by Emily Ralph Servant, Leadership Minister
My toddlers copy everything I do. If I splash water on my daughter’s head, pick flowers, or spit food onto my plate, so do they.
They don’t know that I’m trying to get sand out of their hair, removing dead blooms, or spitting out spoiled food. They just do what Mommy does! And they should—it’s an important part of child development.
Even as adults we continue taking our cues from the people around us, some of us more than others. The threshold model of collective behavior suggests that people with high thresholds will change their behavior if they see a lot of other people doing something, even if they think it’s wrong, while people with low thresholds will do what they want, regardless of what others are doing.
The Apostle Paul seems to encourage Jesus-followers to be low-threshold people: don’t give in to the peer pressure of the world but stand strong and let your mind and behavior be shaped by God’s way of living (Romans 12:2). Do the right thing, no matter what anyone else is doing.
At the same time, in 1 Corinthians Paul also seems to encourage Jesus-followers to be a force of change in society by using peer pressure itself. Knowing that many people will look to see what everyone else is doing, Paul reminded the early Church to be a good example for those around them: yes, you are free, Paul declares, but use your freedom wisely (9:10); don’t just think about yourself but think about others (10:24).
Since I know my toddlers are watching, sometimes I need to modify my behavior. I shouldn’t drag a chair into the kitchen to get things off the top shelf while they’re in the room. I shouldn’t climb over the deck railing to pick something off the ground. I have every right to do those things and I don’t modify my behavior because I’m smarter or better than them. I do it because I know I influence them, and I love them too much to risk their safety for my rights.
We face a similar situation in our contexts today. Yes, we have a right to worship together in our buildings. We have a right to not wear masks, to give hugs, to have Bible studies or pool parties. But maybe someone else isn’t as ready to meet their Maker as we are. Maybe someone else isn’t as mindful of keeping a safe distance or doesn’t have as strong an immune system.
Maybe someone else is more likely to do something if they see everyone else doing it, even if it wouldn’t be safe for them. Maybe they’d feel silly if they were the only one not going, the only one not wearing a mask, the only one who seems to be afraid, the only one who seems to be less confident in the Spirit’s protection.
We indeed have rights, Paul acknowledges, but not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Corinthians 10:23). Don’t let anything you do “hinder the gospel” (9:12). You don’t have to win everyone, he says; Paul was willing to give up his rights if it might even save some (9:22).
Paul summed it up simply: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble—whether outside or inside of the church. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:32-33, NIV adapted).