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Lest I Make My Brother to Offend
(Exhortation - November 2001)

The fact that the scriptures give emphasis to the subject of giving offence should alert us to its importance. "It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (Lk. 17:1-2). According to our Lord, offending our brothers and sisters has dire consequences, making it imperative that we examine his statement and modify our behavior accordingly.

Language evolves and today "offend" has acquired a different connotation to that used by Jesus in this incidence. Currently the word means "to displease; to make angry, to do harm to, to hurt the feelings of, to affront, to violate (a law)…" (The Chambers Dictionary), whereas the predominant focus of Biblical usage is to cause to stumble or sin. In the New Testament, "the verb to offend skandalizo is used of anything that arouses prejudice, or becomes a hindrance to others, or causes them to fall by the way" (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). The Old Testament has an equivalent word mikshol: to cause to stumble, offend or ruin. "He shall be…a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel" (Is. 8:14). With this definition in mind, it becomes apparent that Jesus was speaking about behavior that might compromise or endanger the salvation of other believers.

Food offered to idols
The whole premise of Paul’s argument to the Corinthian ecclesia was that of avoiding offence. He had received a letter asking for advice over the issue of Gentile converts who, prior to their conversion, practiced idol worship.

The situation in the ecclesia at Corinth could not have been easy, since it consisted of converts from diverse backgrounds. Fastidious Jews schooled in the legalistic rigidity of the Law were now worshipping alongside Gentiles, many of whom had indulged in licentious immoral practices associated with idolatry.

In this volatile situation it would be so easy to offend one another in the context of causing stumbling. Especially problematic was the subject of meats offered to idols. The "strong" Jewish contingent ate with a clear conscience, understanding that idols were a non-entity. They scorned the "weak" Gentiles who were having trouble disassociating from their past and felt strongly that eating animals slain in pagan ritual was sinful. Forcing the issue in a confrontational manner may well have caused some to leave the faith and return to the socially accepted practice of idolatry.

Love builds up
Paraphrasing Paul’s response helps us to see the mastery of his logic and wisdom: "Love is more valuable than knowledge in that it builds up your brothers and sisters. You are not as knowledgeable as you suppose because idols are nothing; God being the only true God. Not everyone sees the issue this clearly; if the weak partake of food knowing it has been offered to a so-called god, they might think they are honoring that god by eating the meat (even though you with your superior knowledge know the "god" is not real). At best, their weak consciences are defiled, at worst, they may even return to idolatry. There is no spiritual value in eating or not eating (it is only meat)! But beware in case your freedom of conscience becomes a stumbling block (offence) to the weaker members. If you parade your superior knowledge in front of a weak brother, he may be edified (notice the irony here) to eat and fall away to eternal damnation. And Christ died for that brother! I will become a vegetarian and not eat meat for the rest of my life if it avoids causing my brothers and sisters to sin" (I Cor. 8:1-13).

Returning to the theme a little later, Paul continues: "Whatever you decide make sure you are doing it to glorify God. Do not be the cause of stumbling to anyone, even Jewish and Gentile unbelievers, but especially the ecclesia of God. The aim should be to save as many as possible, not to cause falling away" (I Cor. 10:31-33).

God, not man, will judge
Interestingly, a similar passage in Romans shows that here it was the Jewish converts who were experiencing problems. There were those who still clung to some of the requirements of the Law while others conceded freedom in Christ. Both sides claimed that they were right and condemned the action of the opposing group. Again we paraphrase and summarize Paul’s skillful teaching.

"Do not presume to judge a weak brother’s motives, such as when a Jew who is afraid of eating unclean meats plays safe and becomes a vegetarian. It is the responsibility of both parties not to judge. Do not judge because we will be judged. By putting a stumbling block (an occasion to fall) before your brother you are the cause of grief to your brother and are not demonstrating love. By so acting, you are bringing the truth into disrepute. After all, the Kingdom is about living in righteousness, joy and peace. Be a peacemaker and build up your brethren and sisters and refrain from anything that may cause offence (stumbling) or accentuate weakness" (Rom. 14:1-21).

Right choices
The lesson for us is that from the vantage point of a clear conscience, we should not flaunt our freedom in Christ in case our actions influence a weaker brother, leading him to compromise his conscience and maybe endanger his salvation.

Let us consider some of the ways it is possible to be a stumbling block to brethren and sisters, potentially causing them to falter in their faith: being divisive; pushing controversial doctrinal views; repeating and even embroidering gossip; parading superior scriptural knowledge; putting another down in an attempt to glorify oneself. Dress should also be considered; immodest dress can lead to lustful thoughts and sin. Consideration should be given to the effect of long working hours, both to oneself and to the family. In a similar vein, if we are a speaking brother, our home life will suffer if our speaking engagements take us away from home on a constant basis. We should also understand that the offence that may cause stumbling could be self-inflicted! "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off…" (Matt. 5:29). An unwise career selection where Christ-like values are constantly challenged is a bad choice. Another possible area of risk is the inadvisable use of leisure time: frequenting music concerts where the entertainers are worshiped like idols; pubs or night clubs where temptations abound; viewing movies or videos explicit in the things that the Lord abhors; all are spiritually dangerous activities impinging on our spiritual growth.

Consideration for each other
Returning to the Bible usage of offence, it can be seen that Vine’s definition allows for varying shades of meaning, along with the most common one just explored. The idea of arousing prejudice or becoming a hindrance is our next focus. The Lord obviously was referring to the former when he said: "Knowest thou the Pharisees were offended at this saying?" (Matt. 15:12). The instruction of Paul was not only to avoid giving offence but also to be careful not to inflict grief. Therefore, we must be careful not to offend in this regard. When we meet together in our ecclesial halls, we do so primarily to worship our Father in heaven and to remember our Master. Surely then, the onus is on each of us to minimize any distractions that may be a source of hindrance or grief to our brothers and sisters. Thought must be given to the choice of appropriate dress; topics of conversation; due decorum when fulfilling an ecclesial duty; respect for the sanctity of the meeting and encouraging children to respect the environment of worship.

In the interest of balance, the other side of the situation should be considered, that is the tendency to take offence too easily. We are often guilty of assigning the worst motives to the actions of others and thereby judging. Duty lies with those who feel aggrieved or sinned against to approach the party and discuss the problem in a Christ-like fashion: "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother…" (Matt. 18:21-22).

Sometimes we dwell on this aspect and ignore the rest of the context: "Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times: but, until seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:21-22).

The divine attribute
To forgive is a divine attribute and was demonstrated by the one we have come to remember this morning, who at the height of his agony said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34). In trying to please him we should strive earnestly to avoid giving and taking offence in all senses of the word.

David Edwards

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