Don’t Cause Unnecessary Offense

February 9, 2007 by

Yesterday I tried to talk about some ways to avoid and address criticism and in the end I was debating with myself about whether or not we should care about image. My answer didn’t fully satisfy even myself, but then I came across this article from Books and Culture, On Slippery Slopes, the Blogosphere, and (oh, yes) Women.

The article is basically author Susan Wise Bauer’s defense for her support of John Stackhouse’s Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender. That support caused her quite a bit of grief from folks who consider things like the ordination of women starting a direct slide to homosexual marriage which we all know is what triggers the apocalypse. But we’re not here to argue about gender roles or homosexuality, so let’s not.

What I am here to do is talk about how her exploration of Stackhouse’s arguments seem to apply to things like marketing and image and give me a slightly more satisfactory answer to my question.

The Argument
Stackhouse’s arguments basically come down to the idea that the early church was instructed not to cause unnecessary offense to their surrounding culture. Stackhouse argues that these instructions do not mean that this is God’s ultimate plan. The best argument is slavery–Paul told slaves and masters to just stick it out so as not to completely disrupt culture (slavery was universal at the time). But overtime the overwhelming kingdom values that the captive shall be free overcame this temporary cultural issue.

“Paul tells them to honor the emperor (even if that emperor happens to be Nero). He tells them to pay taxes, to work with their hands. He tells slaves to be content, and not to strive for freedom.

“No evangelical could argue with any heat that these straightforward commands reflect God’s ultimate plan for his redeemed people. They are given so that the church of God can thrive in hostile surroundings–and so that the spread of the gospel will not be hindered.”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Stackhouse makes the same argument for women. Being quiet in the church and not having leadership roles was a cultural concession. It was a way to get along with people. But this does not contradict the overriding value that women can be powerful leaders, just like men. Stackhouse says the issue comes down to knowing when to make cultural concessions and when not to.

“Would boycotting your taxes hinder the preaching of the Word? Then don’t do it. Would escaping from your master increase suspicion among the unsaved that the gospel is merely a cover for rebellion? Then don’t escape.”

Not Showering Can Hinder the Gospel
Likewise, would picketing gay rights groups hinder the spread of the gospel? Then maybe it’s not the best plan. Would appearing unloving or intolerant increase suspicion that Christianity is just a fundamentalist wacko religion to be ignored? Then make every effort to be gracious and full of love.

For me this is where the answer to my image question comes in. Would a poor image hinder the gospel? Then do what you can to improve your image (from the basics like taking a shower to the more difficult matters like thinking through your communications strategy).

Embrace the Tension
This ‘unnecessary offense’ is such a foreign concept, especially to a rights-driven Christian American like myself. The idea that I should compromise with people who I think are morally wrong is ridiculous. Yet Paul told us to become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22), that if something bothers somebody else we shouldn’t do it for their sake (1 Corinthians 8:13), that we are slaves to righteousness(Romans 6:18). So much for the land of the free.

I think part of the issue is with the word ‘compromise’. Today compromise is a dirty word. But it’s possible to compromise and not sell out your beliefs. It’s possible to agree to disagree and still find enough common ground to move forward, without causing lightning bolts to fall from the sky.

That tension is something palpable:

But while the church is striving not to cause unnecessary offense to the unbelievers around it, another dynamic is unfolding, at least within Christian homes and the church: ‘kingdom values at work overcoming oppression, eliminating inequality, binding disparate people together in love and mutual respect, and the like.’ … There is tension between the message of the gospel and the particular commands to the churches. …

“As the church accommodates itself to avoid unnecessary offense in the ‘already,’ we also catch glimpses of the ‘not yet’: ‘exceptions,’ as Stackhouse calls them, ‘that do not make sense unless they are, indeed, blessed hints of what could be and will be eventually in the fully present kingdom of God. We would expect, perhaps, to see exceptional women teaching adult men … offering leadership through their social standing and wealth … bearing the titles of … deacon and apostle.’ And so we do: in Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, Andronicus, Junia.”

