The title for this post is a little cryptic, I admit. But let me explain.
The Cheiko Okasaki thread is a really wonderful one, if you haven’t been following it. It has turned into a wonderful series of thoughts and arguments about the proper (that is, safely within LDS moral guidelines) boundaries for male-female associations, whether at work or in the church. I have some ideas about what, in practice, adhering to those boundaries ought and ought not involve, but (as usual), my thoughts have been sidetracked by a more theological concern. In one of his comments, Matt shared the following, very revealing anecdote–though what it reveals is not, I think, immediately clear:
“One of my exceptionally intelligent bishops once told our priesthood quorum that one of the apostles…refused a ride from his secretary when she found him standing in a downpour next to his broken-down car. He counseled us to never be alone with a woman. I spoke with the bishop about it later, thinking the story was too much, especially if it was the woman who was stranded in the downpour. ‘An apostle would wave as he drove by, rather than give his stranded secretary a ride?’ My bishop didn’t budge. ‘Once you’ve counseled as many people as the apostles have,’ he said, ‘you advocate steep boundaries, and follow them yourself to help those who need them most.'”
Let us assume the story is true, and not just folklore. (Not that it really matters: it is the unstated principle which is at issue here.) An apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ would, and should, bypass an opportunity to give a trusted friend and employee a much needed ride home, leaving her to sit in the rain until some other (female-driven, no doubt) vehicle could be arranged to pick her up. Why on earth would one who is responsible for conveying and representing the Master’s gospel ignore this call to service? Because of the risk: the risk of temptation, the risk of misunderstanding, the risk of evil. Giving her a ride could lead her to desire the apostle, or at least (perhaps) unfavorable compare her husband to him; it could lead to the kind of familiarity that would make the secretary seem a more appealing conversational companion than the apostle’s own wife, thus engendering disagreements; it could lead a bystander to suppose that if apostle’s can be so friendly with their employees that he should be too, but being a weaker sort of man his now-lowered standards will bring him to sin. In other words, there is so much that could go wrong: heightened tension, unfair (even if unspoken) comparisons, false presumptions, all of which could lead to maritial conflict, loss of feeling, even infidelity. Better not risk it. We’ve all heard this counsel before. Fly high above the treetops; don’t skim them. Drive close to the cliff wall, not out toward the edge. Have a strong grip on the Iron Rod before you reach out a helping hand. And so forth.
Allow me to pose a quasi-Lutheran* rejoinder: Maybe you should do it anyway. If this is a fallen world, then there is no reason to assume that evil will not always accompany good. The apostle who bypasses the secretary plants in the secretary’s mind doubts about the apostle’s senstivitiy, which leads to doubts about the certainty of his calling, which leads to doubts about the church. The husband of the secretary has had a bad day, and learning that he has to go out to pick up his wife in the wet, cold rain (after she has trudged to the phone booth and called him, since the apostle had forgotten to recharge his cell phone and figured he just contact someone from his house, but then got tied up in traffic, meaning the secretary waited there for quite a while before giving up on her employer) makes him angry, and he speak harshly to his kids on the way out the door, planting seeds of resentment. The bystander who observes the apostle’s action replicates that same standard in his personal life, therefore refusing to offer immediate assistance to someone who really needed a ride to get to the hospital where her mother was dying; having missed the moment of her passing, she feels regret and bitterness for the rest of her life. And so on.
Yes, all of the risks of taking action I mentioned above are real; but aren’t those which result from inaction just as likely? If the possibility–nay, the probability–of evil abounds, exactly what is the point of invoking standards to elimiate any contact with it from our lives? Is there not a certain sort of arrogance, an moral isolationism, involved in the determination to live rigorously and uncompromisingly according to certain standards? As if wickedness was only out there, but not in here! As I see it, I am in no position to ascertain whether the good (or evil) which will certainly follow from my every act necessarily, in the eyes of God, is always worse (or better) than the evil which I tried to (or did not try to) avoid through inaction. To insist upon purity in one’s actions is only to guarantee a minimum of action, if not the complete absence of such. Refusing to associate with prostitutes is a very, very good way of making certain that you will never be sexually involved with a prostitute; it is also a guarantee that you will never, ever, lead a prostitute to the gospel. Is that worth it? Is that actually what God asks of us? I kind of doubt it.
Does this mean I’m going to let my girls grow up and date all the bad boys, because there is no way to be certain what the real, ultimate spiritual outcome will be? Not in the least. Like Gordon, I feel the pull of age; having children has made me far more aware of some things, and I will no doubt react to those things by drawing hard lines, and lecturing my girls about how the Holy Ghost goes home at midnight, etc., etc. I will do my damndest to isolate them from all the risks of evil in the world. But I do not know how I can do so without distancing them, and distancing myself, from the real possibility of doing good. Perhaps I will comfort myself by justifying my actions by way of playing odds with some hierarchy of sins: “Yes, it’s 100% certain that I didn’t give this woman a ride who may have really, really needed it, but there is also a 10% chance that I just prevented a case of adultery, and since one act of infidelity more than outweighs ten potential acts of Christian service, I’m squared away.” I suspect, however, that such formula won’t be acceptable at the judgment bar.
*The “Lutheran” reference is to one of his most famous, and I think most often misunderstood, statements: “Sin boldly!” Why would you want to do that? Because, as Luther saw it, you can’t not sin. And if you can’t not sin, that means complicated attempts to avoid all sin are ultimately identical to attempts to avoid the work of living with and serving one’s fellow beings. Not that sin isn’t bad; it’s terrible. But since it is our lot, to be paralyzed into inaction by it is foolish indeed. Do I agree with Luther’s theology on this point? Not really. But I think it’s a powerful rejoinder to all our standard-setting, nonetheless.