“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them,” so said our Lord. Usually, this passage is cited when a small number of people have gathered for some spiritual purpose. It’s a way of saying that the crowd’s size doesn’t matter because God’s with us, which is true, by the way, but is that what he meant when He said this?
Leading into this passage was Christ’s instructions on handling when a fellow believer had sinned against a person. Jesus gave a three-step process where the first attempt was that the believer goes to the person and attempt to rectify the matter in private. If that step failed, they were to take two or three witnesses to help adjudicate the case. If that failed, the ordeal was to have been brought before the assembly (church). Were the person to ignore the church’s ruling, the offender was to have been excommunicated.
Following this, Jesus said that whatever they bound on earth was bound in heaven. Whatever they loosed on earth was so regarded in heaven. This is a continuation of judicial thought from the previous verses (15–17). Jews then believed that the Jewish high court had the authority on earth of God’s tribunal in heaven so that whatever they did on earth was done with God’s approval. Using His law as their guide, they were His representatives on earth and acted with His authority. The binding and loosing were understood as either imprisoning or releasing.
By the time we get to verse twenty, the two or three referred to the witnesses of 18:16. At a Jewish ex-communication case, a prayer of denunciation was offered for the person who was to be removed from fellowship. Prayer was also provided in the case of one who had repented. In Moses’ Law, the witnesses were first to execute the court’s judgment (Deut. 17:17). Here they are first to pray, so there was a great responsibility upon them. These weren’t always titled people within Israel or the church. However, faithful followers of God took part in this. When Christ says where two or three are gathered, He isn’t speaking about crowd sizes, but either the putting away or receiving back of an erring believer.
“Abstain from every appearance of evil,” so wrote Paul to the Thessalonians 5:22. I have read and heard brethren invoke this passage to denounce a host of bad habits that they may find evil, such as dancing, drinking, and so forth. Regardless of how we understand each of those issues and what Scripture has to say about them, is 1 Thessalonians 5:22 a passage to be applied to such matters when read in the context of the letter Paul wrote?
When placed in context, 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22 belong to the same thought. They weren’t to quench the Spirit and despise prophecies. They were to test all things and hold fast to what is right. After mentioning these things, Paul then urges that they abstain from every form, or appearance, of evil. I believe it’s safe to say that whatever the Scriptures define as evil can be applied to this passage. However, we should undoubtedly take caution where the Scriptures are silent. Were we to take, for example, dancing as it has often been applied to this passage, we must ask what the Scriptures say, if anything, about the matter. We can find that dancing appears in several passages in a positive light (Exodus 15:20; 2 Samuel 6:14; Ecclesiastes 3:4; Luke 15:25). Therefore, we cannot label dancing as a whole as evil when Scripture portrays it positively. Nevertheless, we can concede that there may be types of dancing that are indecent and lascivious. Scripture has something to say about that too if we can read between the lines (Mark 6:21–23; cf. Esther 1:10–12).
Paul had to say to the Thessalonians that the Holy Spirit was to be actively present in the church’s life, but that there was a constant need to discern and test the Spirit’s work and prophecies not to be misled (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:29). After trying such things, they held to what was right and abstained from every form of evil. We must, then, ask what they understood as evil in this context. First, a correct translation would be, “Abstain from every form of evil” (NKJV; NASB). Because the KJV renders it as “all appearance of evil,” some conclude that Paul was condemning what was evil and what appeared evil (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:19–21). However, that wasn’t Paul’s thought here. The Greek term eidos doesn’t signify “appearance” in this sense, but “form” or “type.” “Appearance” is very open-ended and subject to our tastes at times, so we could easily invoke this passage for what we believe to appear as evil. The “evil” Paul has in mind here is likely whatever doesn’t pass the test of God’s Word, such as false prophecy (Matthew 7:15), and then to every other wrong thing (Galatians 5:19–21).