(No, this isn’t about the song by the Mamas and Papas. That’s so 60’s…)
The older I get, the more attention I have to pay to keeping my balance. My office is on the third floor. In days past, I used to hurtle down the stairs, sometimes even vaulting the last few (you’d think it was an Olympic event). No more. Now, when my attention wavers, I’m more likely to miss a step; the consequences of falling would be disastrous. So I take the stairs slowly and deliberately, being careful not to let distractions cause me to stumble.
Perhaps there’s a metaphor in there for the Christian life?
Paul doesn’t want believers to stumble and fall in the way they follow Jesus, nor does he want them to be “stumbling blocks” to others (e.g., 1 Cor 8:9–the word literally suggests something “against” which you “strike” your foot, causing you to trip). The issue is that while one Christian may do something in complete freedom of conscience, it may cause spiritual struggles for other Christians who witness the act, because they view the behavior as unacceptable or immoral. This is especially the case when the first Christian is someone whom the others admire. When he or she behaves questionably, others may begin to doubt their own scruples, and be tempted to follow suit and violate their consciences before God.
Case in point. I live over 30 miles from the seminary campus where I teach, and I’m not the only faculty member with such a long commute. Whenever our schedules allow, my colleagues and I carpool–which also means getting to take advantage of specially designated parking spaces when we arrive.
Since our schedules are so different, we’ve become rather creative carpoolers. Three of us may have to carpool in two cars: there are two drivers and one “carpool dummy” who rides in with one person and home with another.
In other words, I may arrive on campus by myself but have a passenger going home. I have a perfect right to park in a designated carpool space. But sometimes, others see me parking in such a space and getting out of the car alone.
I really, really hate that.
I have never parked in a carpool spot on a day in which I was not carpooling in at least one direction. But how does anyone else know that? I’ve made it a point to explain myself to the security guard and ask permission; he merely shrugged and said he didn’t care, as long as I displayed the proper permit. And I have purposely parked somewhere else far less convenient, just to avoid an appearance of wrongdoing that might violate someone else’s conscience.
Is this really such a big deal? Perhaps not. But I am keenly aware of my role as a professor and a minister: I am a public person, and what I do in the sight of others matters. The scarcity of parking is a constant irritant on our campus, and I have watched students (presumably late for class?) deliberately park in places where they shouldn’t. What if they see me parking in a carpool space by myself? Won’t they be prompted to think, “Well, if he can do it…”?
There are Christians who, reacting against their overly restrictive upbringings, declare their freedom to dance, drink, and watch R-rated movies. And they argue correctly that righteousness does not come from following rules.
But the gospel does not abrogate the commandment to love. What of our brothers and sisters who are struggling to free themselves from the party scene, or are struggling with alcohol, pornography, or other snares? What would Paul say?
Part 2 of this post will go up next week, after Sunday’s Advent meditation.