…Or, an appeal to be courteous in our dealings wherever possible.
It’s a sad truism that Christians are not always known for their love, kindness and acceptance, but rather for their intolerance, bigotry, narrow-mindedness and even hate. One reason for this may be that we’ve misunderstood the fundamental difference between the so-called ‘offence’ of the gospel and just general plain offensiveness.
So for example, many Christians will feel entirely justified in publicly condemning homosexuals or those caught in sin. Or they (we) will roundly attack atheists, evolutionists and secularists, or alternatively Muslims, or even those of other Christian denominations. We will fight for our ‘Christian rights’ and get drawn into all sorts of angry debates on abortion or legalisation or the death penalty. Perhaps most violently and vitriolically we will clash over interpretations of the Bible, and over pet touchstone doctrines.
If you pull someone up about this, they may well say something like ‘ah well, the gospel is offensive’. They might quote 1 Corinthians 1:23 about the gospel being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, or else Galatians 5:11 about the ‘offence of the cross’.
Or they may argue that ‘Jesus was often rude to his opponents’, or that people took offence at his message, perhaps citing John 6:61 where Jesus asks ‘does this [teaching] offend you?’, and many followers turn away from him. They may also talk about being persecuted by the corrupt world for standing up for Truth. These answers may sound worthy and plausible, but they completely miss the point.
The offence of the gospel
The gospel is offensive in a very particular and specific way, and not in any other. It is offensive to our human pride, to our senses of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. It is also offensive to all our systems of control and oppression, our ways of keeping others out and our kind in.
But it is emphatically not offensive in any other way, and nor is it an endorsement of general offensiveness. The gospel is an invitation, a welcome; it is by nature inclusive and generous. It’s good news, for crying out loud.
It’s true that in Galatians Paul talks about ‘the offence of the cross’, but as always we need to understand the context. The full verse is ‘If I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished.’ The point is precisely that the cross is an ‘offence’ against our religious systems of determining who’s in and out, in this case by means of circumcision.
The cross is also an offence because – as Paul has pointed out in 3:13 – it is a curse, one that Jesus bore for us ‘to redeem us from the curse of the law’. It is not an offence directed at us but rather an insult and indignity that Christ bore for us.
And only a few verses on from the ‘offence of the cross’ verse we have a whole bunch of verses that ram home the message of kindness, love and respect. ‘The entire law is summed up in one verse, “love your neighbour as yourself”… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently’ (note, not harshly or critically).
Similarly, Jesus’ undoubted occasional rudeness had a very specific context and purpose. He was in general rude only to religious people who had got completely the wrong end of the stick about the whole point and purpose of religion.
So he could at times be fairly blunt with his own close followers and friends whose propensity to miss the point and slowness to grasp his message occasionally exasperated him – though I suspect his rebukes were tempered with love.
But the only group he was frequently and highly offensive towards were those who set themselves up as religious leaders and arbiters of righteousness and who judged and condemned others as worthless hell-bound sinners. They had failed to understand the central command to love, and instead were using religion as a means to power and a tool of oppression. It was Jesus’ goodness, his love of the downtrodden, his desire for true freedom that led to his angry outbursts against Scribes, Pharisees, Priests and Teachers of the Law.
There is of course the one puzzling occasion when Jesus appears to be dismissive towards a Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:25-30, initially refusing her request and apparently comparing her kind to ‘dogs’. There are many possible glosses on this story, including that Jesus was challenging his disciples’ attitudes towards outsiders, or that he was gently teasing her to provoke her ultimate response of faith. But either way it’s an isolated incident, not a precedent for rudeness to outsiders or those whose views differ from ours.
Indeed, Jesus’ almost universal manner towards those judged by others to be sinners, outsiders or unbelievers was one of utmost grace, compassion and kindness. He did not go around deliberately insulting or being offensive to ordinary people, particularly not those in need.
Taking offence at Jesus?
But what of those passages where Jesus preaches hard messages and his hearers ‘take offence’ at his words? I cited John 6, where Jesus preaches about the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood, which some of his hearers are unable to stomach, as it were. ‘Does this offend you?’ Jesus asks, and by the end of his message, many of his followers have left him.
Jesus was not saying anything actually insulting; rather it was a ‘hard teaching’ and his hearers took offence at it. His message disturbed them, perhaps because it challenged their theology and practice, their pet doctrines and religious theories. Or perhaps the graphic imagery made them uncomfortable, and they weren’t prepared to look deeper to understand its meaning. (I’m not saying I’d have been any different, mind).
Persecuted or just bigoted?
Then finally there are those who claim they’re ‘standing up for truth’ and being ‘persecuted’ for it, and as such are following in the footsteps of Jesus. But in many cases, I suspect that the ‘persecution’ is no more that justifiable criticism or mockery, provoked not by ‘truth’ but by our unedifying displays of religious bigotry and arrogance. If we’re rude and dismissive towards others we can expect the same treatment back.
Indeed, those who are rude to Christians who seek to exclude gays or women from ministry may actually be following in Christ’s footsteps. Christ reserved his harshest words for those who sought to exclude others, to act as gatekeepers and to turn the liberating news of God’s total welcome of every single one of us into an exclusive and tribal religion.
I’m not denying that very real and terrible anti-Christian persecution does happen in many parts of the world – just not Britain, America, Australia or Europe. And even if we really are being persecuted for Jesus, if the worst we suffer is some mockery and misunderstanding then we’ve not got all that much to moan about.
Love, not niceness
It’s true of course that love is not always nice. Saying that the heart of the gospel is love doesn’t mean it’s always going to sound appealing or lovely to everyone, or that it isn’t hard work. It does carry a hard message alongside its welcome, for genuine transformation and liberation are always costly and often painful. The gospel is about reality in all its fullness, and as a species we tend to shy away from reality – particularly our own reality.
But the context of the gospel’s hard message is love, is understanding, is respect and care for the person, and support through the difficulties. It is never dismissive, critical, condemning or insulting. Love is patient, love is kind… it is not rude… love keeps no record of wrongs…
We can’t use the gospel as an excuse to be rude or dismissive towards those who disagree with us. We just can’t. End of. And anyone who says otherwise is a stinky loser.
Postscript – on two approaches to holiness
Looks like while I was writing this post, one of my favourite theology bloggers across the Pond was penning something eerily relevant. Morgan Guyton has just put up an excellent post on Christian holiness and the gay marriage debate. In it, he outlines two opposing approaches to holiness within the Christian community – holiness as correctness (holding the perfect doctrinal opinions) versus holiness as a state of the heart (a quest to gain ‘the heart of Christ’ and to become perfectly loving).
Strikes me that’s pretty much what I’ve been talking about here, albeit framed in a different way…