider the following article:

The apostle Paul wrote “some things hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Sometimes people “twist” the Scriptures because they have an evil heart and do not really care what God has said—they will twist the Scriptures to justify their own evil actions. Other people will unknowingly “twist” the Scriptures—usually as a result of a lack of Bible study.

If I were to make a list of the most abused (or “twisted”) passages in the Bible, I think that 1 Thessalonians 5:22 would be near the head of the list. In the King James Version of the Bible this passage simply commands us to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” This verse is explained by many folks to mean that if some act “appears” to be evil then we must abstain from it. Of course, the person explaining the passage gets to determine what “appears” evil and what doesn’t. If they don’t like going to the movie theater then you can’t go either—it “appears” to be evil. If they don’t like playing cards then you can’t play either—it “appears” to be evil. If they don’t like vanilla ice cream then you can’t eat it either—it “appears” to be evil.

The entire article is pretty profound and makes a lot of sense… and likely similar arguments were used in newer translations such as the ESV since appearance is no longer used.

Despite this, one can see compelling arguments to translate the Greek eidos as appearance, despite the aforementioned problems. Consider the following:

Abstain From All Appearance of Evil

A pure heart avoids the appearance of evil. “Abstain from all show of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). A pure heart avoids that which may be interpreted as evil. He that is loyal to his prince not only forbears to have his hand in treason, but he takes heed of that which has a show of treason. A gracious heart is shy of that which looks like sin. When Joseph’s mistress took hold of him and said, “Lie with me,” he left his garment in her hand and fled from her (Genesis 39:12). He avoided the appearance of evil. He would not be seen in her company. Thus a pure heart avoids whatever may have the suspicion of sin….

And yet… Jesus hung out with prostitutes, and was considered a drunkard and a glutton. Along with that line of thought, far too many ministry opportunities are left by the wayside, for fear of what the religious people may think. Ie, the proverbial little old lady who watches out her window 24/7 just waiting to pounce lest anyone cross her “interesting” morality.


The thing is, 1 Thess 5:22 is not the only verse that talks about this sort of thing… Ephesians 5:3 hits on it as well, and its a lot more explicit. Bear in mind, lots of folks only look at the sex aspect, as after all, sex sells… but greed and impurity are equally important, or perhaps in our culture, even more important.

But among you, there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.

Bottom line, I don’t think the translation, whether it be to the appearance of, or form of, or something related is anywhere near as neat and tidy as many would like it to be. Overall, I tend to think what Paul is pointing toward is a form of boundary not right at the good vs evil line, but shifted towards the good side such that when things take a serious header, when the dust settles, there is no question as to which side one is on.

I think of this fellow I knew way back when. He had a massive heart for God, and I remember him taking a hardcore stance of avoiding the appearance of evil. He did not want anything to get in the way of folks coming to Jesus so he held to some really high ideals on the finance side of things… but those ideals really limited expansion, so when he retired and his kids took over….

They hired some lawyers and it appears they made the call to operate as close to breaking the law as possible, such that they could massively expand, and accomplish much good for the kingdom. And like a lot of things, bad stuff happens from time to time and things really blew up. The son ended up being accused of fraud, and of course the board of directors and the family came back with, well pop put this stuff in place, so the son is totally innocent, it’s a rogue atheist attorney out to get him. Until of course one reads the court proceedings… and now the whole lot of them have egg on their face and the son is in jail.

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