Rethink: the form or appearance of evil

Abstain from all appearances of evil” (KJV)

“Abstain from every form of evil” (ESV)

I have had this verse in the KJV quoted to me many times by other Christians, and have heard it used in all sorts of contexts. Primarily it has been used as a catch-all verse to chide people over things that they felt lent the appearance of evil, such as going to the movies, going out to the bar, being alone with a girl, listening to secular music, staying over at the house of the opposite sex, hanging out with the wrong crowd, etc. I know of a man who was told that he shouldn’t ride his motorcycle, because people would think he was in a biker gang of some kind, and so he should avoid the appearance of that.

Here’s what I would posit and ask. Should we read it as “abstain from all appearance of evil ” or would it make sense to understand it as “Abstain from all evil as it is appearing?” I think the KJV does us a disservice in this, as virtually all modern translations say “form of evil” .  We ought to abstain from the form of real evil, not perceived “this-could-be-taken-by-some-to-be-evil”, as it appears. We don’t want to be in a situation where people get to look at things that are adiaphora and then be the arbiters of whether something is evil, and then tell others they should avoid it because it simply appears evil. No. We are talking about settled, tangible, established biblical evil.

Paul had something specific in mind when he wrote this, which I believe is about the false prophecies. We will see this is true as we retrace the immediate context for verse 22.  Notice the logical flow of the argument about prophetic utterances in vv. 19-22:

-“Do not quench the Spirit” (v. 19) [the general exhortation]

-“Do not despise prophetic utterances (v. 20) [the specific negative aspect of the

exhortation]

-“But examine everything carefully” (v. 21) [the contrasting positive aspect of the exhortation]

-“hold fast to that which is good” (v. 22) [what to do with good prophecies after examining]

-“abstain from every form of evil” or “every evil form of utterance” (v. 23) [what to do with the evil prophetic utterances].

I think thats the proper context to put this in. I also wonder at the fact that Jesus did not seemingly avoid the appearance of evil. After all, He and his disciples picked grain on the Sabbath, and they did not ceremoniously wash their hands before eating. Both of those “appeared” evil. Furthermore, Jesus ate with the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, another thing which was regarded as evil.

The reality is that this particular exhortation to avoid the appearance of evil is a faulty moral pillar that needs to be toppled. While we always want to use wisdom and care in our words and actions, we need to reject the wanton needs of people who needlessly lay sin at our door. We should avoid all evil as it appears to us, specifically in regard to prophetic utterances, but there is no command from God in this particular to avoid any and all actions which may appear evil to some.

One thought on “Rethink: the form or appearance of evil

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