Neutrality, Stumbling Blocks, and the Path of Least Interference

A discussion begun over at BCC propelled a train of thought that has been chugging along in my mind for some time. Amri Brown’s cousin, on being called as bishop, decided to give up Diet Coke:

So, why, why is he giving up Diet Coke? He says it is because he never wants it to be a stumbling block to those in his ward. There are members of Church that do believe caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom and he doesn’t want that to get in the way of him being able to act as their bishop. … He says that he feels impressed that he needs to give it up for the sake of others.

The responses to Amri Brown’s questions, as you can imagine, ranged from applause of the cousin’s decision to a middle of the road approach (quietly giving it up, not making an issue of it) to disappointment that he would cater to the most sensitive of ward members to exasperation that it was ever an issue at all.

I suspect that most of us run up against this, and that it’s probably a phenomenon that affects (plagues?) all religious traditions in their need to accommodate shifting spectra of orthodoxy among their constituents. I, personally, have been in many a heated discussion over the appropriateness of white shirts, close grooming, orthodoxy in Word of Wisdom, etc. In almost every case, my interlocutors have conceded that there is nothing cosmically important [1] about the need to wear white shirts or not to drink caffeine or not to shop on Sunday, but that what is of utmost importance is not to become a “stumblingblock” for another member of the church, so it’s best just to conform, to “take one for the team” in Brown’s words.

This discussion, though benign enough, raises some broader issues about the negotiations of liberal and conservative factions within a given tradition. My intuition [2] tells me that when traditions are faced with the transition from charismatic to bureaucratic authority, these sorts of standardizations (usually the freezing of formative cultural elements and creation of orthodoxy around those elements) creep in. When they do, I think the field is ripe for the most conservative veins to gain an upper hand, precisely because of the reasoning espoused by the cousin: I want to offend the fewest members of my congregation. I’ve a close jewish friend of the reform tradition who constantly laments the stranglehold that orthodox factions hold over everything from politics to what kind of food one can have at pan-jewish gatherings, precisely because the orthodox position is considered to be a kind of “common ground” where everyone can participate fully: since the reform camp can eat everything that the orthodox do, the orthodox are catered to.

Elder Oaks apparently codified [3] this as a principle of “non-interference.”

This thinking spills over into politics and probably every other arena of religious life. I’ve heard many statements along the lines of “I’m not sure whether gay marriage is threatening traditional marriage, but I’m going to be “safe” and side with the conservatives,” or “I want my kids to be raised in a safe environment, so I’m going to send them to the American Heritage School in American Fork, where no amount of evil is tolerated.”

But all of these arguments and tendencies neglect to acknowledge, at least in my experience, the fact that not taking a risk is itself a risk, that changing your behavior so as to avoid becoming a stumblingblock might itself constitute a stumblingblock! The desire not to interfere with someone else’s gospel experience thereby constitutes interference. There is no neutral position.

This was driven home to me as I watched an interview with Noam Chomsky on CSPAN, in which the interviewer asked how young people could overcome the feeling that being involved with social issues is risky. To which Chomsky responded with something like, “tell them that not being involved is itself a risk, both from a social and a personal standpoint. Your lack of contribution may well be a contribution to the wrong side. You risk, at the very least, coming to the end of your life and counting it as a waste.”

I believe the ministry of Jesus to have made this point over and over: that many of these behavioral mores (viz., sabbath worship, ritual cleansing, to drink or not to drink caffeine, to wear white shirts, etc.) are in themselves damaging to the quest for salvation. I, for one, am thus inclined not to interfere with someone’s salvation by actively making the point, to my children and associates, that stuff like this is not to be the focus of our religious attention.


[1] Some argued that wearing a white shirt was symbolic of the temple and purity, and therefore that we should wear white shirts (too bad for you sisters…). They had a hard time when I pushed their symbolism and asked them who, in the live temple sessions, dresses like most of the men on Sunday, in a white shirt and dark suit?

[2] Read: I’ve never put this to any scientific test, nor read studies dealing with this aspect. Caveat lector.

[3] I’d love to know where.

16 Replies to “Neutrality, Stumbling Blocks, and the Path of Least Interference”

  1. “I, for one, am thus inclined not to interfere with someone’s salvation by actively making the point, to my children and associates, that stuff like this is not to be the focus of our religious attention.” Well said. Moderation in all things, though, no?

    A few months ago I realized something about myself that sickened me: I was doing certain things because those things maintained an appearance of righteousness. Little things, such as those you suggest: white shirt, suit jacket, etc. The reason it bothered me so much is that I realized that I was guilty of what the scriptures condemn: fearing man more than God. My piety was not directed toward God.

  2. Ooh, good point Brianj. This post comes on a day that I’ve been considering some of these questions myself. Thanks for your thoughts; I look forward to reading more of the responses.

  3. Then what to make of Paul who said he was all things to all people. Again, what to make of Paul when he said it is better to avoid the appearance of evil than offend the weakest of Saints? Jesus was always telling people to go beyond the rules and get to the heart of the issue. In many cases that meant the “rules” were actually more strict, even if meaningless tradition was rejectd. I think there is a difference between hypocricy and spiritual courtesy or self-denial. My own personal philosophy is that if we can sacrafice the little things, even if we don’t really need to, then it gives us strength to resist the larger sins.

