Abstain from all appearance of evil, 1 Thessalonians 5:22. This is a verse that has been repeated over and over to make sure that the congregations (and pastors) do not do anything of which the outward appearance might even remotely give someone the wrong idea, so that the reputation of the church and people might remain intact in the community as being above reproach. In fact, in many churches the reputation of being righteously superior to the rest of the community seems to supersede many other considerations, including that of being loving or even obedient to God. Of course there are always those who will look for evil in every action. The unsaved, because they are looking for reasons to reject Christ, and the saved, because some of them love to gossip and be busybodies and control others by trying to bend them to their will and rules. So it leaves people very restricted and restraining themselves from doing the very things that the Holy Spirit might lead them to otherwise do, because someone might get the wrong impression, or keeps them from just exercising a freedom in Christ that is allowed by God. Is that really what Paul meant when he wrote it? To be obsessed with how someone might perceive outward appearances and so not do things for the sake of reputation? Even when led by God to do something?
So many take the verse “Abstain from all appearance of evil” out of context and do not look further into its meaning. First of all, it should not be separated from the previous verse, of which it is a part. 1 Thess 5:21-22 “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.” It is one complete thought. First we are to prove all things. That indicates that we are not to accept anything by its outward appearance. The very opposite of how this verse is used. For instance, new doctrines may look good on the outside to those who are not discerning, but we must examine and prove them to see what is at the core. Old traditions and new practices may seem good on the outside, but we are not to accept things by their outward appearance, whether they are generations old, or brand new. We are to examine them and find out what is at their core. We may see others behaving in a way that looks ambiguous or even looks sinful in its outward appearance, but as Christians, we are NOT to accept things on their outward appearance and judge them, for we may judge incorrectly and unrighteously. We are to find out what is at the core. What the reality of the situation is.
After we examine something to find out what the reality of it is, then and only then can we judge something as good or evil. That is the next part of the verse. What to do with the results. If it is good, we are told to hold fast to it. Embrace it, approve it, and accept it. If, on the other hand, what we find is that there is evil at its core, we are to abstain from it or stay away from it. But what about the word “appearance?” Does that not mean that we should judge by outward appearances? No.
In English the word “appearance” actually has two meanings. The first is that which bears a similarity to something else. In other words, the outward appearance which may resemble something other than what it really is. It is ambiguous as to what it actually is in its true essence, or it may possibly even be the opposite of what it looks like outwardly. The second definition is considered to be something that manifests visibly in its reality. In other words, it presents itself in its true essence. The first definition would be something like the following: “What she said had the appearance of being truthful.” It is not a certainty whether or not she is telling the truth. It is ambiguous as to what its reality or true essence is. Only on closer examination can the reality of its essence of good or bad be revealed. When it is examined, the truth of its reality comes out. This is what a court of law does. They examine a witness to see what the truth is before judgment is rendered.
The truth of its reality is the second definition of the word “appearance.” It would be as follows: “After examination, the lie made its appearance.”It visibly manifested itself. The reality of its true core or essence became readily apparent or visible for all to see. In fact, in the above case, she was not telling the truth, even though in what she said, its outward appearance looked as if it were the truth. But the real truth, the real appearance came out in the examination (or proving) of the witness. The lie manifested itself visibly as to what its reality was. A lie. What initially would have been accepted as truth by outward appearance is in fact a lie. So what she said is then judged as something to shun. Since in English there are two meanings, and they pretty much mean the opposite of each other, we need to go to the Greek to discern what this verse is telling us and which definition of "appearance" we are to use.
In 1 Thess. 5:22, we find that the word “appearance” is the Greek word “eidos” which in fact has the definition of being something which is a certainty, of which one can be sure. It is that which is manifested visibly in its reality, not ambiguous as to what its reality is. It is the second definition of our English word “appearance” above. Thus this verse, used almost exclusively to judge people by outward appearances, tells us exactly the opposite. Christians are NOT to judge by outward appearances at all, but examine all things to find the truth of the matter and then judge it accordingly. How many times have I seen people doing work for the Lord, of which others do not know the circumstances, be judged on some ambiguous outward appearance, and be condemned for it. How many are doing something innocent only to have people spread vicious lies through gossip due to their evil minds and unrighteous judgment? Too many to count, that’s how many.
