The Risk of Offending People (Whose Rules Rule 12)
First published 2 April 2012
Should we try to avoid offending people?
This is the last part of this series and I would be surprised if I haven’t offended anyone by what I’ve been saying over the past few months. As I’ve said throughout the series, talking about morality can be unpopular in a culture that is based on the ultimate final authority of self. A detached discussion is almost impossible, since we are moral beings, when most people see themselves as ultimately in control of what defines right and wrong in their own lives.
And yet this is something that Christians are rightly very sensitive about. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,” meaning give no offense to anyone. Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1) We know we have good news to share with people, we want to share it, and offending people causes them to shut their ears and refuse to listen to it. We don’t want to judge people, because we know that we too are sinners and are only saved through God’s grace in Christ. To try to remain at peace with those around us, so that we may have opportunity to share the good news of the grace of God in Christ with them, is a very laudable aim.
So I want to make two points. First, I want both Christians and modern non-religious people to understand that simply talking about morality, saying that something is wrong, immoral, unrighteous, or sinful, is not in itself being judgmental. A judgmental attitude involves portraying ourselves as better than someone else, looking down on them. Romans 14:10 makes this clear: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Paul equates passing judgment on someone with despising them, and his reason for saying that it’s wrong is that we are all equally deserving of judgment. That ties in with something I talked about in parts 7 and 8.
That’s why I have spent such a long time trying to get across that the difference between Christian morality and non-religious morality needs to be understood. Non-religious people understand discussions about morality within their own frame of reference, and that is that all morality is relative and guided by our personal preferences. Christian morality, however, does not fit into that. We have an objective basis for our moral code.
So simply saying something is wrong is not being judgmental. Saying something is wrong in a way that despises other sinners and puts ourselves in a superior position is being judgmental, and is not speaking in the way Jesus would want us to. So we need to learn a compassionate way of speaking about morality, one that makes it clear that we are equally under the law and equally sinners, and that the reason for our talking about morality is in order to lead them into the way of salvation. We want to see them saved, we want them to have eternal joy and life, we want them to find true fulfilment. But they will not get that without recognising and repenting of their sin.
And neither can we say we are better because we have repented and turned to Jesus in faith. Faith is itself a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8,9). We are, without the work of God within our hearts, dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-7). Jesus himself said that we must be “born again” (John 3:3) in order to see the kingdom of God – in other words something must happen to us that we cannot initiate ourselves. Our salvation, as Christians, is dependent entirely on God’s grace.
If the people we speak to will listen carefully and graciously, then they may at least understand this point, even if they don’t come to accept God’s authority in all things including morality. On the other hand, it may lead them to take even greater offense.
You see – and this is my second point – even when people see clearly that we don’t judge people automatically by making moral statements about right and wrong, the Christian message may still be offensive to them. Paul talks elsewhere about, “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11).
Why would the wooden cross that was used to kill the Lord Jesus Christ be offensive? Because it demonstrates the justice of God, the kind of wrath He pours out on disobedience. It demonstrates that no one can see themselves as automatically “in” with Him, but they must go through His Son, Jesus Christ. The cross demands repentance, it demands we put our faith in someone who is genuinely better than us, genuinely greater than us. He is perfect, and yet He suffered death for our sake. But we don’t want to be told what to do, who to have faith in. We don’t want to submit to anyone. We love our sins, our sinful personal preferences. Repentance is an utterly repugnant idea to us.
We hope that people will accept our message, but we should not expect everyone to do so. Paul said of his own ministry, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) In other words, if God is working light and life within a person, He will use our words to save them. But if not, our words will be to them an offensive, deathly stench that will only push them further away.
Therefore, we should not tone down our message simply because people are offended. When people are offended we need to understand that they are feeling threatened by the very core truth of the gospel – that we are responsible to God and we have failed Him and deserve His wrath. That is actually a good thing. Without seeing that, no one would be able to understand the need for faith and repentance.
To put it another way, following the parable I gave last time, if I were to offend people by warning them that they are going the wrong way on a countryside walk, and are heading towards a cliff edge and towards certain doom, what should concern me most? The fact that those people are annoyed with me? Or the fact that they are continuing towards the edge of the cliff? What would I do? Stop talking about the fact they’re going the wrong way, because they want me to shut up? Or keep talking, finding any way possible to get them to realise that they are in danger?
So I hope we are all, by now, challenged to keep talking about morality, to base our moral statements/arguments firmly on what is in God’s Word, to use the opportunity to expose the bankruptcy of non-religious foundations of thinking, to recognise where the offense we cause is because of the truth, and to love the gospel and love our Saviour all the more.
To Jesus Christ be all the glory. Amen.