“Why are tattoos wrong?” He was fifteen, and I was twenty-three. With the sage wisdom of a college graduate, I responded with the simple easy go-to verse, “well, the bible says, ‘abstain from all appearance of evil,’ and I’m not sure that going into a tattoo parlor would be you abstaining from the appearance of evil.”
I really should have just said “I don’t know,” and admitted to the poor kid that my theology was more shallow than a dried-up bird bath. Instead, however, I found that it was easier to just peddle this out-of-context verse to highschoolers than to delve deep into the harder questions and offer life-changing, conscience-liberating truth. Do you know how hard it is for a twenty-something year-old guy to swallow a humble pill when a pimple-faced kid asks a seemingly pointless question? So I gave him the hip-shot answer. Truth be told, it wasn’t original to me. I was just borrowing the same answer that I had received when I had questioned anything that disagreed with the current corporate religious standards. Body-piercing, tattoos, haircut, clothing types, music genres, places to attend, literally everything could be answered with this go-to, one-verse theology: Abstain from all appearance of evil.
But is that what this verse is about? When God inspired Paul to write this verse, was He directing Paul to pen the apex verse for holiness in the Christian life? If we read this verse in context, we will find that perhaps its most frequent use is merely an out-of-context misuse at best. Complete thoughts come from context. Context comes from paragraphs and not just stand alone verses.
So, then, what is Paul speaking of? Paul has been admonishing the church at Thessalonica on a number of issues in their church. He has been filling in the theological gaps that were left upon his hurried departure in the face of persecution. In verses 20-23 Paul is continuing his teaching and is addressing the responsibility of the Thessalonians in regards to their receiving of the Word of God. When it comes to teaching, they are to “despise not prophesyings.” When it comes to the truth they are, like the Bereans, called to search the scriptures to “prove (or test) all things;” and only “hold fast [to] that which is good.” Ultimately though, in context, they are called to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” This is where the meaning typically is derailed. “Appearance” is a word that has come to mean “to seem, or that which looks like” in modern English. When the King James translators translated this word, the meaning for “appearance” held the meaning of “visible state, or form of.” It literally meant that Christians were to “abstain from (avoid) all appearance (the forms) of evil.”
In context, Paul was admonishing the believers in Thessalonica to avoid all the forms of evil (wrong) teaching. It had nothing to do with them avoiding worldly practices. There is plenty of other “in-context” verses that deal with avoiding evil practices in the Christian life, but this isn’t one of them. Perhaps, the challenge of today is that we would become better students of the word of God. That instead of using trite Christian quips (snippet, out-of-context verses), we can study God’s word so that we might more fully equip God’s people.
Food For Thought: How is the misuse of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 perhaps not just a misuse but even a disobedience to the teaching in this passage?