If you've ever spent any time as part of a religious community or congregation, then you can appreciate the wisdom of Paul's advice in Romans 14.
All of us have issues, hang-ups, hobby horses and bug bears, and for some people these can be particularly intense. Growing up among the fundies, I learned that there were many things our family enjoyed that some of our friends at church or Christian school regarded as sinful. Rock music, movies, gin rummy (even Uno and Old Maid were considered sinful by some of these folks). My parents considered my RPG hobby an imaginative form of play that kept us out of trouble, but to many of the people at our church, such games weren't merely sinful, they were demonic. One friend was allowed to play with us, but only if we used the Middle Earth (MERP) system — Tolkien, as a buddy of C.S. Lewis, was granted a special dispensation.
My parents were aware that many of our fellow believers viewed these non-sins as sinful, so our family took a pragmatic approach. We just didn't talk to those people about music or movies or games of which they didn't approve.
That was in line with the practical pastoral advice Paul gives in Romans 14.
The first-century Roman church had a different set of hang-ups than the 20th-century American one, obviously. Their dispute didn't have to do with dancing, cards, movies or rock & roll. It had to do with dietary codes and, in particular, with the eating of meat from Roman markets, which may have been ceremonially offered or dedicated to the Roman gods before it was sold.
"Heavens to Betsy!" cried the ancient Roman ancestors of my Uno-shunning fellow evangelicals. "If you eat that meat you're participating in idolatry!"
This was a silly and unnecessary rule and not really the sort of thing the church was supposed to be about, so most of the Roman Christians kept their eye on the ball and just ignored the conniptions of their more fastidious brethren. That, of course, only made those folks even more upset and offended, and it grew into enough of a big deal among the Roman Christians that Paul had to address it in his letter.
Look, he told them, you know this is stupid and I know this is stupid. It doesn't matter what you eat. But some of the folks with you there are, frankly, weak — that's Paul's word, "weak" — and even though this shouldn't be a big deal for them, it is. So be nice and don't rub their noses in it. I don't care what you eat and neither does God, but we both care how you're all getting along — that matters. So for the sake of getting along, accommodate the weaker ones and don't eat that stuff.
The implicit hope and expectation there, of course, is that these "weak" Christians will gradually grow stronger and the community would eventually be able to get beyond stupid and meaningless disputes about stupid and meaningless rules.
But what if these weaker brethren don't ever get any stronger? Paul doesn't address that question in his letter. He doesn't get into the second-generation problem of what happens when those weak, more fastidious Christians begin to treat the deference they are being shown as a source of power, and then begin to prefer that manipulative power to developing actual strength.
Does Paul's specific advice here really mean that we ought to accept the permanent, dynastic rule of the least mature among us? Or are there limits to this accommodation?
What I'm getting at, in other words, is the dilemma that occurs when we give someone the benefit of the doubt and they abuse the favor, turning that benefit into a weapon against us.
The Internet Monk addressed this question a few years back in a post titled "The Tyranny of the Offended." The issue addressed in that post was the monk's tolerance for what one of his critics described as "profanity and obscenity" and his corruption of youth.Specifically, the critic was upset by the use of the term "ass-kickery."
My response to that sort of thing is usually to recite scripture: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the cedar of Lebanon that is stuck up thine own ass?"
But the monk is a better Christian than that, so he patiently and carefully works through his obligation to this particular belligerent weaker brethren, considering both Romans 14 and a parallel passage in 1 Corinthians. It isn't easy to maintain such patience when confronted with a member of the Cult of the Offended, and the strain shows in a few lovely zingers throughout. It's four years old, but read the whole thing anyway. Here are some excerpts:
I believe the overly scrupulous have distorted the Christian life and misrepresented the Bible. In fact, I believe a kind of “prissiness” and prudishness seriously misrepresent the Gospel.
I do not believe human offendedness accurately represents the Biblical view of sin, nor a safe path to sanctification and holiness. …
Is Paul recommending that the Christian community become a nanny state run by those who are empowered by real and perceived wrongs? Will the most offended become the most influential? …
The Corinthian Church, that received chapter 8 of that first epistle, was a hive of whining, division, complaining and immature insistence on their own way. Paul did not apply the force of the principle at hand to empowering the least mature elements of the church. He risked offending them all for the sake of the Gospel, and even threatened to come to them with a stick, if necessary.
… my own experience with Jesus in the Gospels leaves me with the assurance that my savior is not a divine nanny, and the path to holiness is to read all of the Bible through Christ and to live out the Bible in Christ. While I appreciate the sincerity of my critic, we will differ on this matter.
Here's where I differ with the Monk, because I do not appreciate the sincerity of his critic. I do not believe his critic is sincere.
I believe, rather, that he is among those who have chosen to be perpetually offended because such a pose can be exploited as a kind of power. I believe that he is among those who have identified exactly the dynamic the Monk describes, in which "the most offended become the most influential." And I believe he is among those who have chosen to to pursue exactly that source and form of influence.
I believe, further, that such people have come to wield so much influence in my evangelical community that they are now its dominant voice. And outside of the church, I believe the same dynamic is at work in American politics — partly, but not exclusively, due to the influence of evangelicals as a core constituency in our political system.
I'm not asking you to share or accept all of those beliefs here. Don't let's get bogged down in the particulars of any given instance or example. All I ask of you here is to accept that such a thing is conceivable, that it is possible.
A vast number of my fellow evangelicals and my fellow Americans have come to define themselves primarily by what they are against, by that which offends them. I'm sure that many of them are, indeed, sincerely offended and sincerely opposed to the many things at which they take offense. But I am equally certain that many are less sincere and that some are wholly insincere, and I fear that the least sincere among them have taken charge.
I don't ask you to share that certainty, but only to concede that such a thing is possible — that it is within the rea
lm of possibility that some people might be insincere, mig
ht lie, might hide behind a pose of offendedness, exploiting our reluctance to level such accusations and abusing our admirable inclination to accommodate those most easily offended.
Over time, of course, I will try to convince you that such a thing is not merely possible, but actual. I will try to make the case that the Monk's nightmare scenario of "a nanny state run by those empowered by perceived wrongs" is not merely a hypothetical concern, but the agenda actively pursued by people for whom "The Tyranny of the Offended" is not a nightmare, but a game plan.