The Worst Kind of Offence in an “I’m Offended” Culture
George Gillespie (1613 – 1648) ministered in Fife and Edinburgh and was one of the main Scottish theologians at the Westminster Assembly. He wrote several important publications in support of Presbyterian church government.
1 Jun, 2018

“I’m offended” rhetoric seems to have great power in our culture. Never perhaps was a generation more concerned about offence. From speakers on university campuses to boycotts to cultural appropriation – being offended is very prominent. It goes beyond offended feelings and displeasure. Rightly or wrongly, there is evidently something akin to moral outrage behind it. Certain politically correct values are being elevated as the standard to which people must conform. Of course this is a mere human standard. But do we know what offence really is as the Bible defines it?

In the Bible offence not the same as making someone displeased. Rather it is something that causes them to stumble in their spiritual progress or offend against God’s Word. We can do this without meaning to do it. It also happens when we do and say the right things in the wrong way or at the wrong time and so turn people against what is right. Scripture deals with this matter in the most serious way possible. In his comprehensive treatment of the subject, James Durham says the following about making others offend or stumbling them:

  • there is no sin that has more woes pronounced against it. The Lord himself denounces and doubles a woe against making others offend (Mathew 18:7), and the Apostle confirms it (Romans 14:20);
  • there is no duty more commanded. Durham notes that whole chapters are devoted to avoiding stumbling others (e.g. Romans 14, Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 8, Matthew 18);
  • there are no worse consequences than those connected with it. Durham notes that it brings: woe to the world; destruction to many souls (Romans 14:20); reproach upon the profession of Christianity; cools love among brethren, begets and fosters contention and strife; mars the progress of the gospel; and, in a word, makes iniquity to abound, and often ushers in error into the church.
  • there is nothing more damaging to the fellowship of believers. Fellowship suffers if we are not sensitive to what edifies and hinders edification in others (Romans 14:10,15 and 21). Spiritual admonition and conversation and prayer together will lack the right spirit and blessing without such sensitivity.
  • there is nothing hardens us more and makes us more inclined to sin. It hardens us by making the conscience less sensitive to conviction. The more we are in the habit of disregarding others in general the less we are restrained from doing that which is actually sinful.
  • there is nothing that damages the success of the gospel more. Carelessness in this brings reproach on profession of the gospel. Sensitivity in this greatly adorns the gospel, however.

Careful reflection on the many ways Scripture deals with this issue will reveal that these conclusions are accurate. The worst kind of offence that takes place in our society is all too serious. We are speaking about offence as the Bible defines it and we are all guilty in this.

George Gillespie describes as briefly as possible the various dimensions of the biblical principle of not causing others to offend against God’s Word.


1.What is Offence According to the Bible?

Offence is not grieving or displeasing my brother. It may be that when I grieve or displease him, I actually edify him. But edification and offence are not compatible (Romans 15:1-2). Offence is a word or action which is or which may be, the occasion of another person’s halting, falling or swerving from the straight way of righteousness.


2. When is Offence Sinful?

There are different ways that this can happen:

(a) when offence is given and not taken. It is sinful to give anything which would be the occasion of stumbling, even though he does not actually stumble;

(b) when it is taken and not given. It is sinful to take offence if there is no lawful reason for it; and

(c) when it is both taken and given, here there is sin on both sides. It is sinful to stumble someone else and it is sinful for them to fall from the right way.


3. What if We Don’t Intend to Make Someone Offend?

It is not only a word or action in which we intend the fall of our brother but also a word or action which in its nature would lead them to sin. For example, when someone publicly commits a sin or that which has the appearance of sin (John 16:2).  A man may stay away from public worship intending to employ his studies all during that time for writing things for the good of the Church. He intends to edify but stumbles others because the action leads them to sin (1 John 2:10).


4. How Does it Make Someone Sin?

If it is in something lawful (but others do not think it is lawful) then it makes our brother condemn our lawful action. By our example he may be activated to what his conscience condemns. In both cases sin results. If it is in an unlawful thing then it is also sinful.

The following sinful effects may result:
(a) Our brother may be made to fall into outward sin; or,
(b) He may be made to stumble in his conscience and call in question the way of truth; or,
(c) It may make him halt or weaken his full assurance; or,
(d) It may hinder his growth and going forward, and make him (though not fall, stumble, or halt) to have a smaller degree of progress; or,
(e) Through the nature of the action, occasion is given him to sin in any one of these ways.


5. When is it Wrong to be Offended?

It is wrong to be offended at someone else for making use of a lawful thing (Romans 14:3). If I do not know about their weakness and their taking offence the offence is only taken by them and not given by me. Though there is weakness through ignorance here, it is still sinful. Their weakness and ignorance is a fault and does not excuse them.


