This verse is used commonly to provide a Biblical foundation for condemnation of people and deeds of all kinds. The idea is that this passage forbids not only doing those things that the Bible specifically condemns as sin, but also doing anything that looks like it might be sinful or associated with something sinful. This interpretation says that while it might not be sin by any other Bible restriction, an “evil-looking” act (behavior, song, hairstyle, etc.) actually becomes sin based upon the perception of others.
While it is not wise, and may actually be sinful, to purposefully engage in an activity that causes confusion about our morality or ethics, that is not the proper interpretation of this verse. In order to get a better understanding of Paul’s specific intent, we must understand the command in the context, and then we need to explore what the word “appearance” (eidous) means.
This command comes last in a list of commands. The list often reminds me of the type of list my wife leaves for our children when we go out for the evening— a last-minute “catch all” of various tasks that must be accomplished. While the commands do not seem to be tightly related, there is a connection, and it is very important.
The previous two commands (v. 21) provide specific insight into verse 22. In verse 21 Paul instructs believers to “test” or “prove” everything. He intends for us to take a careful attitude toward sin in our lives and put everything in life to a holiness test. We cannot exempt any aspect of our lives from Biblical sanctification requirements, even if we do not readily see the connection.
The next command is a logical response to the “proving” or “testing. “Hold fast” to that which is good. Once we have determined something to be good and valuable, we must continue to “hold on” to it and keep it as part of a life intended to bring glory to God.
But what should we do about that which we find to be evil or unprofitable? Paul’s answer states that we should “abstain from all appearance of evil.” This command in verse 22 is not only logically connected to the commands in verse 21, it is absolutely necessary to complete the thought of the two previous imperatives. If we test everything, what should our response be to the results of the testing—both positively and negatively?
The word eidous appears five times in the New Testament. In each of those occurrences it refers to a “visible form” or “manifestation.” In our King James Version it is translated “shape” (Luke 3:22; John 5:37), “fashion” (Luke 9:29), “sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), or “appearance” in the passage in question. In no place, either in New Testament usage or in any lexicon is there an indication that the word should be translated “appearance” in the sense of “visual similarity.”
Perhaps the source of the misunderstanding is in two distinct English uses of the word “appearance” (according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary). In the first sense, we use the word to mean “anything that appears, something seen”: “They made their appearance late in the evening.” In the second sense, we use the word to mean “an outward show; pretense”: “He had the appearance of being innocent.” The word eidous is used in the first sense and not in the second.
Thus a translation, using various synonyms for clarity, would look something like this:
Prove (test) all things.
Hold on to (keep) to the things that are good.
Hold away (avoid, keep back from, keep away from, maintain your distance from) every type of (appearance of, visible reality of, form of, occurrence of) evil.
The difference between the proper interpretation of this passage and the common interpretation is significant. The common interpretation says that this passage is about abstaining from everything that looks as though it may be evil. It is about outward appearances. The proper interpretation says that we must abstain from every type of evil, no matter where or how it might look. The first interpretation subjects the believer’s behavior to the perceptions of others—whether correct or not—and creates a standard that is virtually impossible to meet. The second subjects the believer’s behavior to the clear standards of the Word of God—regardless of what others might think.
Conceivably, seeking to abide by an incorrect interpretation of the third command (“abstain from all appearance of evil”) could drive a sincere believer to violate the equally obligatory second command (“hold fast that which is good”). Once I have put a particular aspect of my life to the test of the Word of God and found it to be righteous, I am commanded to hold it—even if others might disapprove through malice or ignorance.
It’s the difference between being a man-pleaser or a God-pleaser.
Dr. Kevin Schaal is the pastor of Northwest Valley Baptist Church in Glendale, Arizona.
(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)