Christian Leaders and the Gray Areas of Godly Life

When Christian leaders talk about how to live a godly life, they eventually turn to the gray areas those things that are right for some but wrong for others. You know the list: drinking, smoking, watching R rated movies, playing cards, dancing, using colorful language, listening to Country-Western music (OK that last one is not a gray area; it should be taboo for everyone), etc. That’s the short list.

Initial Freedom in Christ: Articulated and Appreciated

And the way the instruction on such matters goes is all too often along these lines: First, our freedoms in Christ are articulated, clearly stated, appreciated.

Qualifiers to Freedom: Comfort, Judgment, and Love

Next come the qualifiers: but don’t exercise your freedom in Christ if it will make someone uncomfortable, cause someone to judge you, is not entirely loving, etc. This would be bad enough if it just ended there. By the time all the qualifications are stated, the freedoms that we allegedly have are almost all stripped away. Paralysis begins to set in.

1 Thessalonians 5:22 – A Verse Used as a Weapon

But the coup de grace comes with a single verse from 1 Thessalonians, utilized as a weapon against all those who enjoy their lives in Christ: But even if what you do is loving, makes no one uncomfortable, doesn’t cause anyone to judge you, remember that you are responsible to avoid every appearance of evil. So, if in doubt, don’t do it.

Questioning the Interpretation: “Avoid Every Appearance of Evil”

That’s how the verse reads in the KJV: Avoid every appearance of evil. It’s 1 Thess 5.22 and it puts a damper on everything. But does it really mean this? Does it really mean that even if something looks like it’s evil to some, we can’t enjoy it? Hardly.

True Meaning: Abstaining from Every Form of Evil

The Greek text really should be translated, abstain from every form of evil. There is a genuine correspondence between form and 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 his Lord and that it was one of the sayings that 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; to abstain from every form of evil was to avoid counterfeit teaching.

Contextual Analysis: False Doctrine vs. Genuine 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.

Paul’s Mission: Becoming All Things to All People

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).

Jesus’ Approach: Challenging Religious Scruples

Further, consider the life of Jesus. The distinct impression one gets from the gospels is that Jesus simply did not have the same scruples about his associations that the religious leaders of the day had. They avoided the appearance of evil at all costs; Jesus seems almost to have had the opposite approach to life and ministry (see, e.g., Luke 7:39). Even his disciples had been oppressed by all the rules and traditions of men. But Jesus freed them from such nonsense. In Matt 15, the Pharisees were stunned that Jesus’ disciples did not perform the Jewish hand-washing ritual before they ate. They hammered on the disciples and on Jesus for not obeying the oral commandments. Jesus did not say, ‘Sorry, boys. I didn’t mean to cause offense. It won’t happen again.’ Instead, he very boldly pointed out that these religious leaders had exchanged the laws of God for their own self-made rules. He called them hypocrites who had no heart for God. The most remarkable verse in this whole pericope is verse 12: Jesus’ disciples came to their Master and said, ‘Did you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?’ Didn’t they know that offending the Pharisees was part of Jesus’ job description!

1 Thessalonians 5:22 – Misused to Restrict Freedom

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’!

Christian Hedonism: Glorifying God and Enjoying Him Forever

I like John Piper’s notion of Christian hedonism for it falls in line with the Westminster Confession’s statement that our prime objective is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Gee, maybe that’s what the Christian faith is all about? What a novel concept!

updated 12-2023

    6 replies to "Avoid Every Appearance of Evil!"

    • Daniel B

      Technically “avoid every appearance of evil” is a correct translation, although it’s not very clear and thus there are better ways to say it.

      “Appearance” has multiple meanings. One is basically “the event of appearance”.

      If Bob the Magician suddenly appears in front of me, then I can say “I just saw an appearance of Bob the Magician”

      THIS is the appearance that is in 1st Thess. 5:2, ie “”Avoid evil every time there is an appearance of it” in the sense of “Every time it appears”

      Unfortunately, people have forgotten this meaning of the word and thought that the verse means “Avoid every thing that appears (seems) like evil” and said that you can’t ever be over at your girlfriend or boyfriend’s house if nobody else is there because it APPEARS like you might have had sex.

      For that reason I think something more like “Avoid evil every time it appears” would be a better form of the word to use.

    • brian

      I’m an atheist, but I couldn’t agree with you more. You are correct, when today’s Christian leaders get done talking about the proper way to live Christian lives, whatever vestiges of Christian freedom the bible might have allowed are stripped away. You can never drink alcohol, a weaker brother might see this. If you love god, why would you want alcohol anyway? Be filled with the spirit, not wine!!!!. You can never watch an r-rated movie, because you could be using God’s time better by evangelising the lost or studying the bible. That which you are free in Christ to do, actually becomes a laundry list of “don’ts” after today’s “conservative” Christian leaders get done with it.

      By the way, do you believe that John McArthur is a legalist? His defenders deny this, but he teaches exactly as you stated other leaders do: he attempts to convince his hearers that exercising Christian liberty is time that could be better spent studying the bible or doing some sort of good work. What’s more important, building up the body of christ, or drinking a beer and watching a movie? These guys turn freedom in Christ inside out.

      However, I would have to disagree with you if you said Paul didn’t teach the same way. Paul is the one that said he would never eat meat again if it made his weaker brother offend, and that is a perfect justification for the legalism discussed here.

    • signs

      Eidios= form in the greek. Not appearance. this is leaving the door wide open for “conservatives” to rule and dominate the lives of those who do not study nor understand. Abstain from every form of evil means NOT putting yourself in the way of evil. If my lady friend is at my house and we are “alone” (God forbid) some of my brethern consider this the “appearance of evil” simply because they don’t approve. Oh yeah I Cor. 13:5-8 ” Love thinks no evil” Also in response to Paul not eating meat in order to keep others from sinning….I Cor 10:29 ” Why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience” hmm you are correct, LEGALISM

    • Ed Chapman

      You do realize that it’s ok to play a country song backwards, right?

      You get your house back, your truck back, your dog back, your wife back, etc.

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