How do we honor Paul’s pastoral advice, but not let the most easily offended among us become tyrants in the body of Christ?
1 Corinthians 8. Romans 14. These chapters have been my nightly reading many times after a controversy with my opponents on the reformed watchblogs.
How do we treat those with whom we disagree within the church, both local and universal? Who are the brothers who are “weak” in faith? How much power does their offendedness give them? How much does our understanding of the full implications of the Gospel and Christian freedom play into areas of disagreement over controversial behavior?
Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 are great chapters…but a lot of trouble for me to understand at times. By trouble I mean this: Paul introduces some pastoral ideas here that are vital to both evangelism and the life of the church, but the concepts create real problems for many Christians. The common application of these passages tends to leave me thinking that something important is badly amiss.
Are those who are offended by my behavior always to be treated as right?
The crucial area for me concerns the matter of identifying those “weak” in faith. (Romans 14:1) That’s Paul’s terminology, not mine. Who are those who do not have “knowledge” of the full implications of Jesus Christ in a world of idols? Who is the person weak in “conscience?” Who makes that determination? (Are there name tags? “Hi. I’m Bob. Don’t offend me. I’m weak in faith.”)
As many of you may know, Mr Steve Hays, reputedly a brilliant student and TA at RTS somewhere and proprietor of the greatest Reformed intellectual enterprise in the blogosphere- a veritable Triple H to my lowly Sharkboy- is hammering away at my allowance of PG-13 language at the Boar’s Head Tavern. To him, it proves I am Socrates and should be served hemlock asap.
For the almost four years of the BHT’s existence, I have maintained- and edited accordingly- a house rule of PG-13 language. (A search of the BHT will reveal this without much trouble.) Because the BHTers are adults, and we are not a church, but a virtual tavern with no confessional bonds, I am fine with a certain level of crude, boyish language. This is not language I would use in formal address or polite company, but certainly language I would use with familiars, and not language I would be offended by if my adult children used it amongst friends. This is my choice, and I do not expect anyone else to applaud it or approve of it.
Included in Mr. Hays’ exhaustive survey of the BHT’s offenses are the following terms: “Ass-kickery.” “BS (the acronym only).” “Pissed off.” I would add that I have sometimes not edited “damn” or “hell.” Any number of edited terms, with letter removed, etc., can be found.
I do not believe any of these terms are sinful. (The BHT’s Jack Heald wrote an excellent post on a more detailed view of the nature of this sort of language. I recommend it) All language has context, and I do not believe it is possible to have a Biblical list of always sinful words. I do believe words- both “bad” and common- can be used sinfully. For example, here are several paragraphs from Mr. Hays’ initial post about this matter.
And that’s where Spencer comes in. Spencer is to pastoral ministry what Margaret Mead was to free sex and Timothy Leary was to acid.
Naturally he has a ferocious following. Young people generally prefer titular grown-ups who give them permission to dabble in sin with the blessing of an authority-figure. What you end up with is a symbiosis of evil: a gentleman’s agreement in which each party looks the other way at the other party’s misdeeds.
As the moderator of the BHT, Spencer is responsible for policing what is posted by his junior bloggers. But instead of acting as a conscientious shepherd who guides his flock in the ways of sanctification and the mortification of sin, Spencer is a corrupter of the young.
Hays compares me to a sexual libertine and an advocate of drugs. He calls me a “corrupter” of the young, a serious piece of slander in my world. He calls me evil. His language is powerful, and intended to offend.
None of the words of these paragraphs are “obscene” or “dirty” in Mr. Hays’ definition. He could read these paragraphs in church. He could recite them in prayer at the 11 a.m. worship service. No one, other than my close relatives, would be offended.
Yet, I am now listening to a second day of lectures from Mr Hays on my allowance of the word “ass-kickery” at the BHT. For this, Hays says,
“My problem with c.t. and the Tavernistas is the way they flaunt obscenity. They go out of their way to use profanity and obscenity just to prove, I guess, how cool it is to be brazenly shameless; to prove that they are not inhibited by all those uptight Victorian hang-ups over holiness and consecration.” (My Bold.)
