The appearance of evil.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 February

1 Thessalonians 5.22.

I’ve said many times before: The King James Version is a very good bible translation. Problem is, it’s a 407-year-old bible translation. Therefore it uses the English of William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson… and arguably William Tyndale, who first started translating the New Testament for English-speaking commoners in 1522. A lot of the KJV is still phrased exactly the same as Tyndale’s version.

Five-century-old English is not the American English we use today. ’Cause language evolves. If you have kids of your own, you’ve heard it happen with your very ears: People redefine words to suit themselves, and if their redefinition catches on, that’s the new definition. Oh, you might hate it—like when literally grew to mean “well, not literally.” But it doesn’t matter how much you rail against it: Language is defined by popular vote, and if you’re in the minority, you lose. Sorry.

So, many of the words in the Tyndale’s bible no longer mean what they did in 1522. Heck, they no longer meant that in 1611, when the KJV was published. Like this verse.

1 Thessalonians 5.22 Tyndale
Abstain from all suspicious thing.

How would you define a “suspicious thing”? Well in the early days of the English Reformation, when Anglicans under Henry 8 were murdering Catholics, Catholics under Mary 1 were murdering Anglicans, and Anglicans under Elizabeth 1 went back to murdering Catholics, all sorts of behavior was “suspicious”—including the legitimate worship of Christ Jesus by either church. If you didn’t do it Catholic-style when the Catholics were in power, they’d kill you; if you didn’t do it Anglican-style when the Anglicans were in power, they’d kill you. It’s a problematic translation, so by the time of James 6, the verse was updated to this:

1 Thessalonians 5.22 KJV
Abstain from all appearance of evil.

And now that has become a problematic translation. When the KJV used it, it meant the act of becoming visible: When you make an appearance at a social function, you’ve shown up and people can see you. Well, in this verse the apostles instruct the Thessalonians that whenever evil shows up and people can see it, stay away. But in our present day appearance has another, more common definition… and that’s the one people assume the KJV was using. It means the act of looking like something else. Of seeming.

And that’s why plenty of Christians read this verse, and claim, “Stay away from anything which seems evil.” It might not actually be evil; it might be benign; it might even be good—but because it looks evil, because the public believes it to be evil, stay away. Have nothing to do with it. Keep your reputation intact.

One is holiness. The other hypocrisy.

Temptation and immaturity.

I grew up getting taught the hypocrisy. Whenever someone in my youth group talked about doing a “suspicious thing,” like listening to heavy metal or watching an R-rated movie, we were rebuked. (For those of you outside the United States, an R rating means you gotta be 17 to watch it without parents’ supervision. Not that every parent cares. Most don’t. Christians tend to.)

Properly, the concern is this media contains inappropriate language and behavior. Should certain weak-willed Christians expose ourselves to such things? Kids are usually weak-willed; should our kids see such movies and listen to such music?

But the hypocrites’ concern was should we even be seen around such things? Because what might fellow Christians think? What might pagans think?—shouldn’t we express disapproval of such things, instead of watching and endorsing them?

The weak-willed were kinda as an afterthought. New Christians might figure, “Hey, Leslie watched Violent Sexual Gorefest at the theater, so why can’t I?”—and do, and come away severely tempted to commit atrocities.

Okay, lemme address the whole “They did it; why can’t I?” argument. You do realize this reasoning is entirely childish. You’ve seen children use it. Particularly when an older sibling got a privilege they’re not old enough to share, or when a neighbor kid’s permissive parents let them do something your sane parents (or helicopter parents) would never. Teens and adults might still use the argument, but it never stopped being childish. People are different. Just because one person does it, doesn’t mean all can, or should. Maybe you shouldn’t. Depends on the circumstances. Depends on your personal context.

So I might watch Violent Sexual Gorefest and come away thinking, “Didn’t scare me at all, and that blood looked totally fake.” Whereas you might watch it and come away with post-traumatic stress, and nightmares for years thereafter. Conversely you might listen to rapey death metal and enjoy it, but because I listen to lyrics I’m gonna be outraged. What tempts one to sin won’t always tempt another, and vice-versa.

If I am tempted by such films, I have no business going, and you have every right to call me on it. But again: Case by case basis.

Still, that misinterpretation of 1 Thessalonians has led many a Christian to wonder: If an activity looks evil, a less-mature Christian might imagine it actually is evil. And aren’t we supposed to take their immaturity into consideration? Ro 14.13-18

I’ll come back to that. Let’s go back to the fact the 1 Thessalonians passage isn’t about what looks evil, but what truly is evil.

The context.

