I’ve not always suspected people who say that they are “offended” by something. I’ve only suspected them since the time I once told a friend he had “offended” me and he abruptly corrected me by quoting Psalm 119:165, which says that those who love God’s Word cannot be offended by anything. If that sounds cold, it’s because both of us were abusing the language. I wasn’t really offended; I was just using the word for leverage in our conversation (one of its most common uses, I think). As for my friend, well, I don’t think he cared one bit about how I felt. Good thing, too. I learned an important lesson.
I learned a new verse, and I learned that love for God’s Word protects one from stumbling in his or her faith. That’s what the word means, in its biblical context anyway. I also learned that most people use the word with an entirely different meaning. They usually mean something like “gravely upset” or “irreparably disappointed.” And while I think that loving God’s Word will protect against this too, I’ve come to learn how easy it is to offend someone to the point where they will not listen to God’s Word or our word or anything else that we might try to say.
That’s a shame, especially for Christians. Especially between Christians, who are to be marked by mutual love and a common faith. And perhaps even worse, between Christians and non-Christians. It’s a shame because Christians believe that they have a message worth sharing with non-Christians, and it’s impossible to walk through a closed door.
As the Proverb says, “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city…” (18:19a)
A Not-Entirely-Fictional Story
The youth pastor had been invited to speak to a local group of teenage HIV survivors. It was a privilege he had enjoyed on numerous occasions, and some of them had begun to think of him as a kind of unofficial “chaplain.” For him, the experience stood out in stark contrast to his regular ministry at the Baptist church, and he looked forward to sharing the Scriptures with these young people as often as he could. Of course, there were those teens who avoided the dates when he spoke, either because they weren’t religious or because their religion differed from his, but in general, they looked forward to him coming as much as he looked forward to going.
On this particular day, he decided to change his regular approach. Normally, he would take a passage of Scripture and then explain, illustrate, and apply it to his audience. He would preach a sermon. However, this time he thought he would speak on a topic, something often on the minds of his audience. He would give a lesson and use multiple Scriptures to teach what the Bible taught about death. It wouldn’t be a sermon per se, but he thought that the Christian hope of eternal life in heaven would encourage his hearers.
And it did. Most of them. As he progressed through the lesson, he tried answering several common questions about death, one of which being, “What happens to a Christian at death.” The biblical answer he gave came from 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Philippians 1:23, which assume that at death a Christian passes directly into the presence of the Lord. In other words, he or she goes instantly to heaven to be with Jesus Christ.
At this point, the youth pastor wanted to show how this biblical teaching differed from other common ideas. So he said things like, “No angels coming down to collect you.” “No long, dark tunnel with a light at the end.” “No entrance exam at the pearly gates.” “No purgatory, where your remaining sins are burned out of you.” Simply, “For the Christian, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
It was the comment about purgatory. Knowing that some would be familiar with this idea, while others would not, the pastor went on to explain what some groups believe about purgatory. He said that some believe that when a Christian dies, they go to a place of fire where, for perhaps hundreds of years, they burn until their sins are totally removed so that they can enter the presence of God. He contrasted this belief with Hebrews 10:14, saying that Christ’s one offering on the cross forever perfects those whom he sanctifies, making the cross sufficient and purgatory unnecessary.
But he didn’t stop there. He wanted to show that some behaviors were also unnecessary, such as praying for the dead. It made sense to him: if people were either in heaven or hell eternally, then there was no point in praying for something else. Lighting candles in cathedrals or putting money into clerical boxes would also be unnecessary.
On this last point, he referenced the historical account of Roman Catholic Pope Leo X, who helped to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica with the granting of “indulgences,” special dispensations offered by the Pope in exchange for a donation offered towards the cathedral. And he mentioned Johann Tetzel, the notorious Dominican indulgence salesman, who taught people, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” (Which gave rise to Martin Luther, 95 Theses, the Protestant Reformation, etc.)
When his lesson was finished, the youth pastor walked around the room, shaking hands and talking or praying with the young people and their families. Many of them shared how encouraged they were by the lesson, and so he was stunned when a mother of one of the teens stopped him and said, “I just want you to know that I disagree with pretty much everything you just said. I’m Catholic. And I’m offended.”
He instantly apologized for causing any offense and said that was not his intent, but she insisted that nothing he said about purgatory was accurate. He told her that he was not repeating hearsay but had received his information from Catholics and even the Catholic Catechism, written by former Pope Benedict XVI. She responded that she had taught the catechism for many years and could guarantee that he was mistaken. She said she did not wish to debate the matter but merely express her offense at his lesson, her belief that he shouldn’t mention other churches, and her conviction that “we all believe in the same thing.” He offered once more that he had not intended to offend and turned towards the next in line.
Should he have apologized?
I can hear some of my Protestant brethren even now (Baptists, this includes you): “Never apologize for the truth!” “He didn’t say anything wrong!” “Truth offends! Don’t back down!”
I get it. And I agree.
But I still think he should have apologized, though maybe a little differently.
Read Part 2 to find out why… In the meantime read Proverbs 18:13