The End is in Sight
I’m hardly a Bible scholar or a philospher and am prone to inserting foot in mouth, but the tension Stackhouse is describing between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ seems to me to reflect a lot of the tension we get about marketing. Some marketing and communications principles don’t really jive with the ‘not yet’ values of the kingdom of God (some would argue that any marketing doesn’t jive with the kingdom). But they do jive with the ‘already’ values of our current culture.

Meaning they work. So let’s use them. It doesn’t mean we forsake the true values of God, it just means we’re doing what’s practical not to hinder the Gospel. If that means a 24-themed sermon series or rock music or caring about how things appear, fine. Nothing is wrong with any of those things (except perhaps that they’re not the complete perfection God desires–and when do we ever achieve that?), so let’s use them when and where it makes sense to tell others about Jesus more effectively. There’s always a tension with the kingdom values that don’t make sense in this world and often don’t work in this world (who of you has found it financially prudent to give all your money to the poor?), but that doesn’t mean we don’t strive for those values.

We do the best we can with the broken world we have, often using less than holy tools. It sounds like how God works through us. And it reminds me of how Jesus must have felt when he walked the earth, perhaps frustrated with our fleshy foolishness but having the patience to love us anyway.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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8 Responses to “Don’t Cause Unnecessary Offense”

  • Ken Burgin
    February 9, 2007

    I thoughtful and helpful post – thank you!

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  • Geoff Brown
    February 9, 2007

    This needed saying. Thank you.

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  • Gena
    February 11, 2007

    Where does one draw the line? Or should there never be a line?

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  • Jason McCoy
    February 14, 2007

    The draw the line question is really a great one! I personally think that if you look over the course or progression of how God works with us, it becomes pretty difficult to draw lines that aren’t arbitrary. For example- if you look at the early OT, most of what God is trying to do is get people to stop sleeping with animals, each others relatives, killing each other, having multiple wives- stuff that we would consider pretty obvious and offensive now.
    For the most part, those are not the issues God is dealing with in us today. If we, as the Church couldn’t even deal with the slavery issue without controversy…I think any lines we propose today had better be dotted lines made humbly and ready to change as Christ continues to purify his Church. I wonder how the Church will see us 100 years from now over the issue of women in ministry?
    In the end, I think it is much less about drawing a particular line (can a woman teach,can she pastor, can she lead pastors)and more about recognizing the lines we have chosen and asking why we’ve chosen them? Western culture is the only one that has the luxury at this time of holding women back. Most of the rest of the church (Asia, S America…global south) is being pioneered by women…so what does that mean for us?

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  • north385com
    February 14, 2007

    This brings up a couple questions. If we are to avoid all offending, doesn’t that ultimately put us tip-toeing around on eggshells all day long? The other is that it calls to question what parts of the Bible we’re supposed to take as being timelessly important (ie: OT’s “Thou Shalt Not Murder”) and what parts you might pin on just being societally adjusted (ie: women forbidden from speaking) Is there any way for us to really know which is which?

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  • stephanie
    February 17, 2007

    in response to jasons question above about knowing which beliefs
    “The other is that it calls to question what parts of the Bible we’re supposed to take as being timelessly important (ie: OT’s “Thou Shalt Not Murder”) and what parts you might pin on just being societally adjusted (ie: women forbidden from speaking)”. if he is equating the heart of God towards all people-unconditional love, and a kingdom in which there “exists neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female” with the idea that murdering another human being would possibly be brought into question because women would finally be accepted as valuable mouthpieces for God, then he is sadly mistaken. How anyone could read the word of God and not see His heart for the WHOLE church to work together as a body is beyond me. I love Paul, and i don’t think he’s a woman hater. i think there is some accuracy to the above article, but it does go much deeper than the writer says. I do also agree with jayson that if you approach this concept just from the point of view that it was all about “not offending”, you’ve missed the intricate beauty of God’s heart towards His people in that He never subjugating women, and in fact anointed and sent out one of the evangelists, a woman, to samaria. anyway, thank you for listening.

