In days gone by, there was a certain element of authority associated with the printed word. It took significant investment to print books, newspapers, and other publications, and there was an expectation that publishers took the time to protect their investment. Most printed content had been proofread and reviewed before it went to press, and even authors were carefully selected and vetted. To print a million copies of a book that wouldn’t sell (or that would need to be reprinted for gross errors) represented a financial liability.
That was then, though. Today, anyone with a good computer printer, or within distance of a print shop, can churn out well-formatted type, even if the content is completely wrong. Glossy promotional material can have overt typos and grammar errors, and neatly-printed materials can be telling outright lies. While I’m sure that some of this occurred in the days when printing was less accessible, there are times when not everything that comes out of our brains should be recorded in print.
On the other hand, really great messages can be lost because of presentation. A brilliant technical principle can be missed because it was printed in a difficult-to-read font. Important information can be lost because a chart or graph fails to illustrate the underlying message that the data suggests.
Along these lines, much could be said (and, in fact, it has been) about the accuracy of the Bible, and how God intervened to bring His Word together for generations of us that He wanted to reach out to. However, take a look at the following verses, from the missionary Paul. He was traveling among churches, sometimes carrying gifts from one to another:
We are traveling together to guard against any criticism for the way we are handling this generous gift. We are careful to be honorable before the Lord, but we also want everyone else to see that we are honorable.
2 Corinthians 8:20-21 NLT
It was important for Paul to have integrity. Paul knew that God was watching Him, and that God expected him to do the right thing, regardless of what other people saw or thought. However, Paul took the extra steps of visibly being beyond reproach, as he served as a messenger on behalf of others.
Note that, in this example, accountability and demonstration of integrity was not the same thing as showing off. Those who delivered this gift weren’t drawing attention to themselves by bringing others along. It sounds to me like they wanted to make sure that no one could accuse them of siphoning off funds for themselves. And, I suspect that Paul wasn’t as concerned about what people thought of him as an individual, but his lifestyle suggested that the credibility of his message about Jesus was important to him. If Paul acted in ways to raise suspicions of dishonesty, that would work against this goal of explaining the truth about Jesus to others.
Sometimes, like Paul, we may be called upon to take extra steps to protect not only our own good name, but also the name of Jesus.
For instance, some men will avoid having lunch or otherwise being alone with a woman who is not their wife (or a relative). I’m not saying that this is a command that everyone must follow, but there are times when we must sacrifice convenience or personal preferences not only to do the right thing, but also to make it clear that followers of Jesus try to obey Him.
There is also an element where certain actions in certain circumstances – even if not inherently sinful – might be perceived by another follower of Jesus in the wrong way, and tempt them to fall into sin (which we should help them to avoid).
But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble.
1 Corinthians 8:9 NLT
A church may have a completely honest accountant, but an annual audit will dispel doubt. A follower of Jesus can tell the truth, but also bring evidence to support it. A Christian co-worker may have a pure heart, but still keep the office blinds open when meeting one-on-one with others.
So, know that God judges you by your heart, and not your appearances. You are not required to convince everyone else of your sincerity, since they can always choose to doubt the condition of your heart (despite the evidence that your life provides).
However, in addition to living for Jesus transparently, there may be times for you to live even more carefully than the “minimum righteous level”, in order to not give people the wrong impression about what it means to follow Jesus. The goal is not for you to come across as excessively pious, but instead to bring more people into mature discipleship as they also follow Jesus.