Every Appearance of Evil, and the Billy Graham Rule

I’ve been gone and out of the loop for a while. The debate over the so-called “Billy Graham” rule, in light of the comments of Mike Pence, went on without me. That was probably a good thing.

But every generation renews its battle with the horrible interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. You have probably heard it:

22 Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1Th 5:22 KJV)

This is generally interpreted by small-minded men as an excuse to avoid interacting for good in the lives of others. When the passage is poorly translated, and taken out of context, it appears as if it is saying that one should avoid doing anything that someone else might take as being evil. Thus, lazy and guilt-ridden men can avoid interaction with “undesireables” and still pretend to take the high ground.

For example, I heard one man say that if he were driving alone down the road and saw a beautiful woman stranded with car trouble, he wouldn’t stop to help, but would call someone at the next town. He wouldn’t want the neighbors to think evil of him being alone with a beautiful woman. And, as he said, the Bible says, “Avoid every appearance of evil.” (This rule only applies to beautiful women, apparently.)

Another man told me once that he couldn’t be seen with a troubled teen who appeared to be “effeminate” (I hate that word), for fear that someone might think evil of him. I just can’t even…

I do not wish to judge the heart of Billy Graham. I simply don’t know enough about the situation, and God did not assign to me the task of being everyone’s conscience. I only wish to make one point. Is dining alone with a member of the opposite sex an “appearance of evil” and thus forbidden by 1 Thessalonians 5:22?

If that is the case, then Jesus himself broke the rule. He spoke with women one on one, alone. He even dined with publicans and sinners.

Further, Paul wrote that we should not seek to please men, but to please God (Gal.1:10), and Jesus commanded us not to judge according to appearance (John 7:24). So does the Bible have contradictions? Certainly not!

A quick look at the historical and grammatical context of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 will sort out the issues, if one wishes to have eyes to see.

The historical context is this: Remember that the Thessalonians were real people with real problems, and Paul knew them.  Paul preached at Thessalonica and the conversions there caused the Jews to respond with furious envy (Acts 17). The believers in that city had to send Paul away quickly to spare his life, and Paul went from there to Berea, where they were “more noble”, since they searched the scriptures daily to “see if these things be so.…”

Paul, then, is very concerned about the new church in Thessalonica. He left them suddenly without new leadership in place. This in turn left them open to various itinerate preachers. Some were good and some were not so good.

This is the historical context of 1 Thessalonians.

Here is the grammatical context:

19 Quench not the Spirit.
20 Despise not prophesyings.
21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.
(1Th 5:19-22 KJV)

As you can see, what Paul is saying is this. “When you hear the word of God preached to you, don’t despise it. But at the same time, don’t swallow everything you hear. Test it according to the scriptures (like the Bereans do). If it is good, grapple it unto your soul with hoops of steel. If it is evil, shun it strongly and completely, no matter what appearance it takes.”

When evil comes, don’t be fooled by the mask. Shun it, no matter what mask it wears.

So, in the context, if someone comes to you and says, “Don’t do good to others because someone might think you are doing evil”, perhaps we should apply 1 Thessalonians 5:22 and reject that counsel as bad. This is, after all, what the scripture tells us to do.

Let’s be discerning in what we hear. If what we hear is good, embrace it. If it is evil, reject it – no matter how pretty one makes it sound. It is only the scripture that determines what is pleasing to God, not the envious and self-righteous judgments of passersby.

There may be all sorts of valid reasons to try to avoid getting into a situation alone with a member of the opposite sex, but the “appearance of evil” is not one of them.

You can see my follow-up post here.

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35 Comments

Filed under practical theology, Sex, Sin and Grace, Wisdom

35 responses to “Every Appearance of Evil, and the Billy Graham Rule

  1. Jolene

    Wow! Thank you for writing this. I’ve heard that verse used in the “Billy Graham” sense for all of my life. I’ve read the entire book myself and never realized it related back to proving the Scriptures.

  2. Thanks Sam! Your way of interpreting that verse is new to me and it’s given me food for thought. I like the way you explained the background: Paul was writing to a church he’d just planted but which he’d barely had a chance to teach a lot of doctrine to, and which he’d later sent Timothy on a visit to them, because he hadn’t been able to go back to them himself.
    The Thessalonians had come to faith by the Word being preached and they’d witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit (maybe some miracles, or other evidences of the Spirit’s power).
    From 1 Thessalonians:
    1:5 …for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
    And they had been pretty severely persecuted:
    3:1-8 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.
    Paul could well have been afraid that the Thessalonians might have been tempted to believe false doctrine by pseudo-christians, Judaisers, who did ‘miracles’ as part of their stock in trade a bit like the sons of Sceva went round doing exorcisms.
    Paul was concerned about them not committing: sexual immorality:
    4:1-8 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
    But the sexual immorality Paul was advising them against in chapter 4 was adultery, fornication, and nurturing or dwelling on improper lustful thoughts and feelings. Paul didn’t say there “Don’t spend time alone with a person of the opposite sex other than your immediate family because that will always lead to you having lustful thoughts—or other people will ASSUME you are engaging in lustful stuff.” He simply said a believer should “know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion.” That is: exercise self-control over any sexual attraction or lust that you might have.
    Now to chapter 5 where the ‘abstain from every form of evil’ verse comes from:
    5:14-22 We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.
    Paul did NOT say there, “Encourage the fainthearted and help the weak, but you must not encourage or help them if they are of the opposite sex and you are alone with them.”

