The Offense of Being Offensive
Tim and I have had an unusual opportunity recently to travel a bit outside of New York City and so get a better sampling of the thinking going around in the Christian world. Some of it is very encouraging: more thinking about how to help the marginalized, more effort to integrate faith and work, more hope for people who would have formerly been written off as hopeless.
But we have encountered one disheartening strain of thinking on enough occasions that a certain degree of alarm seems warranted. That is, unless you are actively offending a person with the doctrines of Christianity, you aren’t preaching, teaching, or witnessing to them faithfully. In other words, offending skeptics and unbelievers with your proclamation of the good news are signs of integrity, while gentleness, humility and kindness are all indications of compromise.
1 Peter 2:12 gives us the perfect balance. When we live and speak the truth, some people will be offended and even will persecute us, and yet many others will be attracted and will glorify God because of us. If you habitually offend people or seldom offend people, you are not speaking with integrity. But the life of Jesus himself gives us some general idea of who will be offended and who will not be.
Jesus was described as gentle and meek, and when confronted with the woman taken in adultery, or the serially monogamous Samaritan woman, he was gentle in his firmness. Likewise with Matthew and Zaccheus, tax collectors and Roman collaborators (and probably thieves.) He went out of his way to woo them with kindness into the kingdom. Matthew says about Jesus that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out” (Mt 12:20) to describe how gentle and tender he was. Jesus himself said that he was “meek and lowly of heart” (Mt 11:29.) If a Christian has a reputation for being brusque, sarcastic, and frequently offensive, it’s hard to see how he or she fits this Christ-like pattern.
But when John sent to ask whether he was really the Messiah or not, he ended his message “…and blessed is he who takes no offense in me.” This was because, true enough, there were people whom Jesus DID offend. But as a general rule they were the religious leaders, the moral pillars, the self-righteous Pharisees who praised God “that they were not as sinful as other men” rather than repenting in humility before a holy God. Jesus’ harsh words are reserved mainly for the religious, not for the unbelievers and sinners. As a result, the sinners and prostitutes heard Jesus gladly (Mt 21:31-32,) because he proclaimed a gospel of grace, and those sure of their right standing with God plotted to kill him, because he exposed their hypo-crisy. Even then, Jesus died forgiving his murderers, “For they know not what they do” rather than denouncing them.
I wonder, then, at those who believe that the “Good News” ought to be proclaimed with as much finger-wagging as possible. It isn’t that believers should be unable or afraid to talk about the sinfulness of sin or the hellishness of hell, but always in the context of the Cross, where Jesus took the punishment on himself and opened the way to God for the lost. I think it is fair to say that some Christians enjoy telling people that they are lost and hell-bound. It really is an offense against the grace of God, as well as a misrepresentation of the character of Christ, to be offensive when announcing the good news. It al-most makes one wonder if they’ve heard the good news themselves, or whether they are poor elder brothers, unwilling to rejoice that sinners are being saved.
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