The most oppressive Bible verse that has ever been


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“The Bible says, ‘avoid even the appearance of evil,'” the youth group volunteer chided, wiggling her bony finger.

I was standing in a hallway with friends having a harmless conversation about schoolwork, but it didn’t matter. This appeared that we could be able be up to no good, and that was already a sin.

This verse is popular among conservative Christians, but there’s just one not-so-small problem: it doesn’t exist. At least not technically. The youth worker phrase appears in 1 Thessalonians 5:22, but only in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. It reads differently in modern translations, but the KJV seems to be exceptionally popular. If you google most verses, the number one result is usually the New International Version rendering; in this case, the KJV tops the list.

As a child, I never wondered why the wording could only be found in an almost 500 year old interpretation or why the epistles would command something so completely irreconcilable with the life and ministry of Jesus. My elders believed it, so I accepted it as gospel truth. Who was I to argue with the word of God?

It was the most oppressive verse I could imagine, promoting an cloistered life that was hermetically sealed off from any person, place, or activity that any onlooker might frown upon. This created squishy boundaries where almost everything except going to church was morally suspect. As a result, I drove myself crazy by perpetually self-evaluating what others might think of me. If the dining room of a restaurant was full, I refused to sit at the bar for fear that someone would think I was joking with the scum. I wasn’t to be seen outside a theater with “the wrong crowd,” because, well, there was a saying about birds of a feather that forbade it. Earrings on a man meant he had questionable sexuality, a bottle of wine on the table meant the diners might be alcoholics, a boy and girl caught alone in a room meant they had probably become weird.

Most scholars now agree that the correct translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is something like “avoid every kind of evil.” Or more directly from the Greek, “No matter what form evil takes, abstain from it.” Rather than harnessing Christians, the passage frees them to live healthier rhythms of life and “cling to what is good” (vv.21-22).

Many well-meaning pastors and parents favored this mistranslation as they sought to protect their children and/or congregants. Others simply handpicked. Bad translation leads to bad application, but too few Christians do their homework when it comes to the Bible. Instead, many exhibit a dangerous tendency among many Christians and churches today: ignoring all translations or interpretations except those that support one’s predetermined view.

Another example of this tendency is seen in 1 Corinthians 6:19:

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You don’t belong to yourself” (NIV)

The problem in this verse is due to a gap in the English language. Unlike Biblical Greek, which can tell the difference between plural and singular forms of “you”, English only gives us one word and we are left to guess which is the case here. Unfortunately, some culturally conservative Christians have guessed wrong. In Greek, the you is plural and temple is singular.

“Paul said, ‘All of you together are a singular temple to the Holy Spirit,” write E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien in a book that I highly recommend, A misreading of Scripture with western eyes. “God does not have billions of scattered temples. Together we make the home of the Spirit.

Focusing here on a translation error takes us down the same path as the first. As Richards and O’Brien note, if you accept the popular mistranslation, the application might be “I need to quit smoking.” If you do your homework, the application is that religious communities should behave and function in ways that please God.

This verse is not about controlling individual behaviors, but rather about the nature of the Church collectively. Paul says, as I have heard some say, “While in the Old Testament God had a temple for his people; In the New Testament, God has a people for his temple.

What’s my point? Not that we all need to be experts in Biblical Greek – I’ve probably learned less Greek than some of my readers have forgotten – but we do need to do our due diligence when it comes to the Bible. We must learn to hold our interpretations loosely, recognizing that there is often more to the text than meets the eye. I suspect there are many more verses like these circulating and being used by some to bludgeon other followers of God.

The more I read the Bible, the more I find that it liberates rather than oppresses those who choose to live by it. And the more I follow Jesus, the more I believe He wants us to live liberated lives rather than oppressed lives. Following Jesus is nothing but an embrace of freedom (Jn 8.32; Jn 8.36; Gal 5.12; 2 Cor 3.17). Jesus is better than we imagine because he shatters our longings for sterility with a radical invitation to live free. To free from unhealthy, unjust, sinful patterns, yes. But also free from moralism, free from legalism and free from condemnation.

Rather than obsessing over appearances, let’s focus on the life of freedom that is ours. Too many Christians languish in self-made religious prisons when their cell door has already been opened by another outsider.


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