Great question! (would I write that even if I thought it wasn’t? You be the judge.)
This is a difficult tension that must be solved for the mature: what does it mean to care about the perceptions of others? What is too much, what is too little?
There is, of course, no Scripture that directly relates to what are asking (and you referenced this in the part of your email that I cut.). Reno 911 isn’t in the Bible. You clearly framed this question to be about perception and not personal purity, so that’s the way I’m taking it.
BTW, One thing that’s particularly sad among Christians is when they answer this tension and then force and judge it upon others.
Additionally, there is no wisdom that also answers this question conclusively either. (For example, you don’t need a Bible verse to tell you not to jump off a three story building.)
Therefore, we are talking about a matter of the conscience, the kind of thing found in Romans 14 and 15 (and Philippians 3:15-16) . This freedom is a great fear to all legalists near and far. Control is wrested from their incapable hands and placed within the heart of the individual.
“BUT I KNOW how God will judge them! It feels so right to me!”
It is easy for the shallow to answer quickly and avoid this silent struggle of the soul. Consider this: Should you make your HEDGES too close, you run the risk of Peter who drew back from the Gentiles. In doing so he limited his influence and earned Paul’s rebuke. The opposite danger is there, I’m sure there’s a NT example of this, but none come to mind. (remember I’m not talking about purity, but perception)
So we are talking about a disputable matter. What keeps us from some form of relativism that I’m not smart enough to name particularly? Several Scriptures form the boundaries of the sandbox we get to play in.
I find Romans 14 and 15 to be a tremendous help in these areas. We are accountable to God, not to other people. Our accountability to other people comes in two lesser forms, the accountability that helps our spirituality, and the accountability that is required for the trust that a leader needs to lead.
Now the overseer must be above reproach (1 Ti. 3:2)
A leader in the church must be trustworthy and creditable. Without trust there is no biblical leadership. It’s hard to follow someone when you think they are sinning…you may be wrong, but you rarely think you are. Perception and assumption trump grace every time. When I do something I think is fine, but you think is evil, I lose.
BTW I used to think Rom 14:16 was about convincing others that your way was the truth, but that never fit the context. What is clear to me now is that we refrain so the weak doesn’t have cause to speak evil of what I consider to be good.
Who’s reproach are we avoiding? 1 Th 5:22 offers little help in discovering the balance: Avoid every kind of evil.
There is the unity of the Spirit, and unity of the faith. Look these up, they aren’t the same. All believers share the first, and in Heaven we’ll have the second. We are all a bundle of strengths and weaknesses that form a unique DNA for how we think and live and understand God. Because we have different weaknesses, what causes one person to stumble is easily conquered by another. Hearing cusswords in a movie doesn’t make me think or say more cusswords. (I could explain why, but that would make this long post even longer)
We must work to maintain peace, and not destroy one another because of our knowledge. The strong must take up limits so the weak do not loose trust and faith in the strong. This is why Paul became like a fool to some. While Paul was all things to all people, he wasn’t doing this to all of the people all of the time. That’s not possible.
The perceptions of others is a tricky thing. Paul said he wasn’t pleasing people, but God. Yet clearly he cared enough about some fools to become like them. Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, and we see this as a badge. But what about the people who said this about Jesus? Jesus wasn’t above reproach in their eyes, he didn’t avoid every kind of evil. The spoke evil of what he considered good.
I think it’s best to consider the perceptions and assumptions of the people you’re trying to reach, and conform to the world around you (assuming you maintain purity). Smoking in my context isn’t good. Smoking in many other places around the world isn’t an issue.
However, we are in the world, not of the world. We do not sin to reach the sinners. (although we often act as if this is true by saying that addicts are the best at ministering to addicts. Don’t narrow the comfort of God described in 2Cor…. That’s another day). As ambassadors of Christ, we are living in a strange land, but still hold to the customs of Heaven.
Walk slowly, meaning be deliberate with your decisions. Maintain your purity (which this answer isn’t about) and be sensitive to the perceptions of others. You’ll never be able to please everyone, but are you avoiding evil in the eyes of those you’re sent to?