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Keep It Offensive – Preseving the Gospel as a Stumbling Block

August 21, 2007

Recently, I have done much reading, listening, and conversing on contextualizing of the gospel for our culture. While I do not have all the answers for the problem of communicating the gospel to our changing times, there are a few principles that are non-negotiable:

(1) Offend the Ethos – This is not to say that our preaching of the gospel should be exclusively to offend the culture it is within, but the gospel we preach should be offensive to it. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. To the Jewish culture, the message of the crucified Messiah was a stumbling block, offensive to their eschatological expectations of the triumphant messianic reign. In the Greek culture, the knowledge of God was sought through wisdom. But God does not show himself through the wisdom of the world (I Cor. 1:21), but through the message of Christ crucified – an offensive, folly in the eyes of the Greeks.

(2) Offend the Will – Perhaps the title of this principle is misleading. This is not an argument for or against Calvinism (that is probably presumed at this point). This is an argument against the will or desire to please God apart from the cross. There is, even in seasoned believers, a bent towards legalism. In fact, our culture, whether it is conscious of it or not, is extremely legalistic. Why? Because if they do believe in a God, they believe in a loving and caring God – a Grandfather in the sky who only relates to us in gifts. Therefore, if we are to be let into heaven, it is either because (1) we are more good than bad, therefore God has to let us in, or (2) God loves them, and therefore there is some intrinsic worth that warrants entrance into heaven. Both views are legalistic in that they argue for an earned salvation apart from any need of the cross. We should not be surprised of this in and outside of the church. Paul wrote against this in Galatians 5:11, “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.” The church started to bend to a “works righteousness” that made the message of the cross void. To those who are outside of the church, the message of the cross is an “aroma of death to death” (2 Cor. 2:15-16), because the cross is offensive to our will that naturally bends toward legalism.

(3) Offend Ecumenicalism – I do not think there is anything inherently wrong with ecumenical work between churches for the purpose of the gospel. However, there are lines that historically have been crossed that jeopardize the message of the gospel. Therefore, I do not think we should be afraid to offend ecumenicalism for the sake of the gospel. I will let J. Gresham Machen argue this point for me:

In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things that about which men will fight. – (Christianity and Liberalism)

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2007 2:29 am

    Interesting post! Offensive 😆

    But you have some good points, though I would have to ask a few questions:

    When you say offend the ethos, what do you mean? You gave the examples of the offense to Jew and Gentile regarding the cross, but what about ethics? We should by no means accept a works righteousness and should clearly articulate that no matter what works of mercy, kindness, or goodness one does in the culture, that will not save anyone. But should we not recognize the good things in culture. Let me give you an example. My wife is from Kazakhstan. And Kazakh culture is inherently hospitable (but it is also historically Muslim). I can preach all day about Jesus and fight against Islam, but by affirmed the good quality of hospitality, I can lead into the gospel–through Jesus, God is offering hospitality to you (of course, whereas the god of Islam offers no hospitality to mankind). How can we do this in our culture? I think if we learned to do this, we may be more persuasive with the gospel. And certainly God does not want us to be unpersuasive. It is not more righteous to argue or preach badly, right?

    Regarding your comment about ecumenism. I’m not ecumenical. I’m a Southern Baptist, one of the most splittin-up peoples in the world. Could we learn something from ecumenism? Something about love and unity (I am not advocating overlooking theology or softening the gospel or affirming liberalism as valid Christianity). I think in our rush to be separate, we have forgotten how to love our neighbor. Instead of a godly zeal for doctrinal purity, we have a fleshly lust for dogmatic perfection. How can we live our Christian lives in love for one another?

    Thanks for your time. I found your blog through following tags through wordpress. It looks impressive.

    Wes

  2. jbstarke permalink*
    August 23, 2007 10:42 am

    Wes, Thanks for the comment. What I mean by “ethos” is the culture to which our setting is in – whatever that may be. The gospel is always in stark contrast with any culture, since the fallen world always rebels against Christ and his message of the Gospel. Therefore, the Gospel must be transformative rather than conformative. So, while I certainly would not want to discourage any culture from hospitality, since Heb. 13:2 and 1 Pt. 4:9 strongly instructs us towards that, I would rather want to display how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in contrast with the Muslim culture, not how it could conformed to its, already, hospitable culture. I know that is not what you are necessarily saying. But I think the tendency is to always look for subtle redeeming parts of the lost culture and work from there. But I would argue that we should confront the culture with all of its idolatry and godlessness and show them Christ with all humility, gentleness, and kindness, fearing the Lord only – which is rather offensive.
    I think you are right on ecumenicalism. I’m Southern Baptist as well and I always love a good dog-fight. Yet, in the mid 20th century, in the name of ecumenical togetherness, many evangelical churches and prominent figures in the United Kingdom sacrificed much of the truth of the gospel. That history makes me hesitant.
    Thanks again for your comment and making me clarify some of my points. It is always good to a have brother come and ask “what do you mean?” Blessings!

