Over at BCC, Norbert has posted a useful clarification of the familiar language in Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Read his post for the full discussion; in brief, Norbert concludes that “the scriptural justification for giving half a damn about what the neighbors might think appears to be a dodgy translation.”
Norbert may be right about the meaning of the verse in Thessalonians; I defer to the expertise of his sources and the corroborating views in the comments. But I think his conclusion is wrong. One doesn’t have to go to Thessalonians to find scriptural justification for the idea that we ought to care what our neighbors think, that we ought to attend to the spiritual effect of our choices not only on ourselves but also on those around us. Paul spends a great deal of time and language in Romans 14 on just this idea. (Perhaps he should have spent more; the passage remains a bit confused, and, imbricated as it is with unfamiliar dietary and ritual practices of early Christian converts, the effect is somewhat obscure, at least for this reader.)
If I have descried the meaning in this chapter, the relevant verses seem to be 13-15:
Let us not therefore judge one another any more; but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself, but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
The specific question here is the claim of kosher dietary laws on Christian converts from Judaism, but the larger principle seems to be this: whether or not a behavior is forbidden (either because it is immoral or because it is merely prohibited), it is uncharitable to engage in that behavior if it will spiritually harm one’s neighbors, leading them either to sin by judging unrighteously or to engage in the behavior themselves, believing it to be forbidden. In his excellent notes on the New Testament, Kevin Barney glosses the passage thus: “Paul is saying that if we take advantage of our Christian freedom to do things which hinder the spiritual development of others, we are doing evil.”
This seems to be a case in which a double standard applies: I ought not judge my neighbors for behavior that seems to me to be evil; but I ought to behave so that my neighbors will not be tempted to judge me for behavior that seems to them to be evil. Of course, one can imagine a scenario in which one must risk the neighbors’ misunderstanding in order to avoid a larger evil, and in that case the larger evil must be avoided. But in most circumstances, both can be avoided. We should care what the neighbors think.
(By the way, New Testament scholar I am not, and many if not most readers will have both a better knowledge of this passage and a better understanding of its meaning. I invite your readings, and your gentle corrections, if necessary.)