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 (]

This entry was posted at Monday, December 27, 2010 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


I just recently had a long conversation with my sister Priscilla about this, her trying to point out this very same thing to me. Thank you for the further insight. One thing that still troubles me is, whether it is worth going to the trouble of making an effort to practice your freedom outside of your brother's knowledge so as not to cause them to sin by being angry with you in their hearts. I also think it is easy to feel cocky about your freedom, and then feel superior to those who aren't as "enlightened" as yourself. Being naturally inclined to be a people pleaser, I wonder if my concerns are just a reflection of that and something I should more or less disregard. And maybe I should just read the Critique article. :)

December 27, 2010 at 12:29 PM

So very glad I didn't contradict Priscilla.

You raise a very good question. In general I would say No, don't make that effort. The reason is that we are not responsible for the sins our Christian brothers and sisters commit in their hearts. The exception, of course, is when our freedom isn't worth the problems the offended person produces. We are to live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends on us (Hebrews 12:14), and some trouble simply isn't worth the effort.

And you make an excellent point about the possibility of being cocky about all this. Not a good thing.

Thanks for commenting.

December 27, 2010 at 12:38 PM

This is a distinction that needs to be continually made as we discuss stronger-weaker brother issues. It makes me think of a couple of things:

1) I wonder what things might, in our time and context, be something detrimental to one's faith to cause actual stumbling. Do you have thoughts on current examples of such "stumbling" in faith?

2) These relational dynamics, as applied to your example of "offense," make me think about how Jesus responded to Peter's question regarding John (John 21.19-23).

I know that John is writing with specific intention, but I think Christians need to embrace this type of principle more often, that Jesus is dealing with you, as you; and he is dealing with me, as me.

C.S. Lewis captures this dynamic, at times, with interaction between Aslan and the children. Perhaps I am rambling now. Thanks for the post.

December 27, 2010 at 9:58 PM

I agree--the distinction is vital, but in my experience is rarely made when the topic of offense is raised.

You raise an excellent question in #1. Most of the issues that I hear being raised are the issues of a by-gone age. Things like going to R-rated films or the like. I suspect that some things may arise (like eating pork or writing in one's Bible) when devout Muslims come to faith, but that is a guess on my part. The only thing I've been aware of personally, with weaker Christians I know personally, is how we speak of topics like hell, God's wrath, God's law, and eternal punishment. It is not that they need to be hidden or ignored, but they need to be talked about within a context sensitive to topics that previously could be assumed (e.g., the cost of forgiveness, the nature of law as an expression of God's love, hell as the ultimate expression of one's idolatry, etc.) When new believers come out of our "tolerant" age, they often assume judgment is always judgmental rather than just. I suggest they read Tim Keller on hell, rather than Jonathan Edward's classic, "Sinner in the Hands." It's not that I believe the latter is incorrect, but it is expressed without the context of truth they need, and without that context such sentiments can raise specters of disbelief.

Your second point is excellent, and very much to the point. I didn't mention that in my (longer) article on this topic, but probably should have. We often forget that teaching, to our detriment. Thank you for bringing it into the conversation.


December 28, 2010 at 9:02 AM

A good question, and more important, a good distinction.
It seems like the answer is in the post. Jesus did not submit to the whims of the Pharisees. He submitted to the Lord. period.
So what do I do? Well, usually I react in the wrong way; a nervous laugh, and a "really?" it's all in the tone. Sometimes I walk away questioning myself. When necessary, I communicate that clearly we have a different interpretation of Scripture, and that I answer to God, and not to man. This is communicated as gently as possible, because the intention is not to humiliate or cause strife, but to agree to disagree.
The thing is, often, we are not in a position to communicate with those whom we have allegedly offended, for it has been my experience that many who are so easily offended, are offended at a distance. I believe they find a certain safety in that distance.
And as rightfully noted, I am long past feeling "superior" in my freedom, but have been in that circle so to speak. What is more important than any liberty we may have as a believer is the fact that without Him, no liberty would be worth while at all.

