Context Matters: Abstain from All Appearance of Evil

“Abstain from all appearance of evil” has very little to do with how other people perceive your behavior in any given situation.

Context matters. If we learn to read the Bible for what it is—and not as a collection of independently assembled proverbial sayings—we’ll discover that some of our most familiar passages don’t actually mean what we’ve always assumed.

 

Perhaps you’ve heard the injunction to avoid the appearance of evil. You won’t find the phrase in most modern English Bibles, as it’s a holdover from the King James translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. The ESV commands us to “abstain from every form of evil,” and the CSB simplifies it further to “stay away from every kind of evil” (1 Thess 5:22, CSB). This verse could be called upon to support just about any set of personal prohibitions, including interacting with someone of the opposite sex, dining at a tavern, choosing one’s friends, and forming political alliances, to name a few.

But is that what the Apostle Paul had in mind?

Context matters. If we learn to read the Bible for what it is—and not as a collection of independently assembled proverbial sayings—we’ll discover that some of our most familiar passages don’t actually mean what we’ve always assumed.

A Study in Contrasts

When we read the verse in context, we ought to observe that it makes up the second half of a contrast:

“Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil” 1 Thess 5:21b-22.

So the staying away from every kind of evil is a companion to the holding on to what is good. The “evil” in view here is the opposite to the “good” that is likewise in view. We are to “hold on to” the one and “stay away from” the other.

What further clues can we find to help us understand precisely what sort of “good” and “evil” Paul has in mind?

A More Foundational Contrast

Moving back just slightly farther, we find another contrast. This one is more concrete.

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