Some might say that Mr. Hays’ language, while clean, is hardly innocent. The lie at the core of them- comparing the BHT to a blogger with an unrestrained use of the worse kinds of language- is offensive, even if stated relatively politely.
Now let me tell you my initial, pastoral reaction to Mr. Hays. I am very sympathetic to what he represents. I am surrounded- literally- by people who think like he does, at least in public. I cannot tell a slightly crude joke or use a slightly crude term in my work environment, because it is likely that 70-80% of those present would be offended by any reference to sex, the human body, mildly crude language or humor. Middle school boys get no sympathy among the good people in my environment.
I respect these people. I mean, I respect them with all of my heart. I recognize that they have come to where they are in these matters by way of God’s work in their own experience. They love and read the Bible. They strive to be like Jesus as they understand him, as I do. They have chosen to be members of local churches where, often, dress codes, language, movies and body decoration are very important ways of identifying true Christians. I understand this, and I respect it, whether it is the Mennonites at our local bakery or the Falwellian Fundamentalists in the Baptist churches around me.
If we found ourselves in a conversation about this- or any other of a number of issues of contention, such as movies, television, moderate use of alcohol, politics, etc.- I would disagree, and I would claim, as they would, to be representing the best understanding of scripture.
Now Mr. Hays would cite, for example, Ephesians 5:4, and would say that crude language is wrong: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. ” (Ephesians 5:4 ESV) But this isn’t a simple matter. I find scripture to be, at times, remarkably crude in its choice of language. Its sexual terms are earthy. Its descriptions of sexual activity are far from polite or restrained. Even the apostle Paul uses crude language when it suits his purpose, much more than I would allow at the BHT. The prophets are shockingly crude.
I remember a particular Sunday evening when one of our school preachers decided to speak on a prophetic passage where the adulterous spirituality of the Israelites was described in the most blatant sexual terms. It was the kind of language our students would be punished for using, and there it was in church! Was the preaching violating Ephesians 5:4?
My offended friends would be aware of Ephesians 5:4, but they would be unaware of the many crude and explicit passages of scripture throughout the Bible. They would be unaware of the nuances of the original language that are embarrassing if translated properly. I do not expect that they should know all these passages or nuances. I would not categorize them as “weak” in faith, “weak” in conscience or “without knowledge.”
Though they are “offended,” I would not call them weaker brethren. If I were to ridicule their immaturity, their fundamentalism or their prudishness, I would be sinning in doing so. I understand how they arrive at their conclusions and I understand why it is important to them that there be no mention of anything that isn’t “G” rated.
But I believe their approach to this matter is not in line with the Gospel. I believe it seriously misunderstands the Gospel. I do not believe the man who says “hit a bull in the ass with a banjo” has done anything scripturally or morally wrong. If someone was present who was offended by such a sentence, I would judge that the presumption of charity should exceed the duty to not offend, especially where there is no moral wrong involved.
Martin Luther was a crude and earthy man. He was also a man who understood the Gospel. I believe he understood it rightly, and I believe the overly scrupulous have distorted the Christian life and misrepresented the Bible. In fact, I believe a kind of “prissiness” and prudishness seriously misrepresent the Gospel.
I do not believe human offendedness accurately represents the Biblical view of sin, nor a safe path to sanctification and holiness. When Mr. Hays says I am derelict in my views of holiness and sanctification, I simply do not agree that the bare choice to use the terms “pissed off” or “BS” make any difference in sanctification or holiness. I respect his views, but I cannot agree that to say these words in the context of banter and joking is wrong.
To proceed along these lines is a perilously wrong road, with pastoral implications that are obvious upon consideration.
When the Beatles were popular, I heard all kinds of sermons against men having “Beatles'” hairstyles. I heard many sermons against “long” hair. Was this an encouragement to sanctification? If it was determined that these weaker brothers were genuinely offended, should the church adopt their views?
What if I am offended by women singing in the praise band? What if the lack of a suit and tie on the preacher offends me? What about the senior adult who is genuinely offended by the preacher’s jokes or the absence of hymns? What if Mr. Hays’ post offends me?