December 28, 2010 at 11:08 AM

I forgot to say....I love Donna Noble/Catherine Tate.

December 28, 2010 at 12:59 PM

Your point that most Christians get offended "at a distance" is a good one. It's a sad reality. It does not allow the breach to be mended, and their remaining at a distance is forbidden in Scripture. (We are commanded that when offended we are to talk to the person, not stay away.) It is surprising to me that so many who claim a high view of Scripture fail to do what it says in texts that are not difficult to interpret.
Thanks for commenting.

December 28, 2010 at 5:13 PM

Forewarning: I disagree with you. Ok, grab your Guinness and read on (and if you figure out why it has a widget in it, please inform me).
I see again that you seem to find offense as offensive, unless I'm entirely misunderstanding what you're saying. A person's "offense" at your lecture may not be a sin. The questions I would pose to you:
1 - Do you know every person on an intimate basis and know without question that they are strong in all areas? Perhaps at least some of them were actively pointing out the fact that we react most strongly to those things that are consistently a temptation to us. I call to mind those spiritual leaders across North America who have been most outspoken against certain sins even while persistently yielding to that sin; and hating themselves because of it. Some of the people at your presentation may have had to leave, and that is not an insult to them. Kudos to them for resisting temptation! Were they angry? Anger is sometimes a ruse for feeling vulnerable or hurt. Considering that most of the human race above the age of 12 has their brain firmly planted between their abdomen and their thighs, perhaps you need not be offended that spiritual leaders protected themselves from themselves. It's sometimes wise to give our temptations a wide berth.
2 - Is the context of R-rated material(for lack of a better term) for the purpose of entertainment or something even mildly nobler; say, kingdom advancement? Because of your sitzen leben, you frequently refer to R-rated movies. I will wholeheartedly agree that Jesus hung out with scantily clad women. I would spit nails if you once made the assumption that He did so for His own entertainment. (Hey, I'm in good company with Someone Who occassionally got hot under the collar. I hope I do it for the right reasons.) How is viewing an R-rated movie a high priority in promoting all things good? I, for one, cannot and will not. I don't care to test my "superior spirituality" as you seem to have by viewing passionate sex scenes. On the other hand, will I prayerfully attend a party where I know I'll see less than holy attire? (Ok, that's an understatement.) Absolutely! I have recently and hope to soon again. Is this an option for everyone? I'm not sure whether to shudder or guffaw at that question as I mentally picture my brothers and sisters in our church. I will not ask "Dr. Theologian" in my church to join me at one of these parties. It would haunt him for years. I will go, praying for every person at the party, actively looking for opportunities to live... and speak ... the truth. (Rest assured, though, I don't bring a spiritual plunger.) Will I include the act of sex in my entertainment? Not willingly (see point one).
3 - What is your underlying attitude toward your family in Christ? I often hear criticism of us. Frankly, that concerns me... and it hurts. Do you consider it a privilege to be counted with those who belong to Jesus? Granted, every one of us has room to grow. I would venture a guess that perhaps you do, too. I will have to strongly disagree with your underlying assumption that everyone who walked out was in the wrong because they disagreed with your approach. I would have had to walk out. By very simple logic, I am in the wrong according to you. God knows my heart, and He knows theirs. Do you?

December 28, 2010 at 5:14 PM

I've been watching Dr Who episodes with my granddaughter this week during her annual visit, and was delighted to find this image--fit my topic and reminds me of my pleasant hours with Manessah.
Glad someone noticed.

December 28, 2010 at 5:17 PM

No problem, with or without a Guinness—civil conversation between people who disagree can sharpen thinking, correct misunderstandings, and uncover wrong ideas. On to your points:

1. I do not know the people who walked out, but only what they said to the conference director. They walked out, they said, because they were convinced I was wrong to use film clips in my lecture. They were never going to return to the (annual) conference and would use their influence to discourage others from attending because no Christian should be exposed to clips from movies.

