Must I Avoid the Appearance of Evil?

Recently, I had a church member send me this message, “I have run across arguments based on the verse about avoiding ‘even the appearance of evil,’ using this verse to basically say we shouldn’t engage in anything cultural. Since people do make certain assumptions based on our cultural involvement (i.e. that you MUST do drugs if you listen to rock music!) how should we respond to this argument?”

That’s a great question and one that has potentially large implications. Because if we’re to avoid not just evil, but the appearance of evil, where do we draw the line? And how do we know what appears evil to other people? For instance, if I need to avoid the appearance of evil, does that mean I need to stop hanging out with people who are not Christians (and even stop hanging out with Christians who might be having evil thoughts)? Should all Christians stop going to Walmart and Target, because they sell beer there, and some people drink beer to get drunk and sin?

The first thing we need to recognize is that there is a translation issue here. The verse in question is 1 Thessalonians 5:22. The old King James Version says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The New American Standard (and English Standard Version) says, “Abstain from every form of evil.” And, finally, the NIV says, “reject every kind of evil.” The word that is different in each translation, on which this whole topic rides, is the Greek word eidous, meaning ‘sight’ or ‘appearance’ or ‘form.’

The only other time that word appears in the New Testament is when Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “for we walk by faith not by sight.” In the same letter that he wrote about avoiding evil, Paul wrote, “[J]ust as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). In other words, our goal should not be to conform to other people’s arbitrary codes of conduct, but to live righteously before God.

So we see that the best interpretation of this verse is probably something like “avoid evil wherever it appears” not “avoid looking like you’re sinning.” That is actually quite a big difference in what Paul is exhorting Christians to do, right? Avoiding actual evil and avoiding the appearance of evil are two totally different things. It’s one thing for me to avoid paying a prostitute for her services (an actual evil act) and a whole other thing to avoid walking down a street where prostitutes happen to be hanging out.

This distinction makes sense when we think about how Jesus lived. Jesus hung out with some pretty bad, broken people, including prostitutes. And the super-religious people made assumptions about Jesus as well, calling him a glutton and a drunkard. But, for Jesus, there was a massive difference between spending time with people who struggled with habitual sin and actually committing those sins Himself. And, it seems clear, as you read the Gospels, that Jesus doesn’t let the opinions of the self-righteous and judgmental ever keep Him from engaging people who really need Him, no matter how bad it might make Him look.

Now, what about what I always heard throughout my college days at a Christian college: that we need to be a good witness, particularly to other Christians? Paul actually does talk about this in a couple different places in the New Testament. One place he addresses it is in Romans 14:13-17, where the issue is eating meat and drinking wine:

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

In the context of Romans, when Paul talks about ‘weaker brothers’ he is not talking about Christians with little faith or zeal, he is talking about Christians who have not worked out the implications of the gospel and often get hung up on things that don’t matter. The ‘stronger brother’ is the one who realizes that we are saved by faith, not by works, and therefore we have freedom in so many areas, like eating and drinking. Neither should judge the other, or get into Facebook screaming matches with each other, but should try to respect the other one’s conscience and the fact that God is the true Judge.

Last week, I realized that in my last four trips to the gym I wore four quite different t-shirts (whatever I happened to sleep in). One was for a short-term mission trip I took with the words “He is making all things new” on it. The second was a campaign shirt for a conservative politician who is a friend of mine. The third said, “It’s a good day for a Guinness.” And the fourth was an Iron Maiden shirt (the heavy metal band, not the torture device, whom I would argue are the musical equivalent of reading Greek mythology). Do any of these t-shirts cause concern for people who see me at the gym? I’m sure they do (particularly the first two for non-religious non-conservatives!). But, the question is, should they assume I am doing evil by listening to heavy metal or drinking a beer, or supporting a conservative politician or going on a short-term mission trip?

Maybe the better question is, should I censor my choice of gym clothes to cater to the assumptions of others (something I can only make assumptions about unless they flat out tell me how they feel about my clothing choice)? The problem with emphasizing the appearance of others, and the assumptions of others, is that it can make us slaves to other people’s perceptions. As a wise person recently wrote, “There will always be someone who thinks that something you are doing is wrong, or that it looks wrong to him. So, rather than spending our time getting to know God and serving Him, we worry about the possibility that someone, somewhere, might misconstrue our actions.”

Colossians 2:16-23 is a key passage for us in regards to Christian liberty:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)- according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

A Christian should love God’s law and battle sin wherever he or she sees it. Evil seeks to enslave us and so we must run away from opportunities to commit real evil (as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality”) wherever it is found. But, there is a difference between God’s law and man-made rules. And there is a difference between avoiding evil and avoiding what someone else might link with evil. The former is fairly straight-forward, not easy but something the Holy Spirit has promised to give you strength for, while the latter is labyrinth of guesswork and fear.

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