(Originally published at TheAnchorFellowship.com in 2009)
“Avoid the very appearance of evil!” exclaimed the preacher to his audience. It’s a warning to not merely avoid sinning, but to avoid things that could be mistaken for sin. The same sentiment is echoed in the invisible book of extra-biblical church rules: “don’t drink that”, “don’t dress that way”, “don’t watch that”, “don’t listen to that”, “don’t touch that”, “don’t say that”.
We could easily go on to expose an unlimited amount of “don’ts” in this “understood” list. The notion of “avoiding the appearance of evil” is attributed to the apostle Paul of Tarsus, but is that what he meant when he wrote the church in Thessalonica? For starters, and for what should answer the question once and for all, the quote is from 1 Thessalonians 5:22 – King James Version only, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The King James Versions errors in this translation. No other translation of the scriptures words it this way – even the New King James Version corrects the KJV with, “Abstain from every form of evil.” (see footnote)
There’s a dramatic difference that the mistranslated and misused KJV version has from every other English translation of the bible. It encourages Christians to model their behavior around appearances. Unfortunately, this has become an accepted norm among many Christians. This is unfortunate because it is entirely contrary to orthodox theology and even to Paul’s other writings. For example, in the book of Galatians (5:22) Paul writes, “…God does not judge by external appearance…”. In fact, if you really want to see Paul’s direct rebuttal to this bum ideology, look no further than Colossians 2: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
The gospels even record that Yeshua readily challenged these “don’t” rules which God’s people had become infatuated (and diluted) with. Christ insisted that it is our inside condition (our hearts and minds) that must be managed and cleaned. Once that is done, our outside condition will automatically be clean, but only cleaning the outside does nothing for a person. Speaking to the “church leaders” of the time he exclaims, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
What is it about Christianity that causes people to care more about their appearance than their essence? It seems that at some point the church became confused about the definition of character, exchanging “character is who you are when no one but God is watching” for “character is a role you play on the ecumenical stage”. Hypocrisy is what Christ calls it.
Now that’s not to say a little external-appearances-control isn’t good every now and then. For example, if you’re out with a fellow Christian who’s a recovering alcoholic, don’t drink around them. Sure, you’re completely free in Christ and you know there’s nothing wrong with alcohol, but out of love and courtesy for them, abstain that meal. What you have as a freedom could very well lead them right back in to captivity, even slavery. Control yourself, wait until you say goodbye brother/sister and then go have your PBR without them. Being a source of temptation for others to sin is a form of evil best abstained from! Think of it this way, we’re called to hold fast to that which is actually good, not that which has the appearance of good. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote the Corinthian church about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols.
As I write this, I’m continuously reminded of the story of Yeshua and the woman at the well in John 4. There’s a lot in the story—more than I intend to examine in this article—but I’m going to conclude with the Message’s account of this story and the way it captures Christ’s disciples’ reaction to his encounter with this questionable woman.
A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water from Jacob’s well, where Jesus was resting. He said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.) The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.) Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.” The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?” Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!” He said, “Go call your husband and then come back.”
“I have no husband,” she said.
“That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.” “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?” “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews.
But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.” “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.” Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.
Footnote: For in-depth study on the correct translation of 2 Thess and Greek “eithos” check out “Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Thessalonians – by H.A.W Meyer”, “Word Studies in The New Testament, Vol. IV, p. 51 – by Marvin Vincent”, “Alford’s Greek Testament, Vol. III, p. 281 – by Henry Alford”.