2. As always when I use film clips in lectures, I was careful to use only clips that contained no bad language, violence, nudity, or sexuality. In fact if memory serves none of the clips (at that particular conference) were even from a R-rated film. My mention of R-rated films in my blog was carefully worded: “They don’t watch R-rated films, and think you shouldn’t either.” Both clauses in this sentence are needed to understand my point. I have no problem with you, or anyone else refusing to watch R-rated films. When someone insists, on the other hand, that I and everyone else shouldn’t either, we have moved from personal conviction to the propagation of legalism—and that is always wrong.

2. Though film, like most good art is entertaining, it is also far more than that. May I suggest you read Imagine by Steve Turner or Eyes Wide Open by William Romanowski to gain a biblical understanding of art. Then see how John Frame addresses these specific issues (nudity, etc., in film) in his The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Your perspective is so narrow, I’m afraid, that you confuse some basic assumptions that draw you to incorrect conclusions.

3. The Reformers said, correctly I believe, that the church should be reformed and always reforming. If I criticize the church it is because I care both about my sisters and brothers and how the gospel they represent is perceived by a watching world. Where there is legalism it should be noted, and by God’s grace rooted out. I recommend you read my entire piece on this topic since I touch on this. If you walked out of my talk I would never have imagined that you were wrong in doing so. Nor do I think the folk that walked out of that lecture were wrong. When people assert, on the other hand, that the use of film clips in a lecture at a conference is sinful, that it opens a door to evil, and that all Christians must abide by this standard, you must accept that at that point I do believe wrong is being committed.

Thanks so much for your comments.

December 29, 2010 at 12:03 PM

Thank you for the explanation. I still disagree on some points, but with more clarity and understanding; and not as much as I thought I did. I would be interested in reading the suggested books, but I won't promise to agree with them, either. I do, however, give you my word that I will prayerfully read with an open mind to what God wants for my life, the life of the Church and for His kingdom. As always, I will compare the underlying principles with scripture and ask God to change my mind where needed. I regret that I haven't quite attained flawlessness. :) Dang, you noticed that; and I thought I was being so subtle.

December 29, 2010 at 2:18 PM
Global Saint  

Just a thought, but, during the "offense" of the Obama election the steaming kettle seems to have boiled over for many Christians.

There are so many issues now regarding Social action, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists coming to Christ, Homosexuality..Lausanne III never even touched on these issues as far as I can tell. But Westerners went away happy???

The Evangelical church better get its act together or it will become entirely irrelevant to this Globe.

A Global saint!

December 29, 2010 at 3:11 PM

Global Saint:
I am not familiar enough with Lausanne III to comment on it, but I do agree that conservative political ideology has tended to blind many American evangelicals to the true issues of justice and Christian witness that need to be addressed with biblical clarity. However, with the growth of the church in the Global South and East, I suspect the American church has already been marginalized in everything but self-awareness.

December 29, 2010 at 4:14 PM

The Great Commandment is to GO. That is Go outside the church, go make disciples. One cannot do this without doing things with or mingling with people who are not Christians. Yet by doing this, it sometimes (often?) offends people who are strict in their faith (or who, unlike Romans 14 Christians) are concerned with taking liberties. While it is common that leaders in churches have a hard time with those in their midst who GO and the associations they have as a result, those who do have any ally. "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners."(Lk 7:24) When giving 'offense' in cases such as these, the Christian with good self-esteem and a sense of purpose who dares to GO should still GO and not be overly concerned if it offends people in his or her church, but it might come with a price - alienation.

December 30, 2010 at 7:12 PM

I am not entirely certain what you are referring to, so won't say much in response. In my experience some who GO do so in a way that is zealous and unwise, others do so in the spirit of the gospel. The first may be alienated from the church as a result, but I wish they could instead be discouraged from continuing. The others, if alienated, with respond in humility.

December 31, 2010 at 5:04 PM

Speaking of offence, you might find this article interesting. This writer suggests that the problem in this case is Christian insecurity.

January 10, 2011 at 11:52 AM

Thanks for providing a link to this piece, as it certainly fits what we've been discussing here. We have no reason to be insecure as Christians, but Mohler is correct that we often exhibit it.

January 10, 2011 at 2:51 PM

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