Pass this on, and save a lot of people the anguish of tortured explanations the next time someone asks, “What does it mean to avoid the appearance of evil”? Because what the text actually says and means is “Get far away from every kind of evil!”
Question: What is meant in the Bible by the instruction to “avoid even the appearance of evil?”
The question refers to 1 Thessalonians 5:22, from the King James Version: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”
It’s a good question, because living that out in the real world would seem to require either an impossible effort at “people pleasing,” or else the undesirable prospect of living in perpetual fear of doing the least little thing wrong. The first grants permission for every person to act as our judge, and the second turns us into Pharisees!
To avoid either unpleasant option, the way the verse is typically approached is to treat it more like a proverb than a specific instruction. Understood this way, “avoid even the appearance of evil” becomes a general admonition similar to “be above reproach” (1Tim. 3:2), or “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers” (Ps. 1:1).
While such an interpretation will not steer a person wrong, it does miss the very specific instruction the apostle Paul intended. So what’s the answer?
The answer lies in the translation of the word Greek word “eidous,” and in the context of the passage.
The word “eidous” in English means “form,” or “kind,” and can be used either literally (i.e., “shape,” “form” or “kind”) or figuratively (i.e., “appearance,” or “impression”).
Even the English words can have either a literal or figurative meaning, depending on the context. We can say, for example, “Joe Schmo suddenly appeared,” or “everyone at the party appeared to enjoy themselves.” The first is literal—Joe came into view; the second is figurative: “appeared” means, “gave the impression.” If in the King James Version “appearance” is intended to be understood literally rather than figuratively, the meaning is to “abstain from every kind of evil.” That’s quite a bit different than abstaining from everything that might look like evil—which is how we usually treat the verse!
So what does the context tell us?
The beginning of the paragraph, 1 Thessalonians 5:19, instructs us not to “quench the Spirit.” Then verses 20-22 give specific bullet points on how to avoid quenching the Spirit:
• “Do not treat prophecies with contempt” (20)
• “Test them all” (21a)
• “Hold on to what is good” (21b)
• “Abstain from every kind (eidous) of evil” (22)
Clearly, edous indicates that evil (literally) is to be avoided. In fact, “avoided” is too mild a term. The Greek word is in the imperative form and means “get far away from”! The NIV (2011) accurately translates it this way: “reject every kind of evil.”