  3. Pingback: Every Appearance of Evil, and the Billy Graham Rule – another great post by Sam Powell | A Cry For Justice

  4. Reblogged this on Hannah’s blog- Narnia in real life and commented:
    Thank you , this is so good! This is Jesus, this is how Jesus wants us to interact with one another.

  5. Misti

    I just checked Strong’s (among some other references) and confirmed your translation of “appearance” isn’t just an English thing caused by the multiple nuances of the word appearance.
    In fact, it looks as if the word used for “appearance” here is also used in 2 Cor 5:7: “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (KJV), and otherwise is used to refer to physical appearance in the sense of shape or form.
    But even apart from that, if you follow the premise of Scripture being the best interpreter of Scripture, the usage of the word in 2 Corinthians is evidence that the common translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is incorrect.*
    *Since words can have multiple meanings/usages and not all words appear in Scripture with sufficient frequency or context to make it possible to form non-circular definitions, the “Scripture interprets Scripture” method of translation and interpretation can have limits; but in this particular situation, the common translation uses the word “εἶδος” (eidos) in a fashion that is inconsistent with the author’s other use of the word in Scripture, and that doesn’t quite fit with other authors’ use of the word in Scripture, its listed meaning in references like Strong’s or others.
    Thanks for bringing this particular instance to my attention, Sam. 🙂

  6. bunkababy

    I always wondered about this theology because it didn’t jive with what Jesus did.You can be an adulterer and still hold to this rule. Things don’t ” occur” unless you let them. If there is nothing to hide there is nothing to hide. I think if you don’t trust yourself to go out for coffee with someone no matter who you are or what you do, because you think it could be tempting, or that you can be led into temptation that you can’t say no to is the problem. Even Jesus was tempted. He just never carried out that temptation so it lays with us. Avoiding it means you can’t overcome it, and you can’t or don’t have the upper hand. Obviously , Jesus demonstrated as a full man acting on temptation can be mastered obviously with the help of the HS. Maybe we require so little of ourselves and so very little of the HS who is our helper we avoid because we know we will fail. Which should prompt us into a deeper relationship with Christ to be able to rule over acting on temptation. Like Sam said about the creed about the HS. Do we believe him or not to help us? I have inadvertently become friends with two married gay men. I have gone out for coffee, eaten dinner out with them(without my husband, oh the horror) and none of this has ever crossed my mind. EVER. They are my genuine friends. We ended up having our deepest conversation ever concerning their atheism and my Christianity because of this. Somehow, someway we genuinely like each other and despite our differences I know this acceptance and not shunning them has been a good thing, and spoken volumes. And it sure is interesting their take on “Christians” it is far more about ACTION than words. If I was worried about the appearance of evil this would never happen. Not helping a woman on the side of the road is absolutely ridiculous. And maybe the problem is not the appearance of evil but what is really inside the man as far as his own sin life and giving into it.

  7. bunkababy

    And one more thing….if it is the “appearance of evil” we are worried about, is it not the problem with the looker and not the person who helps the woman at the side of the road? What leads that person to think their is anything nefarious going on?

  8. knightecommerce

    So you’re honestly saying that a married man and a woman going to lunch together each day in an office isn’t an appearance of evil? It is, because some, even if only one, will think something is going on. That’s the way people behave. Don’t pick a up hooker from your car to “help her life” because someone will think you are picking up hooker. Don’t go minister to the lost in the crack house, because it will look like you are buying crack. I think Mike Pence has got you beat on understanding this one.

    • I’m not in the habit of debating online. But I would like to encourage you to read again what I wrote. I specifically said that there may be all sorts of valid reasons.
      However, I think that a refusal to help someone out of fear that a nosy neighbor might think badly of you is a horrible reason. There will always be those who think badly of you no matter what you do. Do we seek to please men, or God?
      If you live your life in such a way that a reasonable person would think that you are buying crack only on the evidence that you were seen at the house, or that you were picking up a hooker just because they saw you in the company of one, I would say that you either need new friends, or you need to reevaluate your lifestyle.
      But that really isn’t the point. The point is that 1 Thessalonians doesn’t speak to the issue AT ALL. So make the argument from another passage; but at the same time, you will have to defend the actions of Christ based upon you own understanding.

