Abstain from all appearance of evil.
— 1 Thessalonians 5:22
When I was getting started in the ministry, God blessed me with an opportunity to serve as associate pastor to an older man of God who taught me many important principles for my life and ministry. One of the most important principles he taught me — one that I now require of every leader who works in our ministry — is the necessity of abstaining from all appearance of evil.
When I first heard this pastor’s rules, I thought they were a little overboard. For instance, men on the pastoral staff could not meet alone with members of the opposite sex, counsel a woman alone behind closed doors, or ride alone in a car with a woman other than one’s wife. I thought these types of rules made life very inconvenient. But the pastor was very strong on never doing anything that gave a wrong impression or that opened a door for criticism or accusation.
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I’ve been in the ministry many years and know of numerous times when pastors were accused of inappropriate behavior. The behavior was sometimes real and at other times imagined, but the opportunity for accusation was almost always the result of carelessness in keeping certain boundaries. So I now agree wholeheartedly that there is great wisdom in adhering to restrictions like the ones my senior pastor required in my early days of ministry. By taking this cautious approach, men and women of God are able to steer clear of insinuations and accusations. This, however, should apply not only to ministers of the Gospel, but to every believer who cares about the integrity of his or her witness.
The verse that my senior pastor used as the basis for his rules, and the verse I use in my own ministry to provide guidance to our team on such issues, was First Thessalonians 5:22. In this verse, the apostle Paul wrote, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Today I would like for us to take a deeper look to see what we can learn from this key verse in the Word of God.
Paul began by saying, “Abstain.…” The word “abstain” is from the Greek word apecho. This word means to deliberately withdraw from; to stay away from; to put distance between oneself and something else; or to intentionally abstain. The word apecho is also used in First Peter 2:11, where Peter wrote, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.” In this case, the word “abstain” — apecho — means to deliberately refrain from something; hence, it could be translated, “…I urge you to refrain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.” The implication is that believers should put distance between themselves and temptations of the flesh and soul.
There are other examples of the word apecho in the New Testament that also demonstrate how this word depicts some type of distance between objects. For example:
- In Luke 7:6, the word apecho is used to describe the physical distance between Jesus and the house of the centurion.
- In Matthew 15:8 and Mark 7:6, the word apecho is used to describe human hearts that are hardened and therefore distant and far from God.
- In Acts 15:20, the word apecho is used when James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, gave instructions that the new Gentile believers should abstain from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from the consumption of raw blood. In that verse, the word apecho is so strong that it makes a demand on the new Gentile believers to withdraw from and permanently terminate their contact with these things. It is actually a command to refrain, to desist, to discontinue, and to terminate any further contact with them, and it calls for a permanent halt to the practice of allowing such contact.
Keeping this in mind, we know that when Paul told us, “Abstain from all appearance of evil,” he was strongly urging you and me to put distance between ourselves and any appearance of evil. This Greek word apecho demands that we do not allow even the smallest hint of inappropriate behavior or any act that could be misinterpreted or viewed as being immoral or unethical. There is no doubt about it — the word apecho calls for extreme caution and vigilance.
The word “from” is the Greek word apo, which means away. However, because the word apecho had already been used, meaning to put distance between yourself and some other thing, it means the word apo was really not needed — unless Paul intended to place very strong emphasis on this point. By adding the word apo, it makes the point abundantly clear that believers should not only put distance between themselves and what is obviously evil, but they must also put a great deal of distance between themselves and whatever fits this description, even in appearance.
The word “appearance” is the Greek is eidos, a word that is only used five times in the New Testament, but depicts an outward form, visible appearance, a likeness, or a resemblance of something. Therefore, Paul was telling us, “It doesn’t matter what you think or what you know to be true; what matters is what appears to be true in the eyes of others.” Even if there is a small chance that someone may mistake your actions as evil or if what you do even resembles something evil or wrong, you need to stay as far away from it as you possibly can.
What makes this even more serious is the fact that this word “evil,” the Greek word poneros, is often used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament to describe actions that are ultimately damaging to a person’s testimony and reputation (see Deuteronomy 22:14). There is no doubt that Paul was telling us that we must do everything in our ability to put a lot of distance between ourselves and anything that would bring harm or injury to our reputation or to our godly witness in front of other people.
