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.