  9. Deborah D Seguin

    My only caution is that we live in an age of “video-on-demand” where pictures and video of a single second (a smile, a caring touch, an emotional look in an otherwise, innocuous, sincerely trying to help someone or get business taken care of situation) of interaction can be taken, misinterpreted, and spread about the world in a heartbeat. It’s not a “nosy neighbor” that should be concerning, but the knee-jerk, judge-first-and-then-let-them-justify (but then its too late and nobody will believe you) social media environment that is now our reality. Satan IS out to steal, kill and destroy, and if its our reputation, that counts as a notch on his belt as well. Be discerning. Mike Pence is an attractive, powerful man, with many who would like to take advantage of that or destroy it. Given his position, I think he is very wise, for this time in his family’s life, to be extra cautious.

    • Bob

      Amen! Could not agree more w/ Seguin… just look at the recent debacle at FOX news over the pass year – sexual abuse finger pointing, innuendo’s, suspicion, denials, accusations, etc., that blossomed and ended careers of several prominent figures almost overnight … the accused are always guilty until proven innocence in public media – everyday you read of another fallen individual in this setting… – as a business person of 3 decades (and as Pence or any authoritative & popular individual should realize by now) you are just setting yourself up by allowing yourself to come into a compromising setting … why pastors should never counsel women without another woman or pastor present – or with a door closed when no one is around… “ounce of prevention” – be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove – and don’t be naive to the world in which we now live … how many times does scripture tell us to “be alert” to the deceitfulness of sin… men would do well to read the first few chapters of Proverbs if they do not believe the threat is real… but men are so full of pride – they know they can handle any situation due to their moral stability and strong spiritual insights! Yeah right. Using examples of helping in emergencies or other usual ways is arguing a straw man. How many have lost faith in Christianity due to failures of those who have allowed themselves to get in situations over their heads! And for what? I doubt if most were thinking about Jesus at the well at the time… so using that as justification is oversimplification at best.

  10. Amen! Well said. I like boundaries, I like the rules we set for ourselves, so I have nothing bad to say about the “Billy Graham rule” or the “Mike Pence rule.” More power to them.
    I do however, have an issue with those who are motivated by a desire to avoid the, “appearance of evil.” That’s all about seeking the favor of men over the favor of God. “Appearances” really mean nothing,they are often just the fickle opinions of others or else the masks we ourselves wear. God is far more interested in our hearts.

  11. Bunkababy

    Jesus broke all sorts of social norms. He touched lepers, talked and drank with a Samaritan woman, defending a woman caught in adultery, ate with a tax collector and defended the undesirables. The only thing I can add is my husband got pulled over for tailgating. The cop was a jerk and made my husband do a roadside sobriety test. He failed. He has bad balance. He got a 24 hr suspension of his drivers licence for being impaired. And this is my point. Anyone who knows my husband for the past 35 years knows there is no possible way my husband was impaired. They all laughed at the utter ludicrousness of the situation, and then of course were appalled and then angry. But if people really know you, your habits, your convictions they should automatically know your not buying crack, driving drunk, or visiting a woman of ill repute.

  12. Pingback: Every Appearance of Evil | Rightly Divide The Word

  13. Pingback: Every Appearance of Evil, and the Billy Graham Rule - The Aquila Report

  14. Carter

    Treat younger women like sisters — talk with them, give them a holy kiss or at least a hug, and a ride if they need one..

  15. Frankly Frank

    The only problem is that even if you avoid the appearance of evil, you subject yourself to the possibility of ONE (false) accusation and all it takes is one to ruin a reputable person’s ministry (and life). The evangelical and fundamentalist gossip vines are much more effective at passing on those thoughts than are the evangelical and fundamentalist gospel vines!

    • But we have to remember that we bear the reproach of Christ. He also was falsely accused and yet still acted according to love. Love trumps preserving reputation every time. He who loves his life will lose it.