Think about it! How many people do you know who did something that they “thought” was all right to do — but other people saw their action and misinterpreted it, and as a result, it stained their reputation? I’m talking about situations like pastors being accused of immoral behavior because they had close contact with a member of the opposite sex who wasn’t their spouse. Maybe nothing wrong occurred, but what people saw resembled something bad, and the pastor was therefore falsely accused. This is why it is a good rule never to counsel a member of the opposite sex alone! By using common sense and refraining from ever being in such a situation where you could be accused, you have put distance between yourself and potential accusations.
Have you ever heard a rumor about a preacher who wrongly used money that was intended for the work of the ministry? The truth may be that the minister never did anything wrong at all with those funds, but because his actions gave a wrong impression to people who were watching, what he did resulted in a damaged testimony. Preachers can avoid these types of accusations by determining never to touch ministry funds personally and by establishing a bookkeeping system that demands accountability. Just by using common sense and choosing to refrain from activities that might give a mistaken impression, those in the ministry can put great distance between themselves and suspicious-looking situations. In so doing, there will never be room for accusation that they misuse ministry funds or participate in any questionable activity or behavior.
As I said, this principle of refraining from every appearance of evil isn’t pertinent only to ministers. It applies to every believer who wants to maintain a godly reputation. The fact is, if your testimony in the eyes of others is important to you, you must make the decision to withdraw from, refrain from, desist from, discontinue, and permanently terminate any action that gives the appearance of evil. Although this may require a new set of rules for your life, you will be taking vital steps toward preserving your testimony and godly reputation.
How much is your reputation — and the reputation of the Holy One you represent — worth to you? If you want to maintain a good name and testimony in front of others, you must refrain from any action, language, or contact that gives the appearance of evil. And this is not just my suggestion — it is the commandment of God found in First Thessalonians 5:22.
By understanding the Greek words in this verse, we can interpret First Thessalonians 5:22 to read:
“You need to terminate contact with any place, action, language, or relationship that gives people the impression that you are doing something wrong. It doesn’t matter what you think is acceptable; what matters is what other people perceive. So put a great deal of distance between yourself and anything you are doing that people could misinterpret and that could thereby stain your reputation.”
So many people have forfeited their testimony because they didn’t use their heads and think about how their actions might be perceived by others! Perception is often reality in the eye of the beholder.
Even if you know that you’re doing nothing wrong at all, the fact remains that people don’t see your heart — they see your actions. If they see you do something that appears immoral or unethical, you will likely be judged by what they perceive.
If you’re like me, your highest desire is to glorify Jesus in this life in all you say and do. That’s why our hearts can agree with what Paul says in this verse — that it’s always best to “abstain from all appearance of evil” because we are His representatives on this earth!
MY PRAYER FOR TODAY
Lord, I understand that Your Word commands me to break off and desist from doing anything that would give the impression of evil to people who are looking at my life from the outside. Today I have a new and a fuller realization of the great impact my actions can have on my reputation and on other people. Please forgive me for doing things that could be misconstrued, misunderstood, or misinterpreted. I am truly sorry. Help me today to put safeguards in my life that will help me to abstain from all appearances of evil from this point forward.
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY
I confess that I use common sense in the way that I conduct my life. I am thoughtful about my actions; I am careful to remember that people are watching me; and I am led by the Holy Spirit in how I conduct my life. Because I want to maintain a godly reputation, I care about what people think of me. I will not do anything that would cast a shadow on Jesus’ name, my name, or my testimony as a child of God. With God’s help, I will live a life that is free of accusation!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER
- Have you ever known someone who stained his testimony because contact with a place, action, language, or relationship gave people the impression that he or she was doing something inappropriate?
- As you look back on that particular situation now, what steps could that person have taken to circumvent the accusations and charges that were brought against him or her?
- Are there any areas or actions in your life right now that others might perceive to be questionable? Be honest with yourself! What are those areas, and what steps should you begin to take to put distance between yourself and future accusation?