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In 1 Thessalonians 5:22, we are commanded, “Abstain from every form of evil.” The Greek text employs a verb meaning “shun.” It has connotations of abhorrence, loathing, and revulsion. It is the proper response to anything impure or morally filthy. It’s the very same word Paul used when he wrote, “Abstain from sexual immorality” (4:3). Peter used the same word in a similar context: “Abstain from the passions of the flesh” (1 Peter 2:11).

But in 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul is specifically talking about truth-claims—prophecies, doctrines, spiritual principles. Verse 22 is actually the last in a series of closely related commands: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 21–22).

The Apostle is not urging the Thessalonians to try a little bit of everything, eat the meat, and spit out the bones. I’ve heard people use that expression in a way that minimizes the grave danger of heresy and alternative gospels.

The idea here is the polar opposite. Paul is instructing the church to turn away completely from false prophets and purveyors of novel doctrines—to repudiate them altogether. He gives no latitude whatsoever for blending nuggets of gospel truth with popular ideas borrowed from other religions, cultural fads, highbrow philosophies, lowbrow entertainment, secular psychology, or whatever is currently popular in the world.

In fact, we’re warned frequently in Scripture about the subtlety of Satan. He disguises himself as an angel of light. He quotes Scripture. He makes arguments that sound reasonable. But his specialty is twisting the truth, mixing it with lies, giving evil the appearance of good, but corrupting everything that is truly good.

Turn away completely. Cling to the good instead. Nothing that is not in full agreement with the Word of God can possibly qualify as “that which is good.” Scripture itself is to be treasured, guarded, and held fast, but all doctrines that contradict the Bible, all teachings that go beyond it, and all prophecies that claim to supersede it are to be summarily rejected.

In the King James Version, 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is rendered, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Those words are sometimes cited by people who misapply them to suggest Paul’s chief concern had to do with the appearance of things—as if he were mandating abstinence from anything that someone might think looks bad.

That isn’t the point of this text. The Greek word translated “appearance” is eidos—translated “form” in Luke 3:22 and John 5:37. Paul’s point is not that we should abstain from morally neutral activities that might look bad to overscrupulous people. He is saying that whatever is evil in character must be shunned no matter what form it takes—even if the false teacher comes disguised as an angel of light or claims to be a brother seeking peace and unity.

Genuine Goodness and Love

Loving Affection and Honor

Keep Reading The Church and the Parachurch

From the September 2014 Issue
Sep 2014 Issue