In wrapping up their letter to Thessaloniki, Paul, Silas, and Timothy threw in a few instructions about how the Christians oughta behave with one another. Which really apply to every Christian.

1 Thessalonians 5.12-24 NLT
12 Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance. 13 Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work. And live peacefully with each other.
14 Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.
15 See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to all people.
16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
14 Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. 20 Do not scoff at prophecies, 21 but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. 22 Stay away from every kind of evil.
23 Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. 24 God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful.

This is the apostles’ list of instructions to the Thessalonians about how Christians ought to behave with one another. Really, they apply to every Christian. Since the instructions are a bit of “Do this, not that,” we’d call this Hebrew poetry, which repeats ideas:

Hold on to what is good.
Stay away from every kind of evil.

Because the KJV’s translators made “Hold on to what is good” and “Test everything that is said” part of the same verse in verse 21, people lump ’em together that way—and rightly so. But let’s not lop off verse 22. They’re all part of a much larger whole. Accept prophecy; don’t quench the Spirit. If it’s good, keep it; if it’s evil, stay away!

But the apostles didn’t just refer to evil in prophecy, or evil from fake prophets. That’s why they emphasized every kind of evil. Stay away from all evils, not just people who wanna manipulate you with their false prophecies. Whenever evil legitimately appears, reject it.

But when it only seems evil has come—when something only appears to be evil—well, that’s how Christians mangle the KJV and claim it’s talking about seeming evils. And that we even have to stay away from seeming evils. That’s how holy we oughta be. Don’t even let anything which looks evil, have a place in your lives. Those Christian heavy metal mp3s? Delete them all. Purge your phone!

If we followed this advice, it’d be ridiculously easy to drive Christians away, or manipulate us into never doing good deeds: Insert something iffy-looking and watch it spook us. And in fact we see this happening all the time.

I remind you Jesus used to hang out with drinkers, Roman collaborators, and sinners, regardless of how it looked to Pharisees, who immediately and regularly objected to the outward appearance. Mk 2.15-16 We always manage to remember Pharisees were in the wrong… until we’re doing the very same things they did. We never notice we’re in the wrong for complaining whenever our fellow Christians hang out with the “wrong people”—like drinkers, Russian collaborators, and sinners. Like people in the opposition party. Like the common rabble instead of “decent people.”

Jesus came to save the rabble, and turn us into decent people. And most of the so-called “decent people” ain’t all that decent. They’re not evading sin because they worry lest they fall into temptation: They’ve found it a handy way to avoid people, activities, and any ministries they don’t feel like doing. They don’t wanna minister to the lost. They don’t wanna share time with the poor, with lost souls, with lifestyles they don’t personally like. They want to stay within their comfort zones, and throw darts outside. “Appearance of evil” is as good an excuse to do so as any.

That’s hypocrisy too. So’s the worry when people would love to hang out with pagans, but worry what the “decent people” might think.

Well look: Sometimes we gotta go where we’re not comfortable, and certainly others aren’t comfortable, because the Holy Spirit tells us to go. Simon Peter getting sent to Cornelius, obviously. Ac 10 He quickly got hassled by “decent people” among the Christians upon his return.

Acts 11.1-4 NLT
1 The apostles and the other believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 When Peter went to Jerusalem, those who were in favor of circumcising Gentiles criticized him, saying, 3 “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”

The word in verse 3 the NLT translates “uncircumcised gentiles” is literally (and crudely) ἀκροβυστίαν ἔχοντας/akrovystían éhontas, “one who has a foreskin.” Seriously. Jewish Christians were kinda fixated on the idea back then. Which I get; foreskins are icky. But anyway.

Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) didn’t know, nor follow, the Law. Particularly the ritual cleanliness parts. So nothing in a gentile house would be ritually clean. Nothing. Mildew, black mold, bedbugs, lice, parasites, salmonella, and bodily fluids everywhere. I’m not exaggerating; the past was a really unsanitary place. The Jews were one of the few cultures who bathed regularly and cleaned their houses, and even though Peter had taken many baths since, the Jewish Christians were still hung up on the idea of a person voluntarily going into a filthy gentile house.

Heck, Peter himself was initially hung up on it. That is, till the Holy Spirit pointed out he never declared gentiles to be unclean. Ac 10.15 And had Peter never got over himself, he’d have never shared Jesus with the Romans. Some other, obedient Christian, like Philip, would’ve been sent to do it instead.

Ritual uncleanliness is the very definition of something which looks good, or looks evil, but isn’t necessarily. If we stay hung up about the appearance of evil, God may be obligated to bypass us, and use more obedient Christians to achieve his kingdom: Christians who love people more than their own paper-thin reputations.