I was in my dorm in the MTC when an Elder in my district told us about a letter his mother wrote to him (yes, missionaries discuss the letters your write to them with other missionaries). She was asking advice about a situation in her ward in which a young single woman got pregnant by her boyfriend. This young woman wasn’t a close friend, but was simply a good acquaintance. The Elder’s mother was confused and unsure of how to proceed. While she wanted to reach out to this young woman, she didn’t want her support to be viewed as approval of the young girl’s situation. She wanted to “avoid the appearance of evil” and the best way she decided to do that was to simply avoid the issue and the young woman.
We sometimes find ourselves in a position to associate with people who either have different standards than us or don’t live up to their own standards. So what do you do when one of the young women in your Laurel classes gets a bun in the oven? (And we aren’t talking about homemaking meeting.) Or what about the guy you grew up with in Scouts who now lives with a guy named Tarquin who makes his own curtains?* Or the coworker that you know for certain regularly smokes pot. If we are representatives of Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t be seen in the company of known sinners because people may assume that we agree with their actions and attitudes, right?
The problem with all of this is that we are trying to live according to “sound-byte doctrine”. Sound-byte doctrines are phrases and ideas that are gleaned from the scriptures (sometimes) and are treated as commandments by popular culture even though they may not have originally meant what popular religious culture has turned it into.
This particular bit of sound-byte doctrine originally comes from the scripture found in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 which says, “Abstain from all appearance from evil.” This seems pretty straightforward on first reading, but if you look (in the LDS edition of the scriptures), you’ll see a footnote on the word “appearance”. Apparently this word comes from a Greek word, which means “kinds”. With this in mind, we see that the scripture now says “[a]bstain from all kinds of evil” (emphasis added). The footnote goes on to point to the Topical Guide entry for “Apparel”, suggesting the verse has more to do with our personal standards than how we associate with others. In fact, we see that the previous reading of the scripture doesn’t really mesh well with the actual example Jesus set in His life. He was constantly found among the people that society had labeled “sinners”. Some of these were merely the poor that people assumed were sinners because of their poverty, but some were people legitimately involved in serious sin. We have no record or reason to believe that He ever condoned sin, but apparently Jesus didn’t equate association with sinners with condoning their behavior.
“Avoiding the appearance of evil” is a perfect example of sound-byte doctrine because the catchiness of the phrase causes it to get stuck in people’s head where it is given extra weight in making decisions about associating with friends and love ones who don’t share our standards. I don’t believe we should place ourselves in situations in which we may become tempted or situations that would offend the Spirit, but I believe that following the example of Christ also involves showing kindness to people of other standards and ideals. You can’t show kindness to someone you never associate with. In fact, Jesus had nothing good to say about people who maintained an appearance of righteousness for sake of appearances only (the “whited wall” and all that).
We should follow the Spirit when deciding on whom we will associate with in our lives, but I would suggest that we be careful in this as well. In associations where the Spirit is absent, we should make sure that the Spirit hasn’t withdrawn because of our own feelings of prejudice or discomfort rather than the influence the people we are associating with.
Sound-byte doctrines are grey doctrines (at best) and are often abused by religious cultures to excuse some very bad behavior. Sometimes this is intentional, but, more often than not, they are used by people who are legitimately confused and are looking for direction in their lives. In the example above, the missionaries in my dorm agreed that the Elder’s mom should show an outpouring of love for the young unwed mother-to-be. The mom was genuinely looking for the right way to handle the situation, but we thought it wasn’t her role to punish the young woman for her actions; it was her role to be a Sister in Zion. If the young woman used the pregnancy as an excuse to leave the Church, that was her decision, but it shouldn’t be a decision made easier due to a judgmental ostracizing by the membership.
The biggest danger of sound-byte doctrine is that they can replace prayer, pondering, and scripture study as a source of guidance when deciding how to live our lives. But then again, relying on a Deseret Book-purchased cross-stitching as an oracle for life advice sure does free me up to watch episodes of Heroes online. (A “Nikki” by any other name is still boring, by the way.)
*Bonus points for getting this reference.