  16. Zoe

    Another reason why we need to begin ordaining women. You see it over and over at church, week after week: Pastors and elders greeting women in a friendly way and then quickly turning to their husbands to have a real discussion–to avoid the appearance of evil. The pastor’s wife being sent to help someone in need that the pastor went on by without helping–to avoid the appearance of evil.
    Their reputations are literally more important to them than doing the ministry they were called, ordained, and hired to do, but only with women–to avoid the appearance of evil. As a woman, you quickly learn that whatever “evil” might be, it obviously resides in women, because church men (especially leaders) avoid you so assiduously, so carefully, so universally.
    It’s sad that you are thought of and treated as a walking evil at church more than at a secular workplace.
    Yes, you can have lunch with a member of the opposite sex without anything thinking anything. It’s called being a professional. The expectation that women can reasonably navigate their entire professional lives without ever being alone with a man is absurd and limits women drastically–women can’t even be administrative assistants with that stricture in place.
    Love women. We’re people. We’re not evil. We don’t need to be avoided in order to avoid either evil, or the appearance of it. We’re not something to shun, but something to love as Christ loved, to mentor and teach and learn from, as men do with one another. It is heartbreaking the way we, as church people, treat/approach/think of women.

    • I agree with you, that there is much that is wrong. I reject completely all ideas of “a manly church” and “sanctified testosterone” and all such nonsense. We have done abominably in our treatment of women, as coheirs with Christ, created in God’s image.
      However, the problem is not in gender. The problem is sin and the attitude of entitlement. When money and power enter the ministry, all sorts of problems occur, and it won’t be solved by switching the gender of pastors. I do not believe that Scripture warrants women in the offices of the church – pastor, elder, deacon. Nor, for that matter, do I believe that most men qualify biblically for those offices.
      I also am not ready to blast those who disagree with me. I understand that some very good people who hold scripture very highly have examined these passages and have come to different conclusions.

      But whatever side you come down on with women in office, we all, as Christians, must understand that it is Christ alone, by faith alone, through grace alone, that we are saved. Ordaining women will solve nothing if the Holy Spirit does not grant new hearts and new spirits, and that will come only through the proclamation of the gospel.
      We must repent of our hardness of heart, learn to see people as Jesus sees them. Until the shepherds learn to quit feeding themselves instead of feeding the sheep, the abuse will continue.
      Thanks for your comments!

    • Unlike Zoe, I’m not calling for women to be ordained as pastors, But I wholeheartedly second what Zoe said here:
      “As a woman, you quickly learn that whatever ‘evil’ might be, it obviously resides in women, because church men (especially leaders) avoid you so assiduously, so carefully, so universally.”
      I’ve felt those vibes and observed that conduct more times than I can count. Sometimes it really hurt me.
      I remember a time during the weekly coffee session in the church hall after the Sunday morning service. I was relatively new in that church, having left a church when that church had spiritually and emotionally abused me after I left my abusive husband. I was already hurting and wounded; I was quite vulnerable to be re-wounded. I was getting to know people in the congregation and was speaking to a married man. I told him that I had left my my husband because he’d been abusing me. The man, who had up to that point been quite polite and normal towards me just walked away and joined another conversational group nearby. He didn’t even say “I’m sorry to hear that” or anything vanilla that might have showed he had a tad of compassion for me. I felt like he suddenly saw me as a leper. Someone to avoid interacting with at all costs. And did I feel hurt? YES! I never was able to form any decent kind of friendly engagement with that man even though I stayed in that church for years and some of the other married men formed decent friendly relationships with me with no qualms from their wives.
      Another time I was attending a two-day Minister’s Conference in Melbourne of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. These Conferences were open to anyone who wished to attend, they were not just for ordained men — I made sure of that before I attended. During one of the morning coffee breaks I was talking to an ordained minister. He and I were not off on our own in a corridor or a private room — we were in the midst of all the other people having their coffees and biscuits. And I sensed in my spirit that this man was really afraid that he was being judged by all the other men in the room for ‘giving an appearance of evil’ by talking to this lone woman. Perhaps quite a few the other men WERE suspicious of this guy I was talking to — I don’t know. But I for sure knew that this guy was very uncomfortable speaking to me and his conversation was distant, guarded, almost haughty.
      I feel sorry for these men who are so afraid to speak one-to-one with a woman even when he and the woman are in the midst of a large group. What chains it puts on them! How on guard they are! How hyper-vigilant they are!
      But I feel sorrier for us women. We are the ones being treated like lepers.

      • Wow, Barbara. That’s so sad, but I’ve also seen that. It’s so common, and sad. My gut reaction is that if ministers are so afraid of their own hearts that they won’t speak to a woman, perhaps they need to deal with their hearts.
        I got a note from a woman last summer who told me that one sunday after church, the pastor’s wife told her daughter not to wear sleeveless blouses anymore because her husband had a hard time focusing on his sermon while he was preaching. The girl was 13 years old.
        We may have a problem.

      • Yep Houston – we have a problem.

  17. Zoe

    Thanks for the follow-up post as well.

  18. Reblogged this on My Only Comfort and commented:

    Perhaps it is time to look at this again. We need to get this straight. Bad theology always has bad consequences. If you are going to quote a verse, try to get it right at any rate.

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