Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Text Out of Context: 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 seems to be a passage of Scripture which is prone to all sorts of abuse. The reason I think this is the case is because this passage includes a group of short, pithy statements made by the apostle Paul which can easily be repeated and turned into "stand alone" verses apart from their context. The text reads as follows:
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. (NASB)
Probably the two most common phrases I have heard repeated from this passage are the following:

"Don't quench the Spirit!" (v. 19)

"Abstain from all appearances of evil!" (v. 22 KJV)

One of the more interesting times I heard the "Do not quench the Spirit" passage invoked was in a discussion regarding the theology of Rob Bell. After an examination of Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis and a comparison with Scripture, one of the group participants asked, "Are we quenching the Spirit here?" The implication of the question, as I understood it at the time, was that by critiquing Bell's work we were somehow in danger of preventing the Spirit from ministering to us.

Biblical expositor Walt Russell from Talbot School of Theology has done an excellent job analyzing this passage in context in a blog he wrote entitled "'Avoid Every Appearance of Evil!' Toppling a Faulty Moral Pillar." Russell focuses in on v. 22 but his insights give context to the passage as a whole. I quote him here at length as well as down below because of its extreme relevance:
1 Thessalonians is the Apostle Paul’s letter to a group of new Christians who have been persecuted by their fellow citizens in northern Greece for most of their six months in Christ.  It is an adversarial context for the church, so Paul spends much of his time defending his church-planting team’s integrity and actions in chapters 1-3.  In chapters 4-5 (“the moral exhortation” section), he addresses five successive threats to the life of this body. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 is the fifth and final significant issue facing this fledgling church.
This last issue in vv. 12-22 deals broadly with the concerns that arise when the church gathers for her weekly assembly. Paul gives instructions about how to foster healthy body life in this context by rightly esteeming leaders (vv. 12-13), dealing sensitively with the varying needs of the saints (vv. 14-15), establishing a joyful assembly (vv. 16-18), and not quenching the ministry of the Holy Spirit in prophetic utterances (vv. 19-22).
Given the broader context, we are now ready to look at the immediate context for v. 22.  Notice the logical flow of the argument about prophetic utterances in vv. 19-22:
“Do not quench the Spirit” (v. 19) (the general exhortation);
“Do not despise prophetic utterances (v. 20) (the specific negative aspect of the exhortation).
“But examine everything carefully” (v. 21) (the contrasting positive aspect of the exhortation);
“hold fast to that which is good” (v. 22) (what to do with good prophecies after examining);
“abstain from every form of evil” or “every evil form of utterance” (v. 23) (what to do with the evil prophetic utterances).
New Testament professor Gene Green agrees in his commentary on the letters to the Thessalonians. Regarding the context of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, he states,
The last group of imperatives Paul delivers includes five exhortations that concern the use and control of prophecy within the church. Some people in the congregation were prohibiting prophecy. The apostle counters this tendency by saying that although this manifestation of the Spirit should be regulated, prophecy should not be banned from the meetings of the assembly. (1)
So what about the often repeated command "Do not quench the Spirit"? In context, it appears some Thessalonians were attempting to prohibit manifestations of the Spirit in the Thessalonian church.(2) Again Gene Green comments:
The "quenched Spirit" had to do with the cessation of prophecy. The presence of the Spirit in the church was linked inextricably with prophecy among the people of it does not surprise in the least that our author should respond to any attempt to prohibit its use with the exhortation, "Do not quench the Spirit."(3)
What about v. 22 which says "Abstain from every form of evil" or the more popular "Abstain from all appearances of evil"? Again, in context, this verse is the final exhortation in the passage which calls the Thessalonians to reject inauthentic prophecies. So then, "in this context the command is put into service to guide their reaction to prophecies that were considered false."(4) As Walt Russell notes above, v. 22 could be better understood as "avoid every evil form of utterance."

Furthermore, the "abstain from all appearances of evil" imperative simply doesn't match the rest of Scripture. Walt Russell points to the example of Jesus:
Moreover, did Jesus “avoid every appearance of evil”? I think not! One of His constant criticisms at the hands of religious people was that He spent time with “defiling people” like tax gatherers, swindlers, irreligious people (“sinners”), and probably even prostitutes. By their standards, He seemed regularly to have the appearance of evil. But perhaps this is the accusation we must bear along with Jesus, rather than inappropriately withdrawing from the sin-scarred people in our lives. Perhaps this is also part of the rebuke many receive at the hands of those who don’t read 1 Thessalonians 5:22 in context. My advice?  Topple this faulty moral pillar!
Finally, regarding hermeneutics in general and the moral exhortations readers often find in the epistles, Russell offers sound advice all biblical interpreters should heed:
As is generally the case with Scripture, God and the human authors are very specific in their discussions. They seldom sprinkle broad moral sayings in free-standing fashion. By contrast, they usually speak in a closely-argued style, especially in the New Testament letters. Such is the case with 1 Thessalonians 5:22. By removing v. 22 from its very specific context, we abstract the language from its tightly reasoned moorings and create a much more general, vague concept.

(1) Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 260-261.
(2) Ibid., 261
(3) Ibid., 261-262.
(4) Ibid., 265.


Chad Miller said...

I've had to personally address this with some fellow believers who pulled it out of context... It's amazing how often this happens. If only more people would apply the "Never read a Bible verse" principle...

Mikel said...

Great post. In my hermeneutics class at Talbot, Ben Shin made us hit the desks and yell, "CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT!"

I agree with Chad, too. I love Greg Koukl's "Never Read a Bible Verse." Great stuff.

Hermeneutics kind of gets a worse rap than apologetics cause people think, "When am I going to use that?" Turns out, we need to use it a lot more often in the church! Thanks for sharing this.


Apologetics Guy