In various circles that I participate in, multitudes of books and sermons have been coming out lately about the need to be “unoffendable.” The idea being, that anytime someone feels snubbed, hurt, bothered, upset, overly concerned, or even in some cases, abused – by those in their circle (or particularly leadership in a church), in a word, “offended”- they are told they are exhibiting a very unwanted, unBiblical, and wrong disposition. Thus the fault lies with them more than whomever they are daring to be “offended” by or with. There is this idea that everyone should treat absolutely everything like water off a duck’s back.
Ok, this idea of being “unoffendable” – I want to call it what it is: the uniquely Christian version of gaslighting. I hope you don’t find that too offensive!
So, if you’re not familiar with what “gaslighting” is, stop here and click through to read about it. Generally in the secular world, we hear about gaslighting most often in reference to when men belittle the concerns of women with whom they are in a relationship.
But gaslighting is not something that only occurs between men and women – it occurs anytime one person is trying to silence people around them who object in some way to their behavior. This can be on a small scale where a coworker is ruling the roost in an office, or one person is ruling the roost in a group of friends, and of course can exist where a leader in Christian group does not want to be vulnerable or approachable by people bringing even helpful forms of criticism.
Sad to say that in the short term, it’s soooo much easier to create a culture in a group of people where everyone is conditioned to believe that anytime they feel hurt, bothered, concerned, etc. with someone’s behavior, they have committed a fault in their own souls called, “being offended” – than to do the hard work of creating a culture that holds together and works through managing tension, conflict, and confrontation in a healthy, productive way.
Of course this doctrine of “being unoffendable” doesn’t come out of nowhere. There are numerous verses in the New Testament where the word “offended” is used in a way that, without really examining the use and meaning of the word, a doctrine can be built that “being offended” is generally a bad thing. And, there are times when “being offended” is a very bad thing – namely, when we are offended by things that are righteous. That is one place we really do want to cultivate an “unoffendable” heart – just as Jesus said in Matthew 11:6 – “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.” Ironically, one of the most important things in life to “not be offended” by is when someone else comes and shares with us how we have wronged them!
Misunderstanding the Biblical Word for OFFEND
But most of this, “Do not be offended, ever,” doctrine I do believe comes from a misunderstanding of the way the word “offended” is used in scripture. For instance, one friend of mine talked about Psalm 119:165 which reads in the KJV, “Great peace have they which love Thy law; and nothing shall offend them.” She pronounced that people who were offended at her for things she had done were just demonstrating that they had no love for God’s laws! How convenient to be able to proclaim that any hurt or harm one is accused of causing to others is simply because those others are unspiritual!
But the use of the word “offend” in this verse does not translate easily into our modern vernacular use of the word and other Bible versions than the KJV do a better job translating it to what it really means: that nothing shall cause someone to stumble and sin. For a whole long word study of the term “offend” or “offense” in scripture, click here.
In general, also, the Bible says a lot more against people who CAUSE others to “offend”, than against the person who is “offended.” It’s sort of backwards towards what is commonly taught. Luke 17:11 – “He said to His disciples, “Offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one they come through! “
So if “being offended” really was wrong (and it isn’t, as we’ll discuss in the next paragraph), the person whom you are offended BY would be much more in the wrong for causing someone to become offended at them! This isn’t how it really works, but if we were to translate “offend” in a normal English way, that’s what we would end up with.
The Luke 17:11 verse above is translated much better by the ESV, however, which reads, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” Here there is no mention of the word “offend” – as it is all about temptation to fall into sin, sin of ANY type – temptation to steal, lie, mistreat others, have immoral sexual relationships, etc. and it has nothing at all to do with “being offended” once the word is translated properly.
So am I saying it’s OK to be offended?
Well, I’m saying it’s the wrong question to be asking. No one should make an issue about whether or not someone is offended by something, as if it is the fact that someone is “offended” which is the problem. To concern ourselves over whether or not someone should be allowed the audacity to be hurt, angry, concerned, or upset as if that in and of itself is the problem (which is needlessly meta-) rather than with WHY they are offended is not going to be very productive for anyone involved.
Jesus said that if someone sins against us, we’re to go to that person, one on one, and discuss it with them. He didn’t say, “Don’t be bothered by what they did to you, just pray about it and don’t let yourself be hurt or upset.” Never did He say such a thing. He said to go to them and talk about what you feel they did wrong, one on one.
So if you are the person that someone feels has wronged them, there are some good ways to respond, and some not-so-good ways.
