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Do I Offend You?


As I’m growing older, I notice that I seem to offend more Christian people as my views shift away from the status quo of the Evangelical tradition I’ve always adhered to.

This is not something I’ve aspired to, and I haven’t changed my core belief system very much at all. I know, also that I need a lot of humility to disagree with my friends’ established beliefs.

However, with more information, I’ve grown more socially aware, and see the world in a more nuanced way than I used to, having been exposed to only black and white thinking for most of my younger years. In my Christian world there was a right and a wrong way to think and live.

Beginning from the time I was four years old, each Sunday afternoon I would travel on the train by myself to stay with my very conservative Wesleyan Methodist Pastor Uncle and his wife in the city, so my mother could go to her teaching job in a distant town.

While there, I wore long stockings, long dresses, long hair and was told that bowling, card playing, and other forms of entertainment were sins.

Returning home on the weekends, I was allowed to wear shorts and sun dresses,  listen to Hop-a-Long  Cassidy on the radio, and do whatever I wanted to do. Mom even got my hair cut in a stylish bob! I don’t remember this being confusing at all. I accepted both lifestyles as do-able, and easily switched without whining as far as I can remember.

But, I remember learning to reserve judgment, even at that young age, and not wanting to jump on anyone’s “bandwagon”, which probably saved me from selling out my deeply held faith to follow any flashy leaders, or even doctrinal fads.

I remember at one “camp meeting/revival” children’s meeting, a preacher stood up in front of a room full of children preaching about the evils of wearing  gold jewelry!  A collection plate was passed around for all the children to put their gold into! (This really did happen). My mom had bought me a little gold birthstone ring for my birthday that year, and I don’t remember struggling very much as I passed that plate right along the row, keeping my ring intact on my finger! I do remember thinking, “that preacher has gold on his glasses, but he’s telling us that gold is sinful! Something’s not right!”  The proper grown-up words would have been: Hypocrite, Charlatan, Manipulator, Thief!  I remember telling Mom about it later, and she praised me!

I’ve continued reading the Bible in many different versions and as I’ve grown older, just kept limping along, through depression and lots of failures, to fold it into my daily life. I believe God changes me by association.

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved interacting with people! Selling magazines and other products for school, telling people about what God did in our families’ adventurous life, my discovery that I was almost aborted! For a few dark years, my voice was silenced by depression. I’ve rebounded by a wonderful touch from God.

I’ve found my voice again, only now, I’m speaking about subjects that a lot of Evangelicals aren’t comfortable hearing about: Palestine, Racism, Politics that aren’t just Conservative.

That’s why I was drawn to this recent article in Denis Haack’s blog, “Critique”, titled, “Christians Who Get Offended”.

I, who along with my cousins, used to run into the house to change from jeans into a skirt when our Uncle arrived so we wouldn’t offend him. I, who didn’t speak out when our son was racially mocked by teachers and students, because it didn’t occur to me, until, sadly late.

As I’ve received more information, and God’s help, I’ve got my voice back!


