The Worst Kind of Offence in an “I’m Offended” Culture

“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).

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Second Reformation Author: George Gillespie

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