“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).