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. 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. 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. 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.

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.

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. 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).

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!

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’! 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!

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    10 replies to "Avoid Every Appearance of Evil!"

    • FreeBeing

      Amen! Amen! Amen! There is so much twisting of doctrine & many false teachers these days. I really miss teachers like Walter Martin, btw. I was very encouraged by this post. It’s right on, so a big thank you & I hope others are paying attention. (And I had to giggle at the dig at country music!)

    • CarolJean

      @ Dr Wallace: “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.”

      I think you are reading “false doctrines” into these verses and limiting the scope of what Paul is instructing the Thessalonian saints. The insertion of “all” in “Examine all things” can mean much more than to examine a doctrine or a prophecy to see if it is false or not. “All things” could include lifestyle choices, attitudes toward other, weaker saints or unbelievers, etc and not “examine all doctrine” as you seem to be reading it.

    • John Metz

      Dr. Wallace,
      I also think you are reading false teachings (exclusively) into the context of 1 Thess. 5:22. If you go back three more verses to v. 16, you pick up rejoicing, praying, and thankfulness. Then comes not quenching the Spirit, not despising prophecies, and trying all things followed by abstaining from any kind or form of evil (I agree with your translation here rather that likeness (please, I am not pretending to be a Greek scholar; I am not)). These are all things of a Christian’s daily living.

      Surely false teachings can quench the Spirit, but so can many other things as well as CarolJean points out. It seems clear that the section from vv. 12-22 addresses our cooperation as believers in Christ with the operation of God that we could live a holy and spiritual life on the earth. This is further supported by the idea of sanctification introduced in v. 23. Prior to this portion, there are three things emphasized (vv. 4-11), faith, love, and hope. There is more here than a warning against false teachers.

      In Revelation 2, the letter to the church in Ephesus commends the Ephesians for trying the false apostles (false teachers) but strongly criticizes them because they lost their first love (an emphasis of 1 Thess. 5:8). It is entirely possible to be strong against false teaching but be deficient in love and lacking in living a life before the Lord.

      I do agree with you that it is not a matter of legal decrees, (you make a good point about this) but, as CMP posted earlier (10/26), a deep, profound change in our nature, a change brought about through regeneration based on our redemption and justification in Christ. This enlivening of the believers results in a kind of living that expresses Christ and glorifies God. It seems that the more I realize the freedom in Christ, the more restricted I am by my new creation nature and happily so.

    • John James

      I’ve had an inkling for some time that the ‘appearance’ in that verse is more of the ‘materialization’ kind rather than the ‘semblance’ kind. I’m only working from the wonderfully ambiguous english for this thought though, and not the equally indistinct greek or the more narrow latin-from-greek.

    • […] Actually, Dan Wallace just wrote a blog post on this. Avoid Every Appearance of Evil! | Parchment and Pen Don, missionary candidate CWW (Baptist) California And they sang a new song, saying, […]

    • Daniel B. Wallace

      CarolJean, John Metz: Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Allow me to respond. First, I don’t think either of you really mean that I am reading anything into this context; that would mean that I see a meaning that is simply not there. What you mean is that I am not reading *out* of the text all that Paul meant.

      Second, it is true that ‘all’ can often mean something broader than what is indicated in the immediate context. The problem is the ‘but’ in v 21: it is immediately connected with the preceding two verses. Verses 16-18 comprise one unit of thought, one sentence, finished off with “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Verses 20-22 comprise the next unit of thought, five staccato-like commands in a row. The most natural way to read the text is thus as a unit with every command in vv 20-22 relating to the same subject. If you take the ‘all’ in v 21 as referring to vv 12-19 you miss the pointed warning that Paul gives to these believers in vv 20-22. Further, ‘all’ in Paul must be contextualized. The ‘all in v 15 (“be patient toward all”) is referring to those in the church, as John implied when he spoke of this whole section as dealing with intra-ecclesial relationships. But couldn’t we say that Paul believed that we should be patient toward all people? I suspect we could, but it would be illegitimate to use v 15 to make that case. Grammatically, it could even expand to cover all sentient creatures–including the devil and demons–but I really don’t think you want to go there! No, we must ask what is the context in which Paul’s ‘all’ is found? Does he make a coherent, self-contained argument? Vv 20-22 present just that, suggesting that it’s probably reading too much into the text to say that the ‘all’ means more than false teaching.

      Third, you also implied that vv 4-11 are part of this context, John. No, that’s not true. 5.12 is introducing the final instructions in this letter; 5.4-11 belongs to the previous unit of thought, 4.13-5.11, dealing with eschatology.

      Fourth, you suggest that there are many ways in which we can quench the Spirit. That may be so, but where is this taught in Scripture? As far as Paul is concerned, grieving the Holy Spirit is related to lifestyle choices, while quenching is related to teaching and prophecy.

      Finally, as I mentioned in the blog post, early church fathers cited Jesus as saying something like this more than they did Paul. In fact, the form of the statement was as follows: “become approved money-changers, by abstaining from evil things, and by holding fast to the good.” The participles show that the abstaining and holding fast are directly related to being approved money-changers. A coin revealed its source–a Herodian coin, a Roman coin, etc. Caesar’s name was on the denarius, for example. To be an approved money-changer meant to detect what was not really from Caesar, what was not authentic. So it is here: detect prophecy that is not from God.

    • Susan

      ….which has all the more meaning to me now.

