How Much Harm is Acceptable?

A recent conversation with a dear friend highlighted a different in paradigms between us.  It raises an interesting question, so I thought I’d at least frame the question for the record, even if I can’t research it fully at this time.

Here are the competing paradigms:

  1. Me:  No church is worthwhile if it persists in error and compromise.
  2. My friend: A church is worthwhile if it does more good than harm.

Being ever the analyst, I find some value in whittling this difference down to the smallest possible parts.  Doing that, I come to the following two paradigms:

  1. Me:  Do no harm.
  2. My friend:  Do no more harm than you do good.

Or, to go at it from a different angle:

  1. Me:  It is never acceptable to do harm.
  2. My friend: It is sometimes acceptable to do harm.

I note also a related difference of opinion between us, which is certainly related to two paradigms already under discussion here.  Let me introduce these while I’m at it:

  1. Me:  Every person is responsible for what goes on in his own mind.
  2. My friend:  Not everybody has sufficient mental skills to do high-end thinking.  Therefore, not everyone is responsible for his own thoughts.

Do you see how these are related?  I think that we are fully responsible for both our behaviors and our thoughts and beliefs, while my friend takes a less-than-absolute view of the question.

So, which of us is right in his view?

As time permits, I want to scour the Bible in search of clues as to how God thinks about this question.  It will be instructive to see how much evidence might reasonably be taken to support each of our paradigms.

Until then, however, I will add to the record one of my criticisms of institutions that are based on the “more good than harm” paradigm.  When such a paradigm is embraced, everything tends to become “relative” and absolutes tend to suffer from suspicion, if not outright abandonment.

Let me give an example.

Billy speaks to the congregation, telling them that in 1 Corinthians 16:2, God commands us to tithe to the church each week for the ongoing support of the local ministry.  Jack hears this and corrects Billy, as 1 Corinthians 16:2 was not about “the local ministry” at all, but about famine relief for Christians in Jerusalem.  Billy refuses the correction, so Jack mentions it to others in the congregation, who admit that while Billy’s teaching may be “technically” wrong, his heart is in the right place, and besides that, Billy does an awful lot around here to encourage people.

 Clearly, the “more good than harm” paradigm is at work in this congregation.  Therefore, there is no indication that Billy’s error will ever be corrected.  In time, it becomes a standard doctrine of the congregation, as others will surely repeat the same error when it is their turn to speak on the subject of financial support for the local ministry.  So not only does sound doctrine go out the window, but so do the critical thinking skills necessary to discern sound from unsound doctrines.

In this way, everything shifts from the realm of rationality to that of “more good than harm” and “faith” is no longer about the actual words, promises, and commands of God, but about trying to maintain a positive balance on the good/bad scale.

Thus does:

I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me. (Psalm 101:3)

turn into something more like,

“I try to stay away from bad things when I can, but my real focus is on trying to have more good than bad.”

Similarly, this passage:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. (Psalm 1:1)

turns into something more like this:

Blessed is the man that walketh not too much in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth too much in the way of sinners, nor sitteth too much in the seat of the scornful.

And passages like this one:

Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. (2 John 9)

turn into something more like this:

Whosoever transgresseth not too much, and abideth more often than not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. But he that abideth enough in the doctrine of Christ, that such abidance outweigheth his transgression and errors of doctrine, he hath both the Father and the Son.

You can see from just these few passages why I believe as I do, but I will try to get to this study sooner than later, just to be sure I’m not missing something here.  Could it be that verses like the following will show just cause to change my mind? (emphasis added):

Ecclesiastes 7:16 Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself ? 17Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? 18It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.

What shall we make of Solomon’s musings here?  He who was, by his own example, exceedingly worldly and compromised in several ways—how shall we take him as a preacher?  Are we supposed to take this saying as true because it is “in the Bible”?  Or are we supposed to reject it as false because, hey, look who wrote it?!

We are not told.

I can’t wait to get deeply into this to see just what quantity, strength, and type of support each of these two paradigms might find in scripture.




Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.