I have seen people brought publicly in front of the church and embarrassed for the purpose of "church discipline," while being ostracized or reprimanded and threatened with punishment, if they did not “confess and repent” of their “sin” of having allowed an outward appearance of something they did (even while doing God’s work at His leading and innocent of any wrongdoing) which did not meet with others’ standards of expectations. This is so wrong. This in fact is sinful. The misjudging of outward appearances is not the sin of the doer, but actually the sin of the judge. God’s Word says it is wrong to judge in this way. How many times was Christ condemned for what He did? Hanging out with the “wrong” people (sinners), “working” on the Sabbath (of which He is Lord), doing all those things which the self-righteous religious leaders of the day condemned, because it did not meet with their standards and rules of outward appearances, of which that was all they were concerned with about themselves. What was at their core was of little concern to them. We all know how righteous God saw them as being.
We need to make sure we are proving all things before we judge. Jesus did not worry about what others thought as He carried out God’s work. Neither should we- if we are carrying out God’s work and not committing any sin. Looking for evil and judging with no knowledge is not the sin of the doer, but the sin of the judge. God tells us not to worry about what people think or our reputation when we are living righteously and doing His work and will. Outward appearances matter little to Him, if we are about His business. He will take care of our reputation for us. Look at the prophets Isaiah – who walked around buck naked for 3 years, and Hosea, who married a prostitute at God’s command. Not everything is always as it appears (outward appearance). God has given us His Word to show us that He feels this way.
1 Peter 2:15-16 “It is God's will by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God”
Proverbs 16:7 “When a man's ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.”
Matthew 5:11 “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
Is. 51:7 “Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings.”
Galatians 1:10 “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.”
Eph. 6:6 “Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;”
Is. 2:22 “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?”
All of these verses tell us that we are not to worry about what others think, as we live our lives for God, doing His will. We are not to live to please others and their standards or expectations of what they think we should do, for their rules don’t matter. Only God’s rules do. Of course if you are sinning, whether someone else sees you or not, God does. He always sees on the heart and doesn’t need outward appearances to judge us.
One story that I cannot forget in regards to this outward appearance issue is the following. A pastor who lived out in the country (before cell service) was driving down the road and suddenly his car broke down. And it did it right in front of one of the local bars. Because he was worried that someone might see him walking into the bar (to use the phone) and think he was there to drink, he chose to walk until he could find a place from which to call. What he did not consider is that God is in control of all of our circumstances and it was He who had the car break down right where it did. Did this pastor ever consider that perhaps there was someone in the bar who was at a crucial point in their lives and needed someone to tell them about Jesus? Maybe someone was thinking of suicide, or committing a crime, or whatever. Who knows? We never will. Maybe God wanted this pastor to go in and talk to this person, but alas, because he was more worried about what people might think or say about him (I have to wonder if he thought about the fact that if people saw his car there, it wouldn’t matter if they saw him walk in or not.), he walked away from what may have been an opportunity to bring someone into God’s fold. His spotless, self-righteous reputation was more important to him than taking this as a possible mission from God. As a pastor he should have known that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, so there was a reason he broke down right there. Nothing is coincidence with God. So come judgment day, will he be told that he missed an opportunity because of his legalistic and self-righteous attitude? It’s hard to say, because we will never know until then, why exactly God did have him break down there. One hopes that God had a servant who wasn’t so full of self and concerned about what people think, who did obey God and do whatever needed to be done in that bar.
So while we should not seek to bring disgrace upon our Lord by being selfish and doing whatever we want, acting on our own desires and not following God's leading, (that's called sinning) neither should we be overly concerned about what someone will think, if God calls us to do something of which they don't approve or have reservations. I have done many things in my life in obedience to God that had others aghast at me and got tongues wagging. Did I care. Quite honestly, no. And I still don't. I'm not here to serve them or please them. I'm here to serve God and do His bidding, regardless. And while many times that started the gossips tongues wagging, in every case that I'm aware of, God always preserved and brought my reputation back to me intact, and the gossip became nothing. That is what He has promised us, if we do His will and that is what He will do. So if you are being called in a way that others do not approve, don't worry about it. If God is calling you (and you must be sure it is God calling you, not self, not Satan) then follow the Holy Spirit's leading and don't worry about the rest.
Another connected problem that goes along with this is the stumblingblock defense. It is another passage which is misunderstood and misused at times as well, but that is another subject for another post.