The Appearance of Evil

It was a sunny day, a 1973 Pontiac Grandville, an A&W root beer in a frosty mug at the drive-in near the circle in Brownwood, TX, a red plastic monkey hanging from the straw, and tater tots on the way…a 1970s memory still so powerful I can smell the root beer and feel the jagged edge of the cheap plastic of that toy monkey in my 6 year old fingers as I type. It was the beginning of a lifelong enjoyment of all things root beer. I like A&W, Frostie’s, Barq’s (current favorite), Stewart’s, and even the now defunct Snapple Tru Root Beer, among many, many others. However, when I was a kid there was one root beer off limits—IBC. You see, that brown bottle seemed to cross a line that was not to be crossed. It was just too close to the appearance of a beer bottle for comfort, and it was therefore persona non grata in our home. It had failed a test that anyone growing up in a conservative, West Texas, King James soaked, atmosphere will immediately call to mind: does it avoid “all appearance of evil?” It failed because the bottle looked like it was real beer, and beer was evil, and the appearance, then, made it evil, too. It was, and still is in many circles, a constant meme of the times. It was all rooted in a single passage that I’d like to look at for a moment, 1st Thessalonians 5:22.

Abstain from all appearance of evil.

Now, let me say before I dive in head-first, that I have a great deal of respect for the King James translation of the Bible. It turns 400 years old this year, and many, many, many people will greet us at the gates of Heaven because their faith began with an introduction to Jesus through its words. Also, let me assure you that I have no intention of criticizing any person or persons in this, and that the same people who frowned on IBC in a brown bottle also shared the love of Christ and were used by the Lord to introduce me to the faith, and have encouraged me throughout the 28 years since.

OK. Let’s break this down a bit. This phrase, “abstain from the appearance of evil,” was always quoted and explained to mean one thing: that anything that could be perceived by its appearance to be like evil, was evil. Hence, IBC looking like a real beer bottle is bad, because beer is evil (let’s not even get into that for now, that’s another blog for another day). If it looks bad, it’s bad. Thus, we must always be thinking not just of what is right or wrong, good or bad, good, better, or best—we must always be ever mindful of how any random brother or sister who sees us may perceive what we are doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing anything wrong, it matters whether or not what you’re doing might look wrong. I want to propose two things here. 1) That this is a very poor interpretation of the passage at hand, and 2) it has created a tyranny of perception that has been harmful to the body of Christ and has damaged our credibility before the world we strive to reach with the gospel of Christ.

Abstain from all appearance of evil.

Read that as it is and you may just think I’m crazy. I mean, it does say right there in plain ol’ 1611 British English that what we are to abstain from is all appearance of evil. Right? Right. Appearance, not appearanceS. You see, somewhere along the line, we forgot the power of a single letter, and in doing so took a horrible misstep. If it said, “Abstain from all appearances of evil” then we would indeed be right to make everyone bow to the perceptions of others about what might possibly, if you squint just right, appear to be in some ways similar to something else that is evil. As it is, though, that “s” just isn’t there (and the real problem isn’t the KJV, but our reading into it). It is not that we are to avoid doing anything someone else might misperceive, but that we are to avoid evil in every way that appears before us. If you are questioning that last sentence, let me explain. The Greek word translated in the KJV is eidos, which means appearance, form, shape (Strong’s). An alternate way of saying the same thing would be “Abstain from evil in all its forms” or “Abstain from evil in all the ways in which it manifests itself.” And, in fact, the former is exactly how several good translations have it:

“Abstain from every form of evil.” New King James Version
“…abstain from every form of evil.” American Standard Version
“Abstain from every form of evil.” English Standard Version
“Avoid every kind of evil.” New International Version (1984)
“…abstain from every form of evil.” New American Standard Bible
“Stay away from every form of evil.” Holman Christian Standard Bible
“Stay away from every kind of evil.” New Living Translation
“Stay away from every form of evil.” NETBible
“…abstain from every form of evil.” Revised Standard Version
“Удерживайтесь от всякого рода зла.” Russian Synodal Version – just seeing if you’re still with me 😉

I think you get the drift by this point. The original text says we should avoid evil in all its forms, and yet we have somewhere along the line expanded (added to!) the text to say something that isn’t there, and read it as if it says, “Abstain from evil in all its forms and even those things which are innocent but could be mistaken for evil, or mistaken for condoning evil.” I’m guessing that addition goes back a good stretch, because a quick perusal of commentaries shows examples like Albert Barnes of Rome, NY in 1834 saying, “Abstain from all appearance of evil – Not only from evil itself, but from that which seems to be wrong.” But that’s simply not what this text says, and in the Restoration Movement, we claim to be a people who will “speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent.”

Propriety and thinking about the ramifications of the things we do and what we condone is not really the problem, though. Surely we could all agree that we are to live out our faith in ways that are described in the scriptures as “free from reproach.” Being discerning about how we live, and how our actions may impact others and our reputation are important. Good reputations are hard won and easily lost.

Enslaving others to your perceptions, however, is completely without biblical sanction, and has worked harm to the body of Christ. I don’t give a hoot about IBC. I’ll take Barq’s. But I do give a hoot and holler when I see brothers and sisters judged constantly for doing that which is innocent. In fact, I’ve seen a lot worse than that. I’ve seen brothers and sisters judged for being Jesus to people. There’s the brother who was condemned for going into a bar and nearly fired. Turns out he was there to save a friend from his addiction. There’s the brother who was “caught cheating”…only to be out to lunch with his cousin. There’s the family condemned for eating at Chili’s because it serves alcohol, and the missionary accused of condoning alcoholism because he lifted a glass of Sprite to the kind toast of a non-believing friend. There’s the rabbi who allowed a sinful woman to wash his feet and had the audacity to share a table with a tax-collector. It just didn’t appear quite right.

Praise be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and to God the Father, who taught us in John 7:24 a better way: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” It’s time we set our captive brothers and sisters free from eggshell-walking and stop holding people to the slavery of being subject to our assumption-jumping skills. We need to stop condemning for appearances and start avoiding that which is truly evil (and being superficial and judgmental actually is evil…ironic that, huh?). When we do, we’ll find not only will we have set them free, but that we, too, will finally be free indeed. It’s a deep and crushing burden to strain so many gnats, and camels just don’t taste as good as root beer and tater tots.

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