Since Jesus said for people to approach you about how they feel you’ve wronged them, one-on-one, one of the worst things you can do (and people do this sometimes) is to refuse to be available one-on-one. Don’t insist that you’ll only meet with the offended person with another person present of your own choosing, unless you honestly fear for your bodily safety. (Matthew 18 prescribes a time when you’ll meet with others if the one-on-one meeting doesn’t work out.) Don’t quit returning phone calls or emails when someone wants to talk something out with you.
Don’t belittle the person or use manipulative tactics of telling them they are “too sensitive” or that they have no room because of some sin in their own heart or life that makes you unwilling to hear about your own. This is back to gaslighting, which I discussed above. Don’t tell them that Jesus demands they forgive you (because truly it is never the place of the offending party to demand someone forgive them.)
Instead, try to hear where this person is coming from – be humble and willing to examine your own self through their eyes. No one said confrontation is supposed to be comfortable, but rise to the occasion, and talk out honestly with that person why you did what you did, being willing to admit your own faults in the matter and ultimately hear from them and admit how your actions have affected them. That’s so basic that it shouldn’t even have to be said – but, unfortunately, it does.
And, if you are the person who is offended at someone, there are good and bad ways to handle that too.
Do not refuse to allow yourself emotions on the topic – but do not let your emotions flare unnecessarily hot, either. Keep yourself level headed enough that you can discuss the matter with the person who has offended you in such a way as to win them over – to help them see the problem or pain they are causing, but not to pour out revenge on them by making them feel your wrath. There is a fine line between showing someone they have hurt you in order to bring them to their senses, and showing them how upset you are in order to get back at them and vent on them. (I’ve definitely been the venting one at times, in the interest of full disclosure – so learn from my mistakes!)
If they don’t hear you, then Matthew 18 says to return with other people to try talking to them as well.
And a Word to Third Parties…
But finally, if you are a third party – you are neither the person whose words or actions have been “offensive” nor the person who is “offended” – you are probably one of the most important people in this whole situation, believe it or not. When schools teach about the dynamics that go on with “bullying” they will often talk about the role of bystanders and how bystanders create the environment for people to be treated wrongly.
Unfortunately, we have a lot of bystanders in the body of Christ – who see or hear about people mistreated by others and figure it’s not their place to get involved. In the beginning, it isn’t usually your role to get involved, other than to encourage people to talk things out, one-on-one. But in Matthew 18, when one person feels sinned against by another person and they’ve tried to talk things out and that conversation has failed, the wounded person is told to bring one or two others to get involved.
If you’re called upon at that point to get involved, you can be healing balm to both parties by sitting down with the two people in conflict, as Jesus prescribed – and talking things out. Mediation is held as a high value in scripture.
But you will lose the opportunity to be that healing person if you –
- -Insist the wounded person go back and try again and again to work it out “one on one” when they’ve already tried that.
- -Judge the situation before you’ve heard BOTH sides by telling the victim/accuser that they “should forgive and not be offended” before there has been any resolution or hearing on what has gone wrong
- -Judge the situation before you’ve heard BOTH sides by letting yourself become a new “offended person” on the offended person’s behalf, who is now launching themselves at the accused, rather than mediating between the two parties (unless you were present when the wrong was done and know what happened first hand.)
- -Refuse to get involved because it’s “not your business” or you don’t want to lose a friend
- -Gossip to other people about the situation other than the handful of people who are involved. In a Matthew 18 situation, the rightfully involved people are 3 or 4: the person who feels wronged, and the person accused of doing wrong, and the 1 or 2 others that the wronged person is instructed to bring along with them.
Most of the time, Matthew 18 (Jesus’s instructions) never gets carried out correctly because of a lack of willing bystanders to follow Matthew 18 in HOW they get involved. The goal of Matthew 18 is correction, restoration and healing of all those involved – and when mediation doesn’t happen, often instead of restoration and healing we just end up with more of a mess.
At any rate, let’s stop defeating ourselves from handling conflict in a meaningful and constructive way in the body by saying that people just “shouldn’t be offended.” In most cases, that just ends up creating an environment that grows more and more dysfunctional by the day. Let’s deal with offense in a way that helps us all learn and grow from it, in a way that shows we’re a family and what we all do really has an effect on each other. And let’s stop silencing possible victims of our thoughtlessness or whatever other thing we may be doing by teaching everyone that it is wrong to “be offended” – because, plain and simple – it’s not.
PS – there are times that Matthew 18 is not applicable – such as when dealing with a public/famous leader. But neither is the idea of “being unoffended” applicable in such situations, either!