  3. August 23, 2007 1:30 pm

    Thanks for the gracious response.

    I can understand your position. I find myself fighting against Islam at every turn when I go to Kazakhstan. I think, though, that my approach began to change a couple of years ago. We had been invited to go and pray for a church members neighbor who had been a lifelong advocate of atheism. She, the neighbor, still considered herself Muslim, well because all Kazakhs are Muslim (so they say). Yet because of some illnesses in her life, she had been going to the local witch (folk Islamic spiritual healer). As a result of this, she started seeing snakes in her house (demonic influence).

    Well, I wanted to tell her about the false religion, the demonic influence, etc. I was ready to preach, you know. The locals, having much more experience in their culture, took a more loving approach. They presented the gospel, yes. They challenged the lady to repent, but they didn’t do it they way I wanted to. I didn’t agree with them at first. I was a little miffed to be honest. But then I remember the love that Jesus showed. Yes, he was pretty harsh to the Pharisees, but they had true knowledge of God, but had distorted it in their unbelief. Paul was very gentle with the Athenians in Acts 17, but also preached the resurrection. Both Jesus and Paul were offensive to the culture and mindset of their audiences, but not because they were trying to be, but because of the nature of the gospel.

    As I reflected on this I realized my error. I was more about defending the gospel than presenting it in a loving way. The gospel doesn’t need my defense (unless of course someone is changing it by adding to it or taking away from it), but I need to present it in the most unoffensive way I can, not accommodating it to culture, but letting the cross be the offense, not my presentation of the cross.

    So this past July, I was riding in a train from Almaty to Astana in Kazakhstan and these two ladies, who had bribed the attendent just to get on the train, decided to take refuge in our cabin. One lady was very open to the gospel, the other was carrying her prayer beads and was a hardcore Muslim. As we talked, it became evident that the old hardcore grandma was opposed to the gospel and to me, and my wife who was translating. I had to confront the false claims directly, but lovingly. But I had an internal conflict, How can I love this lady who obviously doesn’t love us (she called us demons) and who is trying to oppress the other lady who was at least open to the gospel? I preached against Islam, but I also offered her the love of Christ. The gospel was offensive to her, but not I. I wish she had repented, but the experience gave me greater love for her and a greater desire for her salvation. Had I not decided in my heart to love her and present the gospel lovingly, I may have spent the remaining 16 hrs on the train bitter (she got off after an hour or so). But I was able to genuinely pray for her conversion.

    I am sorry for the long response, but I sensed something in your post that I, personally, find dangerous, that of making the gospel offensive. As I have said, we don’t need to make it offensive, it is offensive by its nature (to some, some will actually believe and be saved). We rather should present the gospel truthfully, sometimes confrontationally, but always in love, right?

    Thank you for having this conversation with me.

    Grace and Peace to you,
    Wes

  4. jbstarke permalink*
    August 23, 2007 2:53 pm

    Wes, I think, maybe, you are misunderstanding me somewhat. What I mean to say is that, as you say, the gospel is naturally offensive – it doesn’t need our help. When I say things like “confront idolatry and godlessness”, I do mean with all gentleness and humility (as I said). I don’t mean that you get in the face of a Muslim woman and through the gospel at them. But the most loving thing I can do for any Muslim would be to communicate to them that they are in a dangerous position when they blaspheme our God and Lord Jesus Christ. I guess what I don’t want to communicate is that “I (the communicator) become the stumbling block”, but leave that job to the Gospel. If you are sharing the gospel and calling those to repent,as you say you are, I don’t think you can get more offensive than that. So when you say, “We rather should present the gospel truthfully, sometimes confrontationally, but always in love, right?” I say, “Amen.” I don’t think you are saying anything that I don’t mean to say. I am sorry if I am unclear. My main point of this post was that the gospel is naturally offensive – so don’t change it.

    You don’t have to yell in the face of anyone to share an offensive gospel. You just have to display to them that Jesus should be their greatest treasure, nothing else. If you are already saying that to a Muslim culture, then I rejoice that you obviously value the gospel more than your life.

    I hope I am clearer, or perhaps I am saying the exact same thing and you still believe this is dangerous. You said, “we don’t need to make it offensive, it is offensive by its nature.” I completely a agree, that is why I titled the post “Keep It Offensive: Preserving The Gospel as a Stumbling Block”. I don’t want to change anything of the gospel.

    Wes, Thanks for your comments. God bless, brother.

  5. August 23, 2007 3:30 pm

    Yeah, sorry, I don’t want you to think I’m trying to attack your position. Just wanted some clarity, because I thought, at first, you were saying something that apparantly you are not. What struck me was the language of “Keep” and “Preserve.” But since we’ve have exhaustively explored it, we agree.

    Thanks 😎

  6. August 24, 2007 6:05 pm

    Brother, I have been summarizing Mark Driscoll’s the Radical reformission over on my blog. I would love to hear your thoughