Your Right To Not Be Offended?

OffendedTaking offense can be absolutely harmful to our evangelism. Christians are often very offended, this seems evident enough just from browsing Facebook. Of course some of our offenses are justified, there’s plenty of immorality to be found in the world. Yet, our responses are often far more focused on the offense than compassionately directed towards the offending party. Christians can sometimes buy into the cultural lie that we have a right not to be offended, and as such our energy is spent making sure others know that we are offended and repent of their offense. This focus, however, is a dramatic shift away from the ministry of Jesus and the character of Christianity. Christians do not have a right to “not be offended,” rather we are called to love offenders. We must recover Biblical priorities. By focusing on our presumed right we can end up alienating those who need to hear the gospel.

This behavior manifests particularly in the so-called “culture wars” of our present day. In the culture wars Christians are often more obsessed and consumed with preserving a kind of Christendom they feel is being lost, rather than being compassionately engaged with individuals on the opposite side. We are passionate about culture, but not interested in building relationships with sinners. The response is evident in the way we characterize and simplify the opposing viewpoints in any number of arguments. For example, we create memes and movies where atheists are malicious simpletons who don’t see the obvious wholes in their absurd philosophy. So, pop Evangelicalism has dubbed April 1st “National Atheist Day.”  And we dream up scenarios where some brave and brilliant Evangelical  is able to soundly refute these atheists, often humiliating them publicly. Alan Noble give us a bit of reality check on this fantasy. He writes:

These stories comprise a popular evangelical trope and reveal a collective fantasy we have of humiliating arrogant atheists. We want to believe that atheists are not merely spiritually foolish (a clear, scriptural truth), but also haughty, stupid, jerks.

This narrative of the brave, Christian who stands up to the evil liberal professor is a subset of the larger American (human?) theme of the underdog. It’s David and Goliath (as one Snopes article points out). Only, this narrative creates several problems for Christians.

For one, these stories often lie. Even when they admit to being “fiction,” like God’s Not Dead, they still misrepresent the truth. It is quite possible to “lie” in a fictional story, which is what we see in the Chick Tract: the professor is both ignorant and arrogant while the Christian is brilliant and patient.

From my experience, it’s far more likely that your atheist professor is an intelligent person, and often Christian students are only “equipped” to respond to an antiquated straw-man of Evolution or atheism. Sometimes, the professor is incredibly gracious and sincerely concerned for you and the Christian is arrogant. (“God’s Not Dead,” But this Trope Is)

Or imagine the same sort of idea, but this time coming from the pulpit. Preachers across America stand up and tell jokes about gays and evolutionists. The congregation laughs, but think about what this whole tactic says to those in opposition. Imagine being a gay man visiting a church and hearing the pastor talk with a lisp and make remarks about how disgusting you are. Imagine being a biology professor at a local university who gets invited to attend church with a friend only to hear your entire career mocked and derided by someone who hasn’t spent a day since their intro course in college studying basic biology. When our focus is on culture wars, we lose sight of people who need love and gospel.

Part of the problem here is that we believe that demonstrating our offense is the same as “standing for the truth.” We are under the impression that if we don’t communicate our shock at a neighbor’s swear word we will let Jesus down. We are convinced that if we don’t turn up our nose at the lesbian couple in the restaurant then we are some how condoning their sin. I can appreciate that concern. There are few things Evangelicals are more fearful of than the accusation of compromise. Yet, this behavior is not the pattern we see with Christ and the apostles. They understood you could love sinners without having to immediately condemn all their behaviors and values. Does Christ press the woman at the well on her adultery? Yes, but only after he has begun to build a relationship with her. Christ also welcomes prostitutes, tax collectors, and Roman oppressors into his fellowship without feeling the need to immediately call them to the carpet for their specific sins. There’s a place for challenging people but it may not be in your first encounters, and it’s not usually with complete strangers.

There’s a sense in which our responses often come from a sense of superiority. We don’t say it that way, but perhaps unintentionally Christians can have hold to the idea that we do in fact have some sort of moral high ground. Tim Keller compares the two sides of the culture war to the two brothers of Jesus’ famous parable. Writing on the parable of the prodigal son, Keller says:

To some degree the so-called culture wars are playing out these same conflicting temperaments and impulses in modern society. More and more people today consider themselves non-religious or even anti-religious. They believe moral issues are highly complex and are suspicious of any individuals or institutions that claim moral authority over the lives of others. Despite (or perhaps because of) the rise of this secular spirit there has also been considerable growth in conservative, orthodox religious movements. Alarmed by what they perceive as an onslaught of moral relativism, many have organized to “take back the culture,” and take as dim a view of “younger brothers” as the Pharisees did. (The Prodigal God, 12-13)

In Keller’s view, then, Christians who are obsessed with culture wars and their right to not be offended might simply be the religious older brothers of Jesus’ parable. In other words, sometimes our attempts at “standing for the truth” come off as self-righteous precisely because they are, whether we recognize it or not. This doesn’t mean there are never times to confront and challenge sin. We must do this. This doesn’t mean there are no occasions where we must actually “stand for the truth,” even in the broader public square. Yet how we do this is exceedingly important. So, how should we respond to the reality of offensiveness as Christians? Here are few simple suggestions.

Build relationships, don’t simply correct others. People are not brought to saving faith because they lost an argument, or had their promiscuity corrected. We ought to be willing to engage in conversation with unbelievers, to press back on their assumptions and presuppositions. We ought to be willing to expose holes in their logic and lifestyle. But this works best in the context of loving relationships, with humility and grace. Winning arguments does not advance the Kingdom of God, pointing people to a loving God who redeems does. Focus on people more than culture wars and debates. Love people more than your rights, wits, and stands.

Don’t make every issue of supreme importance. I get it, vulgar language can be frustrating and offensive. If, however, you rebuke your neighbor every time he swears he’s not likely to talk very much with you. Ask yourself, is this an issue that I can overlook right now? Is this something I can let love cover over in order to continue building a quality relationship with this person? Can I express my disapproval in way that doesn’t come off as preachy, arrogant, condescending, or self-righteous. Some things are too serious to ignore, but not everything needs to be so crucial that it has to be addressed at that moment. Love allows time and relationship to aid us in difficult conversations.

Don’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians. Part of the problem we run into as believers is that we expect everyone to hold the same convictions we do. When they don’t we allow ourselves to be shocked and offended. Living like a follower of Jesus is hard enough for those who are empowered by His Spirit, we shouldn’t pretend like others will live like this without His Spirit. We shouldn’t presume that those who don’t submit to God’s Word will support God’s values and hold to a Christian worldview. Be realistic and be patient with others. Recognize their greatest need is not to be convinced of creationism, but to be lovingly pointed to the gospel that saves.

Don’t get sucked into Facebook debates! Social media is quite possibly the worst place to have genuine, compassionate, and sensitive conversations. People become nasty, hateful, and dismissive in these debates. It’s incredibly difficult to communicate compassion, concern, and love for another person on social media. Most of the time these conversations deteriorate to the worst kind of characterizations of opposing viewpoints possible. Let’s stop pretending like Facebook and Twitter are great evangelistic tools, they’re not!

Try to understand those with whom you disagree. It’s easy to be offended, but remember that there is a lot behind the offense. There is a person with their own values, experiences, and fears behind that offense. Try to be sympathetic, to understand why the do what they do, and say what they say. They are a person, not merely a belief or worldview. Don’t reduce them to a worldview you can argue against, rather respond and interact with them as a person. Christians can tend to simplify every other perspective but our own. We create straw men, characterizations, and respond to those, instead of truly engaging with real people – Christians even do this to each other. Memes and Facebook posts are the worst at this! Don’t buy into these and don’t share these kinds of simplistic, reductionist, fictions.

I understand the impulse to be offended. I get offended too, and there’s plenty in our world to offend us. But how we respond is important. Being a jerk for Jesus is still being a jerk. We should have strong convictions, and hold firmly to truth, but we should also be kind, generous, and patient. We should be patient with people as God has been patient with us. We should love people as God in Christ has loved us. We ought to be more concerned with the lives and souls of our neighbors than with wining culture wars. When you are tempted to respond with offense ask yourself this question: am I more concerned with my supposed right to not be offended, or with my neighbor’s need to hear the gospel? I suspect the answer is often far more about us, than about others. Christians are pretty good at speaking the truth, it’s the speaking the truth IN LOVE part that many of us need to work on.


  1. […] 14. Your Right to Not Be Offended? […]

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