  4. Nice post jupiterschild. This individualism vs. tribalism you are talking about is at the heart of a lot of ongoing angst among religionists like us. For a long time the individualist in me held sway — I’d argue that the only thing that mattered in the church is our personal relationships with God and our love or lack thereof for others (the first and second great commandments) and that all these other things you brought up distracted from those two. But now I realize that there is something very important about tribal identity too and that accepting tribal markers (like wearing white shirts at church or avoiding R movies) is a sacrifice one can make to show the tribe and even God that we are indeed “all in” with the tribe. I don’t think there is any simple solution to this ongoing tribe vs. individual tension. I’m not even sure if that tension is a bad thing…

  5. I should add that I have a really good friend who gave up a major stream of income when put into the bishopric so as not to be a “stumbling block” to others. He is an entertainer and one of the shows he did was a hypnosis routine (which was completely PG, and his most popular act); and hypnosis (at least for entertainment purposes) is one of those “appearances of evil” things.

    Personally, it seems that most here would admit that issues such as the ones being discussed are “small things”. That being case, isn’t it possible that doing something such as not wearing a white shirt to church would provide the context to everyone realizing it really isn’t such a big deal?

  6. Someday I should post on this topic too, because Jetboy is right: Paul consistently advocated that the “strong” should give way to the “weak” and developed his entire ethic on this principle. Interestingly, this is the aspect of Christianity that Nietzsche finds so problematic, calling it the “slave mentality.” I am inclined to agree with everything in this post, but I wonder whether there isn’t something worth saving in Paul’s assessment of the responsibility to not offend others, even when they are wrong.

  7. The arguments about Paul are interesting, and thanks for weighing in on that, TT. I’m wondering if there aren’t other ways to read the strong giving way to the weak: since we’re a global church, what about making an analogy to the circumcision debates? Since many in other countries can’t afford white shirts, shouldn’t we all do away with them (I guess the other option is to have “white shirt drives” so that people in other nations can be dressed like American businessmen).

    It seems a lot hinges on how you define “weak” and “strong”. I don’t see the mission presidents, elders’ quorum presidents, bishops, and others who (in my experience) have enforced the white shirt thing, or the diet coke thing, as weak (though their position is). Rather, I see a top-down authoritative move, a desire to create an identity around these externally-viewed markers that is perceived to work to the benefit of the organization.

    There’s a very interesting post I just ran across at T&S by Ardis Parshall that finds the Church’s stance now to be somewhat at odds with what was argued against (by the church) in the 40s with regards to dress. The official position is still that people should not be prevented from participating in priesthood ordinances because of their appearance, but “white shirts and ties are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance” (CHI, 1:37). Compare the PBO publication from Jan, 1941: “The Church which bears His name must resist the introduction of formalities that may lead to ritual and imposing ceremony. In every Church gathering it is important to consider whether any particular formalities may develop an attitude that might detract from the worship of the Lord. Whatever detracts from a particular ordinance being performed or the true worship of the Lord, will tend toward formalism.” It goes on to speak particularly about avoiding the emphasis on white shirts.

    Anyway, this is getting too long. I’d like to know what you guys (TT and Jettboy especially) think about whether it’s possible to deconstruct a bit Paul’s statements on avoiding the appearance of evil etc. Who are the weakest saints? Anyone that might be offended by anything? How does this work within current power structures? What about Jesus’ behavior? Have we reached a point of formalism comparable to the Pharisees?

    PS smallaxe, CSPAN is my dose of reality TV in the wake of the writer’s strike.

  8. I enjoyed this discussion. It’s one that I enjoy, being a caffeine drinker myself, and married to a woman who never drinks any caffeine. I wonder if the same old discussion will come up again now that 60 minutes broadcasted the Hinckley interview.

  9. JS, #10: “Who are the weakest saints?” On the other thread (WoW) I said that I think this might be those saints who need to be commanded explicitly in some things. E.g., “Be healthy” isn’t enough for them, because they either won’t understand what that means (“Twinkies taste so good, they must be healthy”) or they will rationalize their way into trouble.

    Are Paul’s “weak saints” the same as Joseph’s? Paul seems very clear that his “weak saints” are those that just don’t understand the Gospel well enough—or, more specifically, the implications of the Gospel. It seems that Joseph could easily have been addressing a very different group of people.

  10. I agree that a central issue is who would “stumble” over the “stumbling block”, or in Paul’s terms, who the “weak” saints are. Personally speaking, I think the way this plays out in our discourse is that these people are depicted as new converts, “investigators”, or less-actives who might be turned off by “the appearance of evil”; but in reality those who are really offended are the “ultra-orthodox” (for lack of a better term) who have been life-long members of the church and are not “weak” in the sense that they would ever consider leaving the church. To give it a rather cynical reading, one could say that this discourse has been co-opted to enforce a sense of orthodoxy/praxy rather than to actually protect those who are depicted as “weak”. Although the issue may change somewhat when we talk about someone called in a leadership position having to deal with the “ultra-orthodox” (where one could make the pragmatic argument that “taking one for the team” just makes one’s job at leadership easier).

  11. Good comments all. BrianJ, I certainly agree that it all comes down to a) the definition of “weakest saints” and b) the way one chooses to cater to “them” (because it’s obviously not “us”). SmallAxe, you said it earlier and better than I could.

    I also would recommend an eloquent and fruitful discussion by Kiskilili (can you tell I’m catching up on my blog reading?) on the myth of the “stages of faith”–the idea that the weak of faith need to be protected.

  12. Great post! I think the real point is that the weak saints are the ones who would be impacted by others’ orthodoxy OR the lack thereof. Perhaps the real weakness is pride (a la Pres. Benson – comparing ourselves to others). You could make the case that Paul was catering in either direction, but catering to either is unwise anyway.

    It’s also like the enigmatic phrasing about not needing to be commanded in all things – it doesn’t clarify whether we should naturally do those (right) things or not do those (unimportant) things.

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