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)]