Many Christians assume that to "abstain from all appearance of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22, KJV) is to avoid any behavior anyone might perceive as being evil. Not only do we flee from that which is evil, we flee from that which appears to be evil. For instance, a pastor should not be seen frequenting a bar because someone may think he is getting drunk. However, the actual meaning of this verse is a matter of some debate within Christendom.
Depending on the Bible version you use, 1 Thessalonians 5:22 refers to the "appearance of evil" (KJV), "every kind of evil" (NIV and NLT), or "every form of evil" (NRSV, NKJV, and ESV). Each is a good translation. The Greek word translated "appearance," "form," or "kind" can mean any of these things. The same word is used in 2 Corinthians 5:7 and translated as "sight."
Obviously, the difference in translations can lead to a difference in application. Is it the appearance of evil we should be concerned with, or is it staying away from all forms of evil?
One problem with emphasizing the appearance of evil is that it can make us slaves to the perceptions of others. There will always be someone who thinks that something you are doing is wrong, or that it looks wrong to him. So, rather than spending our time getting to know God and serving Him, we worry about the possibility that someone, somewhere, might misconstrue our actions. In the same letter that he wrote about avoiding evil, Paul wrote, "Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts" (1 Thessalonians 2:4). Our goal is to live righteously before God, not to comply with others’ arbitrary standards of conduct.
At the same time, we are instructed not to allow our Christian freedom to become a stumbling block to others (1 Corinthians 8:9). We are also instructed to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Christians have been set apart (2 Corinthians 6:17).
Perhaps looking at the broader context of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 will prove instructive. The verses immediately preceding Paul’s exhortation state, "We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:12-21). This is a quick rundown of how the Thessalonians should be living, "in a manner worthy of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:12).
So, what is our conclusion? To avoid the appearance of evil, or every form of evil, means to stay far away from evil. We need not become legalistic regarding what others may perceive to be evil. But we do need to remain cognizant of our witness to the world and of our duty to support fellow believers. We should also be aware of our own tendencies toward sin. Rather than flirting with what could lead us into sin, we avoid evil altogether. It is important not to judge others without first judging our own hearts and motives (Matthew 7:1-5). For instance, one pastor may be perfectly capable of drinking alcohol in moderation and therefore have no problem frequenting a bar. Another may be prone to alcoholism or drunkenness and should therefore avoid bars.
Avoiding the appearance of evil, or abstaining from every form of evil, means to live in God’s light by the power of the Holy Spirit. We "take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them" (Ephesians 5:11). We worry not about the perceptions of others but about the integrity of our own walk with Christ. When we avoid every kind of evil, we “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV).