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Ending the "Tyranny of the Offended" --
Understanding the Phrase "Give No Offense"

Copyright © 2005, 2006 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

"Tyranny of the Offended" is the condition that grips a church community when decision-making is automatically defaulted to only answers which "offend the least number of people." In the worst situations, some within the church knowingly capitalize on this fear of offending, and bend decisions to their will by alleging to be offended.

Such an approach to making decisions in the church can be chaotic and crippling. Such an approach to fellowship-building and conflict management is devastating to the congregational goals of encouragement, exhortation, and spiritual growth.

Aside from the ease with which anyone can accidentally "offend" his closest friends, it is even more disconcerting to think that some in the church are actually on the prowl, seeking to be "offended" so as to place themselves in a power position during some dispute or within some relationship. Certainly the Word commands us to "give no offense" to Jew, Greek, or even to the church itself. However, when the command is understood for what it actually says, the right to be offended not only vanishes, but so does the perceived obligation to ever again be fearful of speaking the truth in love.

Putting It All Into Proper Context

When love (which is the summation of the entire Mosaic Law and all that the prophets wrote--Matthew 7:12, Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14) is the motive behind someoneís actions they will do nothing to harm or destroy their neighbor. If by careless eating they cause another person to stumble and take offense, the righteous man will forgo meat.

I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.    For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.   Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil;  for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.   For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.   So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.   Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.  It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.   The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.   But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:14-23)

Love means taking action that is for the good and benefit of another. Love does not seek its own good. Giving offense is not loving.

Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor. Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscienceí sake; for the Earth is the Lordís and all it contains.  If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscienceí sake.   But if anyone says to you, "This is meat sacrificed to idols," do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscienceí sake;  I mean not your own conscience, but the other manís; for why is my freedom judged by anotherís conscience?  If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.   Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:24-10:33)

As tempting as it is to think that the above passages call us to pacifism and to a mousy existence so as not to be offensive in any way, it is not necessary to walk on eggshells, nor to wear soft cotton gloves (metaphorically, at least) when living or communicating with the unsaved or with other believers. Proper interpretation of Scripture will make clear both the command and the application behind "give no offense."

And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain--for He says, "At the acceptable time I listened to you, And on the day of salvation I helped you." Behold, now is "the acceptable time," behold, now is "the day of salvation"--giving no cause for offense in anything, so that the ministry will not be discredited,  but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses,  in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love,  in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left,  by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true;  as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death,  as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things. (2 Corinthians 6:1-10)

     

Definitions of being Offended

In Scripture, translated as it is from original languages, there is a standing requirement to interpret all things within the context they are written. This is especially true of translating and interpreting individual words.

Paul said in his own defense, "I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar." (Acts 25:8b)

The definition of "offense" must be driven by the context in which it is used. As Paul uses the word in Acts 25:8, it means "to miss the mark, to sin." In Paulís case, he meant that he did not sin against the Roman law nor the Mosaic Law. He committed no offenses, he did not break a law. He did not offend either the Romans or the Jews. Certainly he offended the sense of politeness of the Jews, he offended their extra-biblical traditions, and he offended their sense of indignation, but Paul did not commit an offense, a sin, against them. In that way, Paul had given no offense to the Jews. He was blameless.

Primary Definition of Offense

A primary definition of offense, as taken from the context of Paulís defense, is "to commit a sin, to break a secular or religious law." Offending the law (breaking the law) is usually considered both a sin and an offense to the people who wrote and obey the law.

Secondary Definition of Offense

A secondary definition of offense is "to be personally insulting to someoneís tradition, sense of politeness, or to cause indignation." Assuming that the speaker was truthful in his communications or actions, such an "offense" is not a sin.

Jesus insulted the sensibilities of the Scribes and Pharisees by calling them thieves, sinners, and hypocrites (Matthew 15:12). When the disciples told Him that His words were offensive to the Scribes and Pharisees, He essentially replied, "and they are heretics too, spiritually blind teachers leading blind followers" (Matthew 15:13,14).

Insults, specifically those that are the result of telling the truth, are not sins. One is not under obligation to repent of such "offenses" nor to make restitution. Certainly, one need not stop speaking the truth nor bend to the wishes of the ones offended by the perceived insult.

Tertiary Definition of Offense

Finally, when a person, through his reckless and thoughtless example, entices or emboldens another person to commit a sin, it is said that he has offended the other person. By being such a poor influence on another person, the offender has himself sinned along with the offended brother.

So the third definition of "offense" is: "by recklessly modeling behavior which another Christian thinks is sinful (regardless of whether it really is or is not) the reckless person emboldens another believer to sin against Godís Law or against their own conscience by mimicking what they observed the reckless person doing."

Two passages that explain this concept in detail are: 1 Corinthians 10 and Romans 14, from which extracts are quoted at the beginning of this article. Both drive to the same explanation of what it means to be an offense to someone else: "when an unloving person selfishly makes use of a Christian liberty in public, and by doing so, causes someone else to want to sin against their conscience by doing the same thing they observed the careless person doing."

In the course of living we tend to make use of our Christian liberties innocently (though, not always) because we know from our in depth study of Scripture that to partake of a given liberty is not a sin. But the younger believer has not yet been fully trained to understand that some liberties are not sins, so they become tempted to do something they think is evil just because someone else did it while they were watching. Such young ones in the faith must be more properly trained. Older and more mature believers need to demonstrate more compassion and more discretion when they exercise their liberties.

The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. (1 John 2:10)

but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6,7)

Jesus told us that if a young believer in Christ is caused to stumble (literally: to stumble into participating in a sin, or, offended by being enticed to sin, or ensnared into sinning) then the offender will someday find it would have been best had he never been born. Such is the serious nature of both being an offender and being one who is offended.

How does one offend (entice someone else to sin)? In the case of the Judaisers, as described in Acts 15, they told young converts to Christianity that unless they became compliant to the Law of Moses, and to circumcision, they could not be saved. This untruthful teaching caused many to violate their consciences by submitting to circumcision though they felt it was improper, and worse, probably some left the faith altogether to avoid having to adopt such constraints of the Law. Both the offenders and the offended sinned.

When this false teaching of the Judaisers became an obvious problem, the church studied the matter and debated it in public. As a result, the Holy Spirit led the church in Jerusalem to write a letter to all the Gentile churches. They advised the Gentiles to avoid all aspects of participating in demon and idol worship (their old religion), but that it was not necessary to follow the Mosaic Law. The letter described in detail what constituted active participation in idol worship and should therefore be avoided: making a sacrifice to idols, the ceremonious use of blood during idol sacrifices, ceremoniously consuming meat strangled during an idol sacrifice, and avoid sexual relations with the prostitutes found in idol temples.

When the Gentiles received this letter, they often misunderstood the meaning, as do many Christians today. They assumed that the letter meant to altogether avoid certain foods provided by idolatrous pagan butchers, instead of the true meaning of the letter: avoid being part of the idol sacrifice ceremony which included eating sacrificial meat in the temple (1 Corinthians 10:21).

In Rome, virtually all meat sold in the markets had the possibility of having been used in idol sacrifices during the butchering process, such was the rampant nature of idol worship in the city. Therefore, for those who misunderstood the Jerusalem letter to mean that all such meat was forbidden, they became vegetarians (Romans 14:2).

Still, some Roman Christians understood the meaning of the letter, and knew that eating meat from the marketplace, regardless of what others had done with the meat previously, did not make the meat "unclean" (1 Corinthians 10:30). Sadly, they ate the meat openly, without explaining to less studied believers that doing so was not active participation in an idol worship ceremony. The less mature believers, being very hungry, were emboldened to violate their consciences and ate the meat too (all the while believing it was wrong to do so), or, reverted back to their old religious practices and joined in the feast at the temple, essentially participating in the ceremony of worship to an idol. Both the offender and the offended sinned.

Paul wrote extensively in Romans 14 and in 1 Corinthians 10 that it is Christian liberty to eat meat, even meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. He also wrote that under no circumstances should Christians be publicly seen as participating in idol worship ceremonies. To do so, he advised, is sinful and unloving because the young and immature believer (who is still weak in faith) will be confused and enticed to sin. Rather than just publicly flaunt your liberty, explain the entire truth to the young ones, and then be circumspect with regard to your visible actions.

One who offends (causes others to sin) and the offended (one who is enticed to sin) are both in the wrong. They have both sinned.

Practical Implications for the Church

Should a member of the congregation raise the specter of having become "offended" for some reason, it is best to confront them directly and ask them:

In only the rarest occasions should church policy or administrative decision making be modified to accommodate an alleged "offense." Such offenses are usually raised by a person who is insulted by a change in tradition or protocol. Though such persons may be very upset on an emotional level, they need to be more properly instructed as to what "being offended" really means in the Scriptures.

Loving Speech

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, When it is in your power to do it. (Proverbs 3:27)

Being given the truth is a spiritual "good." No one should withhold the truth when it is within their power to deliver it. The truth often hurts, but withholding pain is not the definition of love, but is the very definition of hate (Proverbs 13:24; 27:5,6).

