By John MacArthur
True biblical discernment is grounded in the knowledge and love of the truth—as Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:21,
every discerning believer must “hold fast to that which is good.” But
that’s not the only ingredient. Too many pastors and church leaders
today believe that if they just preach the truth, their people will be
able to avoid error by osmosis. True discernment doesn’t work that way,
as Paul made clear in his very next line to the Thessalonians: “Abstain
from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
The word translated “abstain” is a very strong verb, apechō, meaning “hold oneself back,” “keep away from,” “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 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 of society. 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).
In the King James Version, 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is translated “abstain from all appearance of evil.” The word translated “appearance” is eidos, literally “that which is seen.” The New American Standard Bible gives the better sense with “every form of evil.” 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.
Some people—even some professing believers—devour materials from every
cult and denomination, looking for good in all of it. Whatever they deem
good, they absorb into their belief system. They end up designing their
own unique religions based on syncretism.
A syncretist 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 is
doing—examining everything. But what he is really doing is
actually the opposite of what this passage demands. Verse 21 is balanced
by verse 22: “Abstain from every form of evil.”
Erroneous doctrine is no place to look for truth. There is usually some point
of truth even in the rankest heresy. That is Satan’s subtle strategy.
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 reckless faith. 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 it 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. Doing anything less is
deadly. Millions in the church today are being overwhelmed by the
Trojan-horse ploy by calling for the integration of secular ideas and
biblical truth. Others are easily duped by anything labeled
“Christian.” They don’t carefully examine everything. They don’t hold
fast to the truth. And they don’t shun evil. As a result, they are left
vulnerable to false doctrine and have no defense against reckless faith.
That is not discernment.
(Adapted from Reckless Faith.)