All my life I heard Christians tell me to be careful about how my actions look to others. They bring out 1 Thessalonians 5:22 in the trusty KJV, which says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” So there you have it!
“Don’t do anything,” you would hear, “that might look compromising.”
Because of this belief, lots of “not-rules” have appeared. Sure, it might not sinful to drink, but you shouldn’t do it anyway because it might appear evil. Yeah, maybe you could evangelize people at bars, but that would hurt your witness so you shouldn’t actually do it. You get the idea.
The problem with all this at face value is that, well, Jesus didn’t seem to agree. Jesus went to parties with tax collectors of the worst reputation. He spent lots of time ministering to prostitutes and remained unmarried, which is sure to raise glances. The Pharisees couldn’t get away with accusing Him of being a drunkard and glutton if He didn’t spend an awfully suspicious amount of time eating and drinking (alcohol, mind you), especially with unsavory characters.
Really, when you look at Jesus’ life in comparison to the popular use of “abstain from all appearance of evil,” it doesn’t seem to match up. Did Jesus do wrong? Should we not follow His example?
Of course, that’s not right. The problem is our understanding of the word “appearance.” In modern English, it usually is used about what something looks like, so that the verse means “abstain from all that looks like evil.” But that’s not the only meaning of “appearance,” and the one the KJV intends had to do with instances, or when something shows up, in its different ways. To make this clear, look at the same verse in translations for modern English norms:
- NIV: reject every kind of evil
- NLT/HCSB: Stay away from every kind of evil.
- ESV/NASB: Abstain from every form of evil.
- NET Bible: Stay away from every form of evil.
The idea of the verse is that, whenever evil appears, however it appears, we should keep away. We should avoid everything that is evil, every kind and from it takes.
What the verse is not saying is that we must watch everything we do to make sure none of it can be misinterpreted wrongly. Christians have not, historically, believed that to be necessary. The early church was content to meet in private early in the day, doing all sorts of things that aroused suspicion. They rarely made an effort to disprove the people who thought they killed babies, practiced cannibalism, and wanted to overthrow society. They were too busy doing good, even when it looked wrong to onlookers.
So don’t worry too much. While you shouldn’t do stupid things that make you look bad, always do what is right, always love, always enjoy the good things God have given you, and always be willing to share the Truth with others, even when it makes other people (even Christians) raise an eyebrow.
P.S. Here is Bible.org on this for people who care: 1 Thessalonians 5:22— The Sin Sniffer’s Catch-All Verse