Still, we must avoid being unnecessarily caustic in our speech (Proverbs 16:21). It is a difficult balancing act with regard to truth and love. A true statement which is directed at a person and for which they develop "hurt feelings" or take it as a personally offensive insult does not imply culpability for the speaker, though it is also not license to be sharp tongued. Guilt generally lies with the recipient, the hearer who interpreted the truthful statement and decided to become emotionally and personally offended.

Persons who hear the truth are not permitted to be emotionally offended by it. For if they do "take offense" then it is a good indication they do not love the one speaking or do not value the truth of the thing stated.

A loving person does not act unbecomingly; he does not seek his own self-interest, he is not provoked to anger and does not experiences hurt feelings, he does not take personally a wrong suffered, (1 Corinthians 13:5 paraphrased)

1 Corinthians 13 is not the only passage that explains that hurt feelings are both the fault of, and the responsibility of, the hearer, not the speaker.

"A manís discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression." (Proverbs 19:11)

"Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions." (Proverbs 10:12)

"He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends." (Prov.17:9)

"Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins." (1Peter 4:8)

"not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult" (1Peter 3:9a)

If the words are true, and if they are spoken in love (love does all things with the intent of doing good to others), then the speaker need not fear whether another person feels insulted by his speech. For that feeling of insult is quite literally the hearerís problem alone. Those who prowl the church seeking to be offended by the speech of others lack more than an understanding of Scripture, they lack love. For if they loved, they would not be offended at hearing the spoken truth.

When sharing the good news of the gospel with unbelievers, unbelievers will allege to be "offended." They will express hurt feelings for being called a sinner, they will express anger at being told their religious convictions are misplaced, and they will confess to being insulted because the witness claims to be righteous before God while they are not. Such reactions are natural and are predicted by Scripture, and the one sharing the gospel has not sinned. For only the personís feeling of politeness has been offended (or perhaps his pride), which is not a true offense at all. Only when someone encourages someone else to participate in sin can it be called an "offense."

Conclusion

The believer who gives genuine offense by encouraging another believer to commit a sin has done something very wrong and therefore, must repent and make amends. Such a believer is obligated to instruct the offended believer from the pages of Scripture that the activity that led to the offense is a liberty, not a prohibited and evil deed which Godís Word outlaws. And the young believer must be instructed how to obey his conscience in the face of conflicting messages. Finally, the offending believer must offer an apology to the offended believer.

On the other hand, when a believerís sense of politeness or indignation has been offended by another believer, it is the one who experiences "hurt feelings" who is in the wrong. 1 Corinthians 13:5, along with many other passages, tell us that the loving believer is the one who does not take personal offense when her hears the truth spoken.

True offenses are those actions that entice other men to commit sins, and thereby impugn the name of Christ. Merely having feelings of being insulted and having hurt emotions are not indications of a true offense, but are knee-jerk reactions of a heart that is yet untrained in receiving truth and expressing love.

The definition of "offense" is driven by context. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10 both drive to the same meaning: "to offend is to cause someone to want to sin against their conscience by doing the same as they observed another doing."

In such circumstances, Christians usually exercise their liberties innocently (though, not always) because through Bible study they know it is not a sin. Yet the younger believer has not yet been fully trained to understand that some liberties are not sins, so they become tempted to do something they believe is evil just because they saw someone else do it. Such young ones must be more properly trained. Mature believers need to demonstrate more compassion and more love by limiting when or where they use their liberties.

A second definition of "offense" is: "to be personally insulting to someone's sense of politeness." Jesus insulted the scribes and Pharisees by calling them liars, murders, snakes. When they told Him that His words were offensive, He essentially replied, "and they are heretics too, who blindly lead the blind."

A final definition of "offense" is: "to violate a biblical command or to break a secular law." When we lie, we have committed an offense against Godís Word. When we speed, we have committed an offense against the laws of our governing authorities.

The believer who gives offense by encouraging another believer to commit a sin has done something wrong and must repent. However, the believer whose sense of politeness has been offended is the one who is in the wrong; for 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that the loving believer is the one who does not take personal offense.

Guard yourself from being a stumbling block to younger believers. Practice your liberties with discretion and be prepared to explain why liberties are not sins.

Guard your heart from "hurt feelings" and from being offended at the truth. For in such cases you demonstrate a lack of love.

A brother offended [sinned against] is harder to be won than a strong city,
And contentions are like the bars of a citadel. (Proverbs 18:19)



For additional reading on the subject of offenses and insults, you are invited to read the article: Frequently Asked Questions about Offenses and Insults Answered from the Bible.


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Page First Posted: December 31, 2005
Page Last Revised: January 8, 2006