    • John Metz

      Dr. Wallace,
      When you apply the verse as you did to mean exclusively false teachers, then, yes, you are reading into the verse. Ephesians 4:30 is often translated “grieve not the Holy Spirit” and its context, like 1 Thess. 5, concerns the daily living of the believers. That portion includes lying, stealing, improper anger, corrupt words (which may include false teachings but may have a broader meaning: anything that does not build up), bitterness, wrath, clamor, malice, etc. It also includes the matter of not forgiving one another. All of these are ways of grieving the Spirit.

      Likewise, the matters listed in 1 Thess. 5:12-22 are also things that grieve the Spirit. Not regarding serving ones (vv. 12-13), allowing disorderliness, offending the fainthearted & weak, repaying evil for evil, not rejoicing, not praying, not being thankful, not proving all things, and being careless about evil are all ways to grieve the Spirit. All of these matters relate to the believers’ daily living. These things may not have much theological cache but they are very important in our daily life. Do you contend that the only way to grieve the Spirit is by false teaching?

      To dogmatically say these verses are not a part of the same context does not seem to be accurate. At best, that is your interpretation. I believe that there is a good case made for not isolating a few verses, as you did, but considering the whole context of the passage. The “but” in v. 21 does connect vv. 20-21 but I do not think it removes them from the surrounding verses as you appear to contend. It merely connects trying all things to not despising prophecies. This too, is a practical matter of daily Christian living.

      In my post I mentioned the letter to the church in Ephesus in Rev. 2 as an example of a case that faithfully tried the false teachers but was deficient in their living before the Lord. Do you not think that such a situation grieved the Holy Spirit? Remember, they were correct in discerning the false teachers but had lost their first love and the Lord Jesus held that against them. It seems a bit antithetical to your assertion of the exclusiveness of false teachings in 1 Thess. 5:22. Yet you did not address this point.

      Dr. Wallace, I do agree with most of your post. We do have a marvelous liberty in Christ through his redemptive work, yet, we believers need to be careful around any form or kind of evil.

      My last point in my previous post related to what we have gained through redemption and regeneration and how we should live by the deep, inner change in our nature. This was also unaddressed.

    • Daniel B. Wallace

      John, I’m afraid you’ve missed my point. You speak of grieving the Holy Spirit in 1 Thess 5, but Paul does not. In this chapter he speaks of quenching the Spirit. These are two different things. The danger is that you are applying what is certainly taught in scripture: don’t do evil, don’t sin, etc. But ‘quenching’ is not the word that is ever related to general sinning. I, too, can agree with your overall Christian worldview. But the question is whether Paul is talking about all those things in 1 Thess 5.22. He is not. To say that he is, is to read into the text what is not there. You didn’t comment on the saying that the church fathers saw as coming from Jesus, which almost certainly informs this passage. You didn’t comment on how ‘all’ in v 15 is restricted in its meaning. You simply went on a diatribe about what Christian conduct should look like. Your entire premise is that in Eph 4, Rev 2, and 1 Thess 5, the sinful activities described/warned against are “grieving the Holy Spirit.”

      You also have repeated incorrectly what the situation in Rev 2 was. The Ephesians did not “lose” their first love. That’s not what the text says. They “left” their first love. There is a big difference between these two, and it’s vital to see them if we are to interpret the text correctly and, therefore, to derive a legitimate application from it.

      The danger I see is that you are allowing your application–which may well be accurate–to override your interpretation. When we put application before interpretation we begin down a path of eroding the meaning of the text. In fact, it is this very method that ultimately can lead to all kinds of heresy–including seeing 1 Thess 5.22 as saying that we should avoid all appearance of evil.

    • John Metz

      Dr. Wallace,
      I am sorry you interpret my comments as a diatribe; they were certainly not meant that way. I did try to stress that I am not in disagreement with your main point about the appearance of evil.

      You are correct in saying the Ephesians left, not lost, their first love. Regardless, it was not a good situation and they were somehow apart from that love in their experience. However, you missed the main point of my mention of Rev. 2. That portion shows that it is indeed possible to rightly and faithfully judge the false teachers but to remain deficient in living before the Lord. It was a serious enough problem that the Lord said he would remove their lampstand if they did not repent. By contrast, Thyatira was full of false teachings and were strongly warned because of it; but they did not receive the same threat as Ephesus.

      Please explain the difference between quenching and grieving. Neither seem to be permanent. I guess you could make the case that quenching is more serious. In Isaiah 63:10, rebellion and grieving the Spirit are tied together. Rebellion is a serious matter. Is it more serious for one to be wrong in their teaching or for that one to be rebellious?

      I still am not convinced that the three verses you used can be so completely severed from the surrounding context and are that dissimilar to the verses in Ephesian 4. Neither am I convinced, due to the context, that there is only one way to quench the Spirit and that is by wrong teaching. After all, Sardis was characterized as dead spiritually but was not criticized for having false teachers. Their negative aspects were due to not completing their works and not holding on to how they had heard and received. I admit, this may refer obliquely to false teachings but not directly. (I know you understand that I am not defending false teaching.)

      You are right about not addressing the two points you raised. I am not an expert in patristics so I did not think myself adequate to address that particular point or its validity. As I said in my first post, I a not a Greek scholar. However, I don’t think your argument about ‘all’ being solely limited to false teaching is that convincing. I think you must take the surrounding verses in 1 Thess. 5 into consideration.

      Thanks for your response. I appreciate your carefulness.

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