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Do Christians need to avoid offending anyone? What does Paul mean when he says to “give no offense in anything”? Jeremy Ham, AiG–U.S., explains.
Over time, many beliefs with little to no Biblical basis have crept into common Christian thinking. This web series aims to correct some of the most commonly held misconceptions about the Bible.
In this current world, offending someone seems rather easy. We probably have all offended or hurt someone's feelings, whether it was intentional or not. Is the belief that Christians should never offend anyone a biblical guideline? This supposed guideline could be a result of ideas like the following:
After close examination, we will not only find the guideline of never offending anyone to be unbiblical, but we will also find the supposed biblical ideas used to support it are unbiblical. Taking Scripture out of context to support an idea can be very easy to do, and so we must carefully examine all ideas with Scripture.
If we are defending and living the truth of God's Word, is it possible to always avoid offending a weaker brother or a non-Christian, and should that be our focus? This article explains why never offending anyone is not a biblical guideline.
Before discussing the belief that we should never offend anyone, we need to define what we mean by "offend." If we offend someone, we did something that causes a person to get vexed. While true, this definition is vague and does not give any principles on how to avoid offending someone. The best way to understand the definition of this word is to look at some examples.
One common example from Scripture of an offense is the eating of food that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul wrote the following:
Yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. (1 Corinthians 8:6–9)
We can apply the basic principle from this passage to words we say. Some Christians believe certain words should never be said while others believe they can say them. For example, what would happen if I was with a person who believed we should never say "cabbagehead," and I used it (in an edifying manner, of course)? I would have defiled that person's conscience. In other words, I would have offended that person by being a stumbling block. Based on Scripture, we need to be wary of becoming a stumbling block to others (see also Luke 17:1–4). However, some go an extra step and say we should never offend our weaker brother, but Scripture does not command this.
Another way to offend is by getting non-Christians angry not only at us but also at Christianity. For example, imagine driving and unintentionally cutting a non-Christian off in traffic. The person cut off would probably get angry. Furthermore, if the car had a Christian bumper sticker, the person might also get mad at Christianity. As Christians, we need to strive to have the utmost integrity in all areas, including driving (Titus 2:7).
In both cases, the offense was not deliberate, but unfortunately, someone was still offended. Some people use these or similar examples to support the idea that we should be careful to never offend anyone. While we should keep these biblical examples in mind to avoid offending people, God's Word does not state that we should never offend.
Some have pointed to 2 Corinthians 6:3 to justify the belief that we should never offend anyone. Paul wrote, "We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed." In other words, Paul said he would not offend anybody in anything, right?
Well, the word translated "offense" is προσκοπήν (proskopen), and it refers to an obstacle, difficulty, or stumbling block (the same word is used in 1 Corinthians 10:32). In fact, the NIV translates the verse this way: "We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited" (2 Corinthians 6:3, NIV). This is perfectly consistent with Paul's earlier statement to the Corinthians, which warned about becoming a stumbling block to others (1 Corinthians 8:9).
When we read Scripture about not being a stumbling block to your weaker brother or about having the utmost integrity, we must be careful not to extrapolate unscriptural ideas. A closer look at Scripture reveals that if we follow and proclaim the truth of Scripture, we will inevitably offend people!
If we follow and proclaim the truth of Scripture, we will inevitably offend people!
In Galatians 5:11, Paul stated that he was being persecuted for not preaching circumcision. Instead of preaching circumcision, he was preaching the Cross, which was an offense to those who still held to the law of circumcision. The Greek word translated "offense" in this verse is σκάνδαλον (skandalon), a noun referring to that which causes offense and arouses opposition.
Sadly, even today some people hold to laws rather than the saving knowledge of the Cross. In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded His followers to make disciples. To accomplish that goal, we need to spread the word about Jesus, and we will inevitably run into people that are offended by this message (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23).
When Jesus spoke with the Pharisees, He was more concerned with the truth than their feelings. Jesus spoke the truth, which often aggravated the Pharisees because it conflicted with their beliefs. At one point, the disciples even came to Jesus and told Him the Pharisees were offended by what He had been saying (Matthew 15:12). Jesus answered that the Pharisees' failure to see the truth right in front of them would be their downfall. Jesus continued to spread the truth, even when it offended people.
Places like the Creation Museum tend to offend atheists, but does that mean we are doing something unloving toward them? Psalm 14:5 gives insight into the hearts of atheists by stating that "they are in great fear, for God is with the generation of the righteous." Why would they be afraid if they believe there is no God? In reality, they do not want to acknowledge God and be accountable to Him for all their deeds. The Creation Museum displays the truth of the Creator and Redeemer, but atheists want nothing to do with God. For the Creation Museum not to offend atheists, it would need to be based on man's word rather than God's Word. Obviously, this would require us to compromise our Christian beliefs.
A friend of mine told me that he was offended and his feelings deeply hurt when his doctor gently told him that he had leukemia. Was it unloving of the doctor to announce this offensive news? Not at all! This was the most loving thing the oncologist could have done for my friend so that he would not only recognize what was wrong with him but he could also seek a cure. If the doctor remained silent because he was afraid of offending him, then my friend would have died. In the same way, we must never remain silent for fear of offending the unbeliever when we have an opportunity to share the only truth that can save them from an eternity apart from God.
In all of these instances, the truth is what offended people. Paul taught in Ephesians 6:14 that a Christian's foundation is the truth of God. Therefore, Christians will offend certain people if they are living by God's truth.
As Christians, we need to have the utmost integrity in all areas and be careful not to be a stumbling block to a fellow Christian. We should make every effort to live at peace with others (Romans 12:18). This does not mean, however, we will never offend a fellow Christian if, for example, a rebuke is needed. Even though we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), we might still offend. We must live by the truth of God's Word, and those people who are living contrary to the truth are often offended. Non-Christians may be offended as well. After all, the message of the gospel declares that they are sinners who need to repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ. In a sense, we need to offend unbelievers in order to witness to them!
Although we cannot keep people from getting offended, we should make sure that it is the truth that offends rather than our attitude, actions, or approach. We must follow biblical principles in all areas. At times, offending is wrong, and at other times, it is necessary. As we spread the truth of God's Word, we should do so in love, humility, and boldness, making sure we are living by the truth.