Evil is always dangerous, but it isn’t always obvious. Its most sinister forms usually require careful discernment. That’s why Paul included a negative command when instructing Christians to be discerning: “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, emphasis added).
The word translated “abstain” is a very strong verb, apechō, meaning to “hold oneself back,” “keep away from,” or “shun.” It is the same word used in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “abstain from sexual immorality,” and 1 Peter 2:11, “abstain from fleshly lusts.” It calls for a radical separation from “every form of evil.” This would include evil behavior, of course. But in this context, the primary reference seems to be evil teaching—false doctrine. Having examined everything in light of God’s Word, when you identify something that does not measure up—something that is evil, untrue, erroneous, or contrary to sound doctrine—shun it.
Scripture does not give believers permission to expose themselves to evil. Some people believe the only way to defend against false doctrine is to study it, become proficient in it, and master all its nuances—then refute it. I know people who study the cults more than they study sound doctrine. Some Christians immerse themselves in the philosophy, entertainment, and culture. They feel such a strategy will strengthen their witness to unbelievers.
But the emphasis of that strategy is all wrong. Our focus should be on knowing the truth. Error is to be shunned.
Granted, we cannot recede into a monastic existence to escape exposure to every evil influence. But neither are we supposed to be experts about evil. The apostle Paul wrote, “I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil” (Romans 16:19).
Federal agents don’t learn to spot counterfeit money by studying forgeries. They study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. Then when they see bogus money they recognize it. Detecting a spiritual counterfeit requires the same discipline. Master the truth to refute error. Don’t spend time studying error; shun it. Study truth. Hold fast the faithful Word. Then you will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9). As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
In the King James Version, 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is translated “abstain from all appearance of evil” (emphasis added). The word translated “appearance” is eidos, literally “that which is seen.” The New American Standard Bible and English Standard Version translation, “every form of evil,” gives the better sense. We are to reject evil however it appears, to shun every manifestation of it.
This explicitly rules out syncretism. Syncretism is the practice of blending ideas from different religions and philosophies. I remember meeting a man once who compared his view of spirituality to a quilt—different ideas from different religions made up his own personal patchwork of faith. He devoured materials from every cult and denomination, looking for good in all of it. Whatever he deemed good, he absorbed for his belief system. He was designing his own unique religion based on syncretism.
That man might attempt to use 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to justify his methodology: “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” That is, after all, precisely what he thought he was doing. But he was actually doing the opposite of what this passage demands. Verse 21 is balanced by verse 22: “Abstain from every form of evil.”
The only proper response to false teaching is to shun it. Erroneous doctrine is no place to look for truth. There is usually some point of truth even in rank heresy. But it is truth out of balance, corrupted truth, truth mixed with lies and therefore rendered dangerous. Shun it.
Satan is subtle. He often sabotages the truth by mixing it with error. Truth mixed with error is usually far more effective and far more destructive than a straightforward contradiction of the truth. If you think everything you read or hear on Christian radio and television is reliable teaching, then you are a prime target for doctrinal deception. If you think everyone who appears to love the truth really does, then you don’t understand the wiles of Satan. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light,” Paul wrote. “Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
Satan also disguises his lies as truth. He doesn’t always wage war openly against the gospel. He is much more likely to attack the church by infiltrating with subtle error. He uses the Trojan horse stratagem by placing his false teachers in the church, where they can “secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). He puts his lies in the mouth of someone who claims to speak for Jesus Christ—someone likable and appealing; then he spreads his perverse lies in the church where they can draw away Christ’s disciples (Acts 20:30). He attaches Bible verses to his lies (Matthew 4:6). He uses deception and hypocrisy. He disguises falsehood as truth. He loves syncretism. It makes evil look good.
That’s why we are to examine everything carefully and shun whatever is unsound, corrupt, or erroneous. It is deadly. Millions in the church today are being overwhelmed by the Trojan-horse ploy calling for the integration of secular ideas with biblical truth. Others are easily duped by anything labeled Christian. They don’t examine everything. They don’t hold fast to the truth. And they won’t shun evil. They are left vulnerable to false doctrine and have no defense against theological confusion.
The apostle Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 cannot simply be avoided or ignored. As in the days of the early church, doctrinal error is all around us. Often it looks very good—that’s why so many fall prey to its deception. And that is also why God gave us His Word, so that we would have a measuring stick by which to examine every spiritual or theological message we encounter.
Scripture makes it clear that this type of examination is inherently loving, as God’s people are called to think biblically and exercise discernment. To do anything less will only result in spiritual anemia (cf. Hosea 4:6). My prayer for you, as you encounter any doctrinal teaching, is that you would be like the Bereans who were more noble because they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).