1Thes 5.22 [KJV]
Abstain from all appearance of evil.
It is amazing how one little word can change a meaning so much. I bet a lot of puritanical church rules were generated by a concern to avoid even the “appearance” of evil. Matthew Henry’s commentary (from 1706) says:
We should therefore abstain from evil, and all appearances of evil, from sin, and that which looks like sin, leads to it, and borders upon it. He who is not shy of the appearances of sin, who shuns not the occasions of sin, and who avoids not the temptations and approaches to sin, will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin.
In addition the Geneva Bible Notes (1576) say:
Whatever has but the very show of evil, abstain from it.
It is clear that both of these commentaries had the same opinion as the KJV. However, it is remarkable to note that the NKJV, which is an attempt to keep the KJV but in modern English, felt the need to correct this verse. Below are both translations side by side:
1Th 5.22 [KJV]
Abstain from all appearance of evil.
1Th 5.22 [NKJV]
Abstain from every form of evil.
Furthermore, every single modern translation I checked likewise opposes the KJV by saying something like “stay away from every form of evil.” The question really turns on the translation of a single Greek word eidous (εἴδους) which can be translated as the following (according to BDAG lexicon):
1. the shape and structure of something as it appears to someone, form, outward appearance
2. a variety of something, kind
3. the act of looking/seeing, seeing, sight
Under definition #2 this lexicon specifically sites our verse (1 Thes 5.22) along with other Greek texts (outside of the Bible) which use the exact same phrase. This, for me, is good evidence that we should go with the modern translation. This is probably partly due to the fact that Greek lexicons are always improving as more ancient Greek literature is discovered, studied, and cataloged so that today we have a much better grasp of the biblical Greek vocabulary than was available three hundred years ago when Matthew Henry wrote his notes.
So what are the options for interpreting this verse? If we go for the outdated translation “abstain from every appearance of evil” we are going to set hedges around things that might be perceived by others as sinful. This can easily lead to legalism as is the case with alcohol in some parts of the south. When I was attending Atlanta Bible College a native Georgian told me that if a minister was ever seen in a restaurant with a glass of wine that would be the end of his ministry. Shocking. And I bet this verse is their primary one for justifying such a mentality. Of course, Jesus did not keep away from every appearance of evil. He went to dinner parties with prostitutes, tax-collectors, and sinners. He feasted so frequently (which included drinking alcohol) that his enemies called him “a glutton and a drunkard.”
So what is the other option? The verse more likely means that we are to keep away from every kind of evil. The Apostle is just finishing his letter to the Thessalonian community and in this portion he is machine-gunning them with brief instructions:
1Th 5.16-22 [NRSV]
16 Rejoice always,
17 pray without ceasing,
18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
19 Do not quench the Spirit.
20 Do not despise the words of prophets,
21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;
22 abstain from every form of evil.
I think he is simply urging these brand-new Christians to stay away from evil. I don’t interpret this as a particularly deep command that needs detailed explanation, rather I see it as a simple command like a father would give his son just before leaving for a business trip: “son, while I’m gone, listen to your momma.” or “keep your nose clean” or “stay out of trouble”–something like that. As Christians we are to stay away from evil.