Anyone with roots in conservative evangelicalism, and particularly fundamentalism, will have heard 1 Thess. 5:22 used as justification for all sorts of personal standards. Going to see a movie, drinking from a dark bottle, using playing cards, wearing facial hair (for men) or wearing pants (for women) — all of these activities and more are condemned with the words: “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22, KJV).
These words are used as a bully club to keep people in line with the group’s expectations, or more usually, that of the leader. What appears as evil to one is not necessarily going to appear as evil to another; and so, taken to an extreme, the careful Christian could hardly do anything for fear of it somehow being misconstrued as evil.
This basic interpretation of the verse has surprisingly wide attestation. A wide variety of commentators uphold this understanding: Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Harry Ironside, J. Vernon McGee and Albert Barnes. It certainly is not good to rush into things which appear to be evil. But the nuance I see as unwarranted is more adequately found in these thoughts by Ironside: “All of us should remember that others are watching us and taking note of how we behave. We ought to abstain from all that looks like evil…” Or as McGee puts it: “This… is the answer for questionable pastimes and amusements. If there is any question in your mind whether something is right or wrong, then it is wrong for you. Abstain from all appearance of evil.”
Scripture does teach that we should watch out for weaker brethren and not put stumbling blocks in their way. But this particular verse is taken to teach a testimony should be maintained and things avoided which might at a far glance from a passing stranger appear to be sinful, even if upon closer examination they are not. Consider some of these modern applications of this verse in a fundamentalist context.
Fundamentalist Applications of 1 Thess. 5:22
The verse is used in a list of “67 tests that can be used by a believer to decide upon a course of action“. It is the “Appearance Test”. “Would what I do assume any appearance of evil? Would my actions be misinterpreted or seen in a negative light?”
It is used in a church statement of faith in relation to the dress styles church members should have. “We believe that Christian people should look and act like Christian people and not like those who love the things of this world…. Appearance shall be neat and clean, with short hair for men and longer for women. If any statement is to be made by means of dress, it should be a positive statement for Jesus Christ.”
It is used in a church constitution as follows: “The life of the pastor and his family should be an example of godliness and spirituality. They should not indulge in worldly or sinful practices which would tend to weaken the testimony of the church (1 Thess. 5:22 ).”
In a statement copywrighted by BJU Press, a group called the International Testimony to an Infallible Bible, lists 1 Thess. 5:22 as one of 5 reasons why “Christians… separate from the world and from worldliness…” The reason is “To make clear to Christians and non-Christians alike by their actions that they belong to God, not to the world (I Thessalonians 5:22).”
Cooper Abrams of bible-truth.org applies this to ecclesiastical separation: “This verse too is dealing with biblical separation from evil and sin in any form. It is the broadest of all the verses and plainly states to “abstain” from all appearance of evil. To “abstain” means to “hold one’s self off from” or to “refrain from.” Is not false doctrine evil? God clearly throughout His word over and over again condemns sin and false and idolatrous teachers. Is standing beside them, and working with those in doctrinal error “refraining” evil? The answer is obviously no. It is in fact standing with them.”
A popular King James Bible Only site, lists the NKJV’s rendering of the verse as “every form of evil” instead of “every appearance of evil” as one of 337 changes removed from the AV 1611.
A Closer Look at 1 Thess. 5:22
Key to understanding 1 Thess. 5:22 is appreciating it in its context. Determining the meaning of the Greek word ειδους‚ (eidos) translated “appearance” by the KJV but “form” or “kind” in most modern Bible versions is also important.
Leon Morris in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians covers both of these points quite well. I’ll let him explain:
The positive injunction is followed by the negative. The form employed is a strong one with the preposition apo (as in iv. 3) used to emphasize the complete separation of the believer from evil. There is some doubt as to the meaning of the word eidous rendered appearance… as in AV [another abbreviation for KJV]…. The word eidos means the outward appearance of form (Lk. iii. 22, ‘shape’), without any notion of unreality. It is also used in the sense ‘sort, species, kind’. AV takes it in a third sense, ‘semblance’ as opposed to reality, but this does not seem to be attested elsewhere, and it is unlikely that the apostle would be concerned only with outward appearance (there is no word ‘even’ here to give the meaning, ‘even from the appearance of evil’). Our choice seems to be between ‘every visible form of evil’ (with no notion of unreality), and ‘every kind of evil’. The use of the word elsewhere in the New Testament favours the former; but there are enough examples of the term meaning ‘kind’ in the papyri to make the second quite possible. And in view of the context I am inclined to accept it. Paul is urging his friends to eschew evil of every kind.
The change from that which is good (lit. ‘the good’) in the previous verse to ‘every kind of evil’ in this is significant. The good is one, but evil is manifold, and is to be avoided in all its forms. — pg. 106, Eerdmans 1958 (1982 reprinted edition) [italics original, bolded emphasis mine]
I would add that The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology edited by Colin Brown (Zondervan, 1975) also explains that the modern concept of “semblance” is foreign to the Greek mind.
The distinction is commonly drawn between outward form and essential substance. Whilst this distinction is also found in Gk., the Gk. idea of form does not imply that every kind of form is a mere outward appearance…. [Speaking now specifically of the classical usage of ειδος]: the modern distinction between the external and the internal, the visible and the invisible, the husk and the kernel, and between the outward form and essential content is inappropriate and foreign to this aspect of Gk. thought…. The LXX uses eidos to translate mar’eh (sight, appearance, vision) and to’ar (form). Here too the outward appearance of the whole being is meant (cf. Gen. 29:17; Isa. 53:2 f.), and not merely the outer shell behind which something quite different might be supposed. — pg. 703-704 (vol. 1)
The closest that the Greek comes to the idea of “semblance” is with the word σχημα.
Moulton and Milligan in their Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, present many papyrii examples contemporary to the NT of the meaning “kind” or “species” for the word ειδος. They also explain that the Greek word (ε)δικος‚ meaning “one’s own” comes from the word ειδος.
The meaning of 1 Thess. 5:22
Given the above closer look, I want to draw out what I believe is an appropriate interpretation and application from this text. I’ll be drawing from the immediate context of the verse beginning with vs. 19 – 23.
Don’t quench the Spirit by despising the role of prophecies in the local assembly. Instead of despising prophecies, you are to test everything (including prophecies). That test should result in your holding fast to “the good” and abstaining from every manifestation of evil. Some prophecies are evil, but the attitude of despising prophecies are also evil. As we test everything, we must approve the good and reject the various forms of evil. In fact we need God Himself to “sanctify (us) completely” so that we are “kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Abstaining from “every form of evil” certainly fits in with that.
Now don’t be put off by the mention of prophecies. It is right there in the Bible. Whether or not prophecy applies to times beyond the NT is beside the point in our argument here. One thing is for sure, this teaching can be applied to the preaching and teaching of the Word. We shouldn’t despise teaching which we don’t like, but we should test it.
If it is legitimate to find a distinction between the appearance and the true nature of something in this passage, it would most appropriately apply to the prophecies which appear good but actually are forms of evil. I’m not convinced the Greek would allow this. The passage clearly addresses prophecies we don’t like but that are true. I don’t believe the opposite variety of prophecies (seem true but are bad) is referred to in this passage.
I refer you to the following articles for more on the real meaning of 1 Thess. 5:22.