Abstain from all appearance of evil.
I Thessalonians 5:22, King James Version
Back in September we examined one of those last-line arguments against everything, the notion of the Weaker Brother argument. But there’s another argument marshaled against anything and everything we find objectionable: the appearance of evil.
This last assault is very effective. After all, it could easily be that everything said in defense of Christian rock music, or meat offered to idols, or role playing games, is true, and yet it still might look like evil. We must avoid the appearance of evil. We mustn’t do anything that even looks like it might be wrong.
And with this argument, just about anything anyone finds objectionable can be soundly attacked.
It’s a wonderful argument. It’s good to have something like that you can use to explain to young Christians why things that don’t seem bad are on the list of no-no’s. And there is something to be said for living a life that is exemplary even under scrutiny, in which there is nothing to which anyone would object.
But that’s not what this verse is about. In a sense, that’s not even what it says. That’s what people think it says, because the way our ancestors used “appearance” is a bit different from the way we use it. It’s not that we couldn’t use the word that way, but rather that we would understand that phrase differently from the way the translators would have, now nearly five hundred years ago.
We take this to mean, “Stay away from anything that even looks like it might be evil.” But what our ancestors meant by this phrase could be better said, “stay away from anything that is evil, no matter what it looks like.” You can see that this is an entirely different understanding of exactly the same words: what you took to mean “what appears to be evil” is really “evil however it appears”.
You will no doubt wonder that I should have this insight when those who have taught you the Word, whom you know and respect, think otherwise. I could almost wish it were some great insight God gave me into the text; but it is something far more mundane. I checked.
I found that Zondervan’s Updated New American Standard Bible translates this, abstain from every form of evil—that is, evil, in whatever form it takes. I found that the notes in the New Scofield Reference Bible say that the words translated all appearance are literally every form—again, evil in whatever form it takes. Looking at the Greek, I find a word transliterated eidous, which does mean appearance, but in the sense of “visible form, outward appearance”—the way something presents itself. It also means “kind, sort”; and the dictionary included in the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (second edition) specifically points to this verse as an example of that usage. We are to avoid evil of all kinds, evil of all sorts, evil in all its forms, evil however it appears. But we are not here told that we must shun things that look like evil to someone but are actually not evil.
This is important. Nearly everything that we can do looks suspicious to someone. What looks evil to me might seem fine to you, and I might have no qualms about something which in your mind is very like something bad. We might agree that moderate alcoholic consumption is permitted (dare I say encouraged) in scripture, yet one of us might think that because of the danger of alcoholism in our age it looks bad to have a drink, or to be at a party where people are drinking, or to have dinner at a restaurant with a liquor license. It looks bad, we would say. We mean it appears evil. And with the popular interpretation of this verse looming over us, we are quickly bound into legalistic slavery to a wealth of meaningless commandments, avoiding good things because they might look bad to someone else.
But understanding this passage aright, we see that it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks something looks bad. What matters is whether or not it is bad. If it isn’t evil, then it was made by God for us to enjoy, for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof. If it is evil, of course we need to avoid it, even if it looks good. But if it is good, it is not forbidden by virtue of the fact that someone thinks it looks evil.
So it seems that it’s not enough to object to something that “looks bad”. You have to demonstrate that it is bad, that there is something inherently evil about whatever it is you find personally objectionable or unacceptable. That’s a much tougher argument to make. Anyone can say, that looks evil to me, so I think you shouldn’t do it. But you don’t have to stop for that argument. It doesn’t matter how it looks. It matters what it is.
This article was originally published in December 2001 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.