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  • Jason McCoy
    February 19, 2007

    Hmmmm….I’m not sure how I was so misunderstood???
    I am in support of women in ministry at all levels- and am NOT asking the question about which beliefs are timeless…what I was trying to say was that the question of “where we draw the line” was a revealing question. I was comparing it to the slavery issue in that…this was a more obvious and offensive issue, and yet we STILL argued about it (even in the church) even though the rest of the world could be scratching their heads at us…that it’s similar to the women’s issue in that, the rest of the world (global south, in this case) is not asking about where the line should be drawn (with regards to a position suitable for a woman in ministry)…the women are pioneering the movement! So I was saying that here we are with all the lines we’ve drawn, all our arguments and such- and there THEY are turning the world upside down for the kingdom.
    I thought the article was outstanding and further would say, that in terms of marketing, I think the larger western church has communicated (whether intentional or not) a lack of value for women that will take very intentional and long term work to undo…

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  • Aaron
    March 20, 2007

    The central question in my comment is in response to Stackhouse’s argument that “the early church was instructed not to cause unnecessary offense to their surrounding culture.” Supposedly, the best argument is slavery—“Paul told slaves and masters to just stick it out so as not to completely disrupt culture (slavery was universal at the time). But over time the overwhelming kingdom values that the captive shall be free overcame this temporary cultural issue.”
    I must take issue with the parenthetical remark that “slavery was universal at the time.” Because a number of nations, perhaps even all of the world’s nations, make a regular practice out of enslaving people does not mean that slavery is a universally accepted part of culture. I’m assuming that’s not exactly what was meant, but it is still important to point out this distinction, and I will develop that importance as I develop the question.
    It is really a simple exercise to to answer the question: who in a “master-slave” society would object to slavery? The slave. When we think about what it means to be rational, we will inevitably conclude that freedom is a fundamental of the concept of rationality. If we are not free to make certain choices, then we could scarcely claim to rational in that mode of choice. For example, I, as a slave, am told by my master that my children are to be sold. I object to this proclamation, but in the end I have no power to stop it from happening. The mode of choice that’s been denied to me is that mode that allows me to exercise external power to stop this most atrocious event from happening, be it by law or some other human convention. (The distinction of human convention is important to ward off superflous arguments about lack of freedom in regard to the physical obstructions of the universe. I want to fly but gravity won’t let me, etc.) If I’m a good early Christian, according to this argument, then I will obey Paul’s advice and not unnecessarily upset the cultural status quo.
    I will, for the most part, avoid the most crucial argument of how the term unnecessary is to be defined, and who gets to do the defining. Suffice it to say that in Paul’s day, certainly, it would be the master. That seems like a formula for the preservation of the status quo, which is obviously objectionable to by the slave.
    The preservation of the status quo is the central question and perhaps the easiest target of Stackhouse’s argument (and Paul’s Doctrine). If Christians are to avoid unnecessarily (a loaded term) upsetting the cultural environment when it is obviously objectionable, then who is it exactly that will step in and upset it? Are there to be necessarily acceptable appeals for change? (In some recent societies, there were no such appeals; Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, etc.) Where is the line to be drawn? Who draws it? Who does the appealing? (Probably won’t be the slave.)
    I’m not confused about where my question really finds its home. Paul’s doctrine seems to be where the preservation of the status quo would be upheld, and Stackhouse’s argument sounds like an attempt to justify that doctrine by trumpeting the universal slavery as an example. Slavery has never been universally acceptable. It is probably the case, and I won’t try proving it by evidence even though evidence abounds, that there have always been objectors to institutionalized slavery, and not just the slaves themselves. When a rational human being sees another rational human being enslaved, she/he must blind her/his self to avoid the pangs of conscience, that is, if we are to believe that the conscience is the voice of moral reason. (In the case of slavery, this is most often done with nationalism but religion is never far away either.) And in the later example of honoring the emperor, even if it’s Nero, we are plunged into even more compelling arguments against Paul’s doctrine.
    In the end, I struggle to accept Paul’s doctrine of upholding the status quo at all. The actions of people and time have historically been the agents of change. Paul would reduce our action in the face of cultural oppression to nil, or, as it is here argued, to below the level of unnecessarily upsetting the cultural norm. That the culturally powerful individuals are one and the same as those who define such words as unnecessary, it seems to me that the slave’s plight under Paul’s doctrine is perpetual. Frederick Douglas would have never hit his master back, but then again, he wasn’t very receptive to Christian Doctrine anyway. Could someone try and resolve this issue for me?

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