Should those offended by the clothes, humor and choices of others in the church be the conscience of the church? Does their offendedness, even if it is far from knowledge and absent any relation to the Gospel, constitute the path that must be taken? Are offended bloggers right to publicly “fisk” and denounce those with whom they share no confession or formal fellowship?
If Mr. Hays, or others, are offended that I allow grown Christian adults to use language that grown Christian adults can use, that the Bible uses and that is not wrong my any measurement other than obvious intent to offend, am I to adopt Mr. Hays’ views as my Christian duty? Is his offendedness now the “high” road of “holiness?” Or is he demonstrating the “weakness” that Paul wrote about with brothers who were afraid to eat a meal associated too closely with a pagan culture?
My take on Romans 14 particularly is that Mr. Hays, who is knowledgeable and is scripturally literate, is under a clear admonition to let me and the BHT stand before God on our own. Our faith is our own. It stands before God. The duty of Mr. Hays to avoid the offense of reading the BHT for his own conscience and faith’s sake is clear. His option to point out to a brother his perceived error is clear, as is the manner in which it ought to be done. But there is no permission for him to pass judgement in this area (and to do so in terms that are, themselves, obscene) where there is nothing more to go on than Mr. Hays’ personal definition of offense, profanity and obscenity, all definitions with which I respectfully disagree as a brother in Christ.
Further, it is not the Christian duty of this blog or the BHT to abstain from all language or topics that might “offend.” To do this would be to drain the faith of its truthful edge, and to emasculate our communities- real or cyber- into pretenses of polite agreement. Does someone think that honest people could not see through such a facade? I believe the “offense” Paul is concerned about is not “ticking someone off,” but discouragement of a sort that would result in abandonment of the faith. The “offended brother” is to be taken into consideration to the extent the offense may cause him to abandon the Gospel, but not in a way that makes the weakest, most sensitive, most overly scrupulous and easily offended person into the most powerful person in a fellowship.
For example: Let’s say I am preaching, and I use illustrations from movies. What if I get a letter from a fellow staff member that says they are offended by the illustrations I use of movies I have seen. Many of these movies, they say, are PG-13 and contain sex and bad language that our students shouldn’t see. When I use an illustration from, let’s say, “Titanic,” I offend this staff member.
Is it correct that I now stop using movie illustrations? Alright. I switch to novels, and soon get the same letter about a writer I mentioned whom my letter writer knows to write books with profanity and some premarital sex. So I stop using illustrations from books. I now use illustrations from television programs, and receive a similar letter about the evils of television. I refer to sports, and the letter writer tells me that sports distracts from church and many athletes are bad role models.
If I make the choice to “not offend,” I will be left with no illustrations. My sermons have been commandered by the offended. Now I want to write a letter, because I am offended. I’d like some clout, too.
Imagine the fun we will have when I preach from Leviticus 18, and I get a letter saying my sensitive friend is offended by all the sex. The Bible is now offensive. What is left? Chicken Soup for the Sensitive Soul?
Is Paul recommending that the Christian community become a nanny state run by those who are empowered by real and perceived wrongs? Will the most offended become the most influential? There are disturbing aspects to this that can already be seen in the reorientation of many churches to not “offend” seekers. The Bible fades in importance and the preferences of those most distant from the faith become the favored expression of the faith.
The Corinthian Church, that received chapter 8 of that first epistle, was a hive of whining, division, complaining and immature insistence on their own way. Paul did not apply the force of the principle at hand to empowering the least mature elements of the church. He risked offending them all for the sake of the Gospel, and even threatened to come to them with a stick, if necessary.
I will not be standing before Mr. Hays on the day of judgement. As Romans 14 declares, I will stand before God on my own, yet in Christ alone. My writing on IM and my moderation of the BHT are an expression of my faith in Christ, which Romans 14 plainly states is not to be judged by those who differ with me on incidentals. While Mr. Hays may find me an evident reprobate or apostate because I allow Josh the Lutheran to say “ass-kickery,” my own experience with Jesus in the Gospels leaves me with the assurance that my savior is not a divine nanny, and the path to holiness is to read all of the Bible through Christ and to live out the Bible in Christ. While I appreciate the sincerety of my critic, we will differ on this matter.