Here is something I wrote a few years ago about 1 Thessalonians 5:22 and what it means. I’ve edited it slightly.
1 Thessalonians 5:22 says “abstain from every form of evil”. Christians often assume this means that we need to be careful not only to avoid doing wrong, but also to avoid doing anything that looks wrong. I believe that is a misinterpretation of this verse, and I’d like to explain why.
I’m going to investigate the interpretation of this verse in four steps.
1. Greek word
Let’s begin with the Greek word interpreted as “form” and see if it sheds any light on the question. The Greek word is eidos, and means, according to Vine’s, “that which strikes the eye, that which is exposed to view … the external appearance, form or shape”. It emphasizes the outward appearance of something as opposed to its inward essence. For example, in Luke 3:22, the Holy Spirit descended in the form (eidos) of a dove. When Christ was transfigured, the appearance (eidos) of his face changed, becoming white (Luke 9:29). In John 5:37, Jesus said no one has heard the Father’s voice or seen His form (eidos). In 2 Corinthians 5:7, we are said to walk by faith, not by sight (eidos) – that is, we do not live by the way things look but by our knowledge of what is really true. We don’t pay any attention to what appears to be true around us at the moment, but live by faith in what God says is really true.
2. Restate the central question
With this understanding of eidos in hand, we can now rephrase the central question to clarify it. When Paul says:
abstain from every eidos (outward appearance / form / shape) of evil
he could mean one of two things. It could mean “abstain from everything evil, no matter what it looks like”, or it could mean “abstain from everything that looks like evil, whether it actually is or not”. These lead to the two different interpretations we are discussing. The second of these, the standard interpretation (with which I disagree), would be interpreted this way:
Abstain from everything that looks like evil – everything whose form or shape or outward appearance is evil – whether or not its inward essence is evil. That is, if something looks evil, but isn’t, abstain from it anyway.
The first way of interpreting it (which I agree with) would be this:
Evil things can sometimes take on a deceptive outward appearance. Abstain from evil no matter what form it takes, whether it looks wrong or not.
Under this interpretation, saying “every appearance of evil” is similar to saying “every kind of evil”, or “evil in every guise”. (Vine’s, by the way, says that this use of eidos was common in Greek writings around the time of the New Testament.)
Next, let’s consider the context of the verse, so that we can understand what Paul meant by it when he wrote it. 1 Thessalonians was written by the apostle Paul to the fledgling church in Thessalonica. He had been run out of town before he was able to complete his instruction, and wrote the letter to encourage them to keep believing, to clarify some doctrinal issues, and to straighten out some ethical questions that had arisen. In the last chapter, he closed out his letter by giving a series of miscellaneous instructions about church life to the Thessalonians. This particular phrase is part of the instructions about prophesy in the church, in verses 19-22.
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)
Compare this to 1 Corinthians 14:9, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” Paul is telling the church how to respond when one of their members claims to have been given a message for them from the Holy Spirit. He says, first of all, not to deny all such claims routinely – to despise such prophetic utterances would be, he says, to quench the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. We need to let Him speak through each of us to the rest. On the other hand, says Paul, we must not take everything said as true, but rather must examine it carefully. We must discern whether it is truly from the Holy Spirit, or not. If it seems to really be from God, then cling to it – take it seriously, follow its encouragement or counsel or direction. If it does not seem to be from God, then reject it.
Now, which of the two interpretations above make the most sense? Does Paul mean, “abstain from everything that looks evil, whether it is or not”? Or does he mean, “abstain from everything evil, whether it looks it or not”? I think the second makes much more sense than the first. Paul’s emphasis is on testing and discernment – i.e., looking behind the appearance of something to discover its true essence. The point is, a lot of prophecies sound good. Paul says we have to examine them, to find out whether they really are good or not. Having examined them, we need to respond accordingly. Those that are not from God, we need to abstain from – we are to abstain from every form of evil, from all errors regardless of their outward attractiveness. Those that are from God, we are to cling to, even if they don’t seem nearly so appealing to us.
If the standard interpretation were to apply here, Paul would be saying,
“Test all the prophecies. If one of them is really from the Lord, cling to it – unless it seems wrong on the surface, in which case you should abstain from that prophesy even though it was not wrong in itself.”
I don’t see how that makes much sense.
Of course, even though Paul wrote this in connection with prophesies, we can apply its principles to any area of our lives. The point is to see behind the veneer. We are to respond to things according to what they really are, no matter what form they take.
Finally, let’s think through how this connects with other ideas in Scripture and in life.
First, where anything is truly evil, both interpretations agree that we must reject it. There is no room for compromise with sin under any interpretation of “abstain from every form of evil”. The differences arise only when we are considering things that are good in essence but are perceived as evil by the culture we are in. Such cases require discernment on our part to decide how to live best.
Second, even though 1 Thessalonians 5:22 does not mean what most people think it does, there is still Scriptural validity to the idea that we should be careful about how others see our actions. It is legitimate to be concerned about the testimony of our lives. One important Scripture showing this is found in 2 Corinthians 8:21
… we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.
There are plenty of Scriptures about how we should live our lives in such a way as to draw others to Christ (1 Peter 3:16), to glorify God (Matthew 5:16), to avoid making others stumble (Romans 14:16-21), or even to guard our reputations (Proverbs 22:1).
On the other hand, it’s equally important to realize that we cannot possibly please everyone, and we shouldn’t expect or try to. Our culture perceives a lot of things as evil that we don’t: spanking our kids, for example, or saying people are sinners. Do we need to abstain from these things because they appear evil to people around us? Of course not. On the contrary, we are to discern what the truth about these things really is and make choices independently of the beliefs of the people around us. This is our liberty in Christ, and it is also our obligation.
If we lose this perspective, we begin to pay too much attention to what others think. Jesus predicted that those who persecute Christians would believe that they were in the right, that the Christians were the ones offending God (John 16:2). He warned us to be careful of being too acceptable to the world (Luke 6:26 — see also Proverbs 29:25; Galatians 1:10, 2:6).
Balancing a healthy regard for others’ opinions with a healthy freedom to make choices counter to them is tricky but important. An interesting example of trying to maintain the balance is found in the last half of 2 Corinthians (for example: 2 Cor 5:12-13; 6:3,8-10; 8:21; 10:7-8; 11:5-7,12,16-21, 30; 12:1,3,19).