Christians who get offended

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

I realize this is a generality, with all the pitfalls that entails, but it seems to me that many Christians are easily offended. Someone does something they don’t like or approve of, and they withdraw or criticize or react in some way to express their displeasure. Now, if the offended person is a believer whose faith is tenuous and weak, beset with doubts about to slide into unbelief, we should give up our freedom for their sake. That’s easy. But what if the offended party is a strong believer who simply disapproves of what you are doing? They don’t watch R-rated films, and think you shouldn’t either. They don’t smoke and are convinced it’s a sin if you share a cigar with a group of friends. Or whatever.
In other words, how should those who are strong in the faith respond not to weak believers, but to those whose offense is a matter of taste, or social etiquette, or cultural preference, or misguided doctrine, or some legalistic standard?
At stake here is not the possibility of someone weak in faith being turned away from the faith, but rather the possibility of someone being offended by another believer’s behavior and then using their “offense” to disapprove, and control another’s expression of freedom. This is the situation I faced in a lecture I gave at the conference where people walked out, offended that I showed film clips. Their faith in Christ was in no danger of toppling. They would probably have been offended if such a possibility was suggested. Instead, they were offended by my freedom and wanted their sense of offense to set the limits of freedom for everyone at the conference.
John Calvin solves this issue by distinguishing two types of offense.
If you do anything with unseemly levity, or wantonness, or rashness, out of its proper order or place, so as to cause the ignorant and the simple to stumble, such will be called an offense given by you, since by your fault it came about that this sort of offense arose. And, to be sure, one speaks of an offense as given in some matter when its fault arises from the doer of the thing itself. An offense is spoken of as received when something, otherwise not wickedly or unseasonably committed, is by ill will or malicious intent of mind wrenched into occasion for offense. Here is no ‘given’ offense, but those wicked interpreters baselessly so understand it. None but the weak is made to stumble by the first kind of offense, but the second gives offense to persons of bitter disposition and pharisaical pride. Accordingly, we shall call the one the offense of the weak, the other that of the Pharisees. Thus we shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all! [Institutes, III.19.11, p. 843].
In Calvin’s understanding, then, it is possible for a Christian to offend another person without needing to be troubled by that fact. The real problem, according to the Scriptures is not the action that caused the offense, but the state of the heart of the believer that registered the offense. The question to be asked is not whether someone was offended, but whether someone was stumbled in their faith. If the person involved is weak in faith, then we should be concerned, if they are strong and merely put off by our actions, we need not be too concerned. Love does not require forgoing one’s liberty to please others (who are strong in faith but offended), but instead requires that we serve the other person (who is weak) so that their faith is not undermined.
To illustrate this biblical teaching, Calvin reflects on the controversy between Jesus and some Pharisees in Matthew 15.
We learn from the Lord’s words how much we ought to regard the offense of the Pharisees: He bids us let them alone because they are blind leaders of the blind (Matt. 15:14). His disciples had warned him that the Pharisees had been offended by his talk (Matt. 15:12). He answered that they were to be ignored and their offense disregarded [Institutes, III.19.11, p. 844].
Can you see how freeing this is? Instead of being held captive to the emotional reactions of Christians who want everyone to conform to their personal standards, we are free in Christ to ignore and disregard what is little more than a power play on their part.
Another biblical example arises in Calvin’s commentary on Luke 11:37-41. Jesus is at table with a group of Pharisees, but did not wash according to tradition before the meal. This did not escape the Pharisees’ notice, yet Christ neither apologizes nor washes to make up for the offense, but instead rebukes them. “Christ is fully aware that his neglect of this ceremony will give offense,” Calvin says, “but he declines to observe it.” Christ has made us free, and this freedom, according to Scripture allows us—actually if we want to be like Christ it requires us—to disregard what Calvin terms “Pharisaical offense,” when strong Christians claim they are offended and want us to conform to their preferences. What they are doing via their offense and reaction is merely propagating legalism.
[Note: I address this issue in much greater detail in Critique #1-2011.]
[Street scene photo thanks to ImageShack (http://img296.imageshack.us/i/00919829mt1.jpg/sr=1)%5D

2 Responses

  1. It’s worth pondering, and always so useful to consider ourselves and our own logs/motes…etc.
    While we’re on Sabbatical, Jon has enjoyed attending the Episcopal church which is where he grew up and now practices the organ.
    However, I’m soooo not liturgical.
    I’ve been invited to a Presbyterian USA church which I’ll try this week (just for fun!)
    The little PCA church we tried was made up of older people only.
    Nothing’s perfect..
    Except in our imagination!
    Hi to Mark.

  2. I’m in the same boat, I think. As far as I know, Mark and I are the only ones in our area who have had so much trouble finding a church home we could live in…

    I wonder, though, whether we are defining “weak” too narrowly… those who seem strong but take offense, might they really be weak in a different way?

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