I’ve repeatedly heard 1 Thessalonians 5:22 misused — especially in more conservative expressions of the Church.
What did the apostle Paul mean when he admonished believers to, “Abstain from all appearances of evil” (KJV)?
The application of this verse I’ve heard suggests that it requires us to avoid anything that looks like evil. But this is not what the verse means in context.
“Evil” in verse 22 is contrasted with “good” in verse 21. “Good” is used with reference to prophetic utterances (mentioned in verse 20) which upon examination (verse 21) are found to be genuine. In this light, “evil” likely refers to counterfeit prophetic utterances.
Before making applications from Scripture, it’s important to examine the immediate context for the intended original meaning. This is all the more urgent for those who use Scripture to make judgments about right or wrong behavior. Again, context is the key word when studying Scripture (see: How should I interpret the Bible?).
As for the misuse of I Thessalonians 5:22, many things have been condemned by using this verse as an isolated injunction commanding us to abstain from anything that looks like evil. This is just not what the verse is requiring.
Certainly, the New Testament commands us to “abhor (or hate) what is evil and cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9), but this is an example of a more general command of Scripture. Defining evil should be based only on explicit biblical commands that specifically name evil.
The danger of misusing I Thessalonians 5:22 becomes even more significant when one remembers that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for judging based on appearance. They were quick to label and condemn people based on superficial evaluations of appearance.
Jesus repeatedly exposed this tendency. On one occasion, Jesus said, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33-34). Jesus rebuked the Pharisees saying, “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15, NLT).
God rebuked this tendency long ago when He said to Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
When this spirt of Pharisaic judgment begins to enter our hearts, it’s time to look for the logs in our own eyes instead of the splinters we think we see in the eyes of others (see: Matthew 7:1-6).
Self-righteousness is rarely far away when we make judgments based on outward appearances.