““If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15–17, ESV)
I had the privilege this past weekend of being part of a men’s retreat with some men I’ve known all my life. They were talking about their church, and how best they can share the love of Christ with people. We had a really nice discussion about how to avoid offending people unnecessarily, and how to show grace to those coming into the church for the first time. The conversation got me to thinking about being offended by others in the church and how we deal with it.
Being offended is a favorite past time of many Christians. We like it when we can take the morally superior position over someone else. When we take offense, it gives us a sense of entitlement, and a sense that others are somehow in our debt. We like that feeling. We like to use verses like these to justify our offended feelings, and to bear grudges against those who have “offended” us. We are an easily offended bunch, with just about any reason is sufficient to send us off in a huff declaring we’ll never go back to that church.
Of course, when we actually look at Jesus’ teaching about reconciliation, the first thing we see is not a teaching about being offended, but about being sinned against. People are offensive. We routinely say things to one another that are hurtful. We do thoughtless things, not out of meanness, but just because that is what we do. We are human, and offending one another happens. These verses, however, are talking not about “offense” in the sense that we think of it, but are considering when someone deliberately seeks to do us harm. This is a different category, and though it happens, is not normally the sort of thing that happens in the average church situation. Normally, someone does something insensitive, and the “victim” begins to withdraw and become isolated by the offensive.
The problem is that when we choose offense, we choose isolation and thus become useless in the service of God. Yes, you heard that first part right. We choose to be offended, or we choose not to be offended. We are not mere victims of the things others do to us. We can choose to allow those unintentional slights to pass us by. We can choose to live in grace and forgiveness, and choose to give others the latitude to be broken, just as we need the same. But, this is not how it usually works. Most of the time, we are looking for an excuse to be offended, an excuse to walk out on our church, or our families, or our fellow Christians, and when we are looking for an excuse, any excuse will do.
This doesn’t really solve anything though, does it? When we choose to be offended over an unintentional slight, we tend to withdraw. We tend to feel sorry for ourselves, and leads us to isolation. In our isolation bubbles, our view of the world becomes skewed. We tell ourselves what is really happening, and what others really think of us, and we believe our own lies. The offense grows exponentially in our minds, and before we know it, we are useless to God for anything because we are lost in our own world of graceless self-pity.
We do not overcome offense and relationship difficulties by being passive or by withdrawing. These only lead us to isolation, real hurt, and ineffectiveness. The way through relational difficulties and personal offenses is by grace and mercy shown to others, and strong dose of assertiveness thrown in. Tell the one who offended you what you are thinking. Tell him why what he said or did was offensive to you. My experience has been that most Christians really don’t like interpersonal conflict, and if made aware of a problem, will very likely seek to reconcile. But the responsibility to bring the offense to light really lies with the one who is experiencing offense.
By saying that, I’m not saying the offended party is to blame for whatever offense he has experienced, but he is responsible for how he chooses to respond to it. I’ve offended a few people in my life. I’ve said hurtful things, I’ve made insensitive jokes trying to be humorous, and I’ve made decisions as a pastor (with good reason) that hurt others. For that I am sorry. I’ve also said and done things that have just made people angry. For that, I won’t apologize. A pastor’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Making people angry when I kick their sacred cow comes with the territory. Still, when a true offense has occurred, there is a good chance the offending party won’t even know it has happened unless the aggrieved party is assertive enough to say so, and gracious enough to reconcile with honesty and authenticity.
If you’ve been offended in church, or maybe you’ve just been frustrated by something or someone, the proper response is not to withdraw from people. When you become absorbed in your self-pity, become passive, wait for others to come to you in some childish game, you have become worthless to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the bubble boy, you have isolated yourself, but not to protect yourself from those you see as harmful, but to punish those you believe to be hurtful. The problem: no one is hurting from your self-imposed isolation more than you.