About a month back I went to a bar for the first time in my life. When I reflected on the experience in my column at Go Girl Magazine, I explained that it wasn’t unlike a night out with friends back at BYU: sure, the friends at the bar were drinking alcohol while I drank a coke, but there was enough sugar in my soda (and likely in their more colorful and swirly drinks) that I might as well have been out for cupcakes or ice cream or hot chocolate, as was my out-with-friends wont at BYU (no, I’m not kidding about the cupcakes). Still, a part of me wondered if I had done something wrong.
Around the same time, Romney’s choice of coffee ice cream made news.
Most Mormons shrugged or rolled their eyes. My mother, a staunch Republican, said that reporters had to dig deep to find dirt on Romney because he was “so squeaky clean.” Yet I know many Mormons who would avoid going to a bar or eating coffee ice cream for the same reason that Romney’s frozen dessert made the news: even when a person is not violating covenants or committing a sin, it’s possible others will think they are. In fact, when I ordered root beer at an event where my cohort-mates drank beer from nearly-identical bottles, I later learned that a few of them had been surprised. “I didn’t know you drank,” one friend said. Another admitted that it seemed peculiar for someone to drink beer through a plastic straw, as I had seemed to be doing.
But were Mitt or I doing something wrong? Were we violating Paul’s counsel to “abstain from all appearance of evil”? (1 Thessolonians 5:22).
Avoiding the appearance of evil is something I’ve been counseled to do since as far back as I can remember. Along with the short and simple, If in doubt don’t, caution about the appearance of evil frequently came up in Sunday School and Young Women’s lessons. It was a concept that I took for granted for many years, and it was counsel that usually kicked in when a teacher or parent had no other way to justify why something was wrong (and perhaps when a student or child refused to listen to any other reason).
Just a few weeks ago I heard that same counsel in an adult Sunday School lesson at church, in the context of a story about a married man who was counseled against offering rides home to an unmarried woman. Each time I’ve heard the phrase, it has been interpreted as counsel to avoid doing anything that could give others the impression that a person has sinned. No, what you’re doing may not be wrong, the logic suggests, but others may believe you’re doing something worse.
There is certainly potential damage if others believe we have committed sins: if actions speak louder than words, then misperceived action will miscommunicate loudly. One could argue that my presence at a bar with a glass in hand is one piece in a broader culture that accepts drinking, and if one of my students had walked by, they might have felt more justified in their underage drinking, perhaps believing that even their Mormon teacher was imbibing. And while Mitt Romney’s consumption of coffee ice cream is unlikely to spike coffee consumption, he and I both risked coming across as insincere in our faith – another concern of many Mormons, whose anxiety over how those outside our faith perceive us continues to manifest itself in the I’m a Mormon campaign.
But does Paul’s counsel actually refer to appearing to have sinned? The more I interrogate the verse and that question, the less likely it seems.
First off, the interpretation of Paul’s counsel as avoid appearing to sin is not universally accepted. Think about the phrase: avoid the appearance of evil. The words appearance of evil could refer to many things, from all apparitions of evil to, yes, avoiding behavior that will appear sinful to others. Some perceive the counsel as avoid all forms of sin - any behavior that we suspect is sinful, even if that behavior is not explicitly spelled out. This interpretation is backed by the King James Bible with the Church’s footnotes: the note on the word appearance reveals that the Greek translates into kinds:
abstain from all kinds of evil.
Some perceive that counsel as a move toward intuiting and discerning between righteousness and sin, rather than focusing only on the law. Given that Paul has advised against quenching the spirit just a few verses earlier, the advice to intuit seems likely.
But whether Paul recommended it or not, it’s worth considering the advice on its own merit. Again, it falls short: what would it mean to avoid ever having appeared to sin? While the advice is most commonly applied to actions that the speakers view as sinful, wouldn’t we also appear to have done something sinful if we violated a taboo of another culture? When all the cultures and subcultures of the world are factored in, it seems like a heavy task that would require a constant focus on outward appearance.
Even without carrying the counsel to such extremes, worrying about spending time near or with other people whose behavior does not meet the standards we choose to live by in order to avoid appearing to have sinned seems directly at odds with the Savior’s example. Jesus ate with and ministered to sinners and to sick individuals who would have been considered unclean, without seeming concerned about how others perceived his actions. The New Testament is full of stories where the Pharisees criticize him for appearing to have sinned, and Jesus dismisses them. So if our only reason for avoiding behavior is our fear of how others will perceive us, there’s a chance we’re closer to the Pharisees’s camp.
Whatever Paul originally intended in his letter, it’s doubtful that the Savior intended for us to preoccupy ourselves with how others perceived us. Just as we shouldn’t worry overly much if others think we’re uptight for refusing to drink soda at a bar, we probably shouldn’t worry about others mistaking our mocktails for cocktails.