What does 1 Thessalonians 5:22 mean?

Are we to abstain from all appearances of evil or all kinds of evil?

In our Wednesday Night Service at Donalds Baptist, we have just come back to our study of Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. We had gone through the first six devices before the Christmas season and now we are back at Device #7. Brooks’ point was to avoid, abstain from, and flee all occasions for sin. It is an excellent admonition.

In thinking back through the discussion, a few questions come to mind. What does Paul mean when he tells us to abstain from every form of evil? I have always heard this verse quoted as abstaining from all appearances of evil. Is there a difference? I think so.

The Bible describes Jesus Christ’s ministry to the outcasts of society, the drunkards, tax collectors, and prostitutes, as one in which He was accused (wrongly so) of participating in their sins. See, for example, Matthew 11:19. In other words, Jesus did not mind appearing evil in that way. And certainly, Jesus and Paul are not at odds here. So, what is going on?

It seems the best translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 reads “Abstain from all forms of evil.” Now, this is a fairly clear-cut command from the Apostle. There is no such teaching in Scripture that says you can commit “small degree” sins but you must never commit “large degree” sins. Instead, Scripture uniformly condemns the practice of any and every sin. Jesus condemns hatred of your brother equally with murder of your brother. He condemns lust equally with adultery. So, no form of evil is allowed.

But back to the appearance of evil, what do we make of the way Jesus acted and the commands of Romans 14:13 for example? (Even asking the question this way shows that there is no contradiction here. God does not contradict Himself, ever.) The Apostle Paul is making a specific command in Romans 14:13. The pertinent clause is, “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” Paul tells us that, in love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must be aware of who is around us and aware of what we are doing. To use Brooks’ language, we must never be the cause of someone else’s occasion for sinning.

Jesus never did that. Jesus ministered to all kinds of sinners. But He never participated in their sins with them. Hebrews 4:15 makes that clear. But Jesus absolutely was accused of appearing to be evil. Jesus offended the Pharisees by the way He ministered the Gospel, but He never caused them to sin. They did sin, to be sure, but not because Jesus led them to it. So, we are talking about two different things here.

When you are ministering to your brothers and sisters in Christ, and when they are ministering to you, the goal is to become more like Christ. A corollary to that goal is to abstain from all forms of evil. Yet, the way your ministry may play out could look to some people as evil. Your job is to make sure it is not evil. Are you breaking any explicit or implicit commands of Scripture? Are you sinning against your conscience? Are you causing your brother or sister to sin against his or her conscience? If the answer to those questions is no, then proceed to the glory of God. To your critics, your actions may appear to be evil, but your critics will be wrong. And the Bible does not command us to avoid that kind of appearance of evil.

So, how do you know when you are offending your critics with the free offer of the Gospel to all kinds of people struggling with all kinds of sins, versus when you are actually causing your critics to stumble? Here we need to understand the difference between offending someone and causing someone to stumble. Note well: the only offense that ever comes should be that of the offense of the Gospel. We should seek to never offend anyone in and of ourselves. Often, the style or manner in which someone presents and applies the Gospel will be contrary to the liking of someone else. That may offend them, but that is not the same as causing them to stumble into sin.

Here is an illustration I heard from my preaching professor in Seminary. He told us of a preacher a couple of decades ago who decided to grow a full beard in the course of his ministry at a particular church. It just so happened that the area that church was in, culturally, considered a beard as evidence of immaturity and radicalism. Nevertheless, he grew his beard and continued to preach. Finally, one Sunday, a lady came up to him after the service quite agitated. She said, “Preacher, your beard is causing me to stumble.” (Let it be understood here that she did not mean it was causing her to lust after him or anything like that, she was simply angry that he was wearing a beard despite the cultural milieu.) He said, “Ma’am, my beard is offensive to you, but it is not causing you to stumble. If it were, you would have grown one yourself.”

Therefore, expect to be criticized by people for the sake of the Gospel. The Gospel is offensive. But, strive to never cause someone to stumble into sin, for that itself is a form of evil from which we are to abstain by God’s grace and for His glory.

Jason

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