6. Can Something Make Others Offend Even if it Did Not at First?

Gideon’s ephod (Judges 8:27) and the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:9 and 2 Kings 18:4) were monuments of God’s mercies, they were neither evil nor appearances of evil. It was wrong for the people to be drawn into the sin of idolatry with them but keeping and retaining them after this happened would give occasion for this.


7. We Must Avoid Anything that Creates Offence

We should avoid anything from which other people take offence  It does not matter if it is indifferent or lawful in itself (1 Corinthians 8:13). It does not matter if any human authority commands us to do it.

We cannot, however, avoid necessary things such as the hearing of the word, prayer, etc because of offence taken at them. We cannot abstain from these even though the whole world would be offended at us (Matthew 15:12).

We are only blameless of making others offend if the action is not evil in itself, not done in an unreasonable and excessive way and not done with the appearance of evil.


8. We Must Not Make Anyone Offend

We must not stumble those who are malicious any more than we can the weak. Therefore we must abstain from all things that are not necessary for the sake of avoiding offence to either. Someone who is offended through malice commits a greater sin than the one offended through weakness. Nevertheless, we ought to do good to all men, but especially those of the household of faith (1 Corinthians 10:32).

Find out more about George Gillespie and read other articles featuring his work.


How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

What Does it Mean to Have a Fulfilling Life?

Everyone is pursuing fulfilment but what does that mean? James Fergusson identifies the necessary aspects of a fulfilling life as defined by God.

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?

James Durham explains the different ways we can be impacted by the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy.

The Irreconcilable Instincts of the Human Heart

Politics makes for a poor functional saviour. James Fergusson gets to the heart of the war on sin.

Recovering True Empathy in a Fractured World

Empathy seems to be in serious decline today. James Fergusson shows how the apostle Paul highlights the need for true empathy.

How Far Should Reformation Go?

Reformation is not merely an event in the past; it is a present imperative.

How Does Faith Help Love?

This question matters a lot; especially if your love has grown colder. Faith works by love but how does love work by faith? To love God is to know and trust Him. How does deepening our faith influence the strength of love?

The Christian’s Spiritual Dress Code

There is something that should be worn by every Christian. It identifies them. We’re not talking about fashions and uniforms–the garment is humility. Are you wearing it?

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Technology has had a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. But it’s more than a social problem, because the Bible gives considerable emphasis to face-to-face communication.


Is There a False Religion in Your Home?

Covetousness rebranded itself. Consumerism has become a world view where choice and freedom are the absolutes. Some wisdom from James Fergusson exposes the idolatry.

Helping Your Child Not to Become an Atheist

“Do as I say, not as I do!” Not a good enough maxim for Christians parents, says James Fergusson.

A Family Day…of Worship

James Durham shows how the Lord’s Day provides a golden opportunity for parents to orient their family towards eternal realities.

What’s Missing from Your Home?

The most important interaction is increasingly missing from many Christian homes–interacting about spiritual things.

Are Evangelicals Redefining Marriage?

Biblical marriage is not fully intact amongst evangelicals just because they oppose same-sex marriage. A more subtle and less publicised redefinition of marriage is prevailing in society: where do we stand?

No to the Named Person Scheme But Yes to What?

Matthew Vogan explains the three positive values our society has lost to arrive at this extent of State interference.

How to Define Not Redefine Marriage

Marriage has been redefined–will it be redefined further. How do we know that group marriage is wrong?


How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

Does Church Discipline Matter?

If it matters to Christ, shouldn’t that make us think?

The Headship of Christ in His Church in China

What we see in Chinese now is what we saw in Scotland then.

Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace

Christian growth? Church growth? The Westminster Standards offer a different perspective on what really works.

Christ’s Intercession Answers Your Fears About the Church

We have genuine, justified fears for the Church. What can we do? Our answer is in looking beyond confidence in our own activities to the activity that is taking place in heaven.

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfil its commission to make spiritually mature disciples.

Uncovering the Secrets of Christ’s Kingdom

Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual Kingdom not of this world, so those who are of this world find it incomprehensible. Alexander Henderson explained the necessary duty to study the nature and search into the mysteries and secrets of this kingdom.

What Should We Do if God is Hiding His Face?

When God hides His face there is a lack of His presence and blessing in the life of the Church. Why would God do this? And if this is the case, is there anything we can do? Consider what Jame Renwick has to say.

What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?

We forget vital things about God, His Church and His promises when we forget Church history. We need to make use of it to inform, encourage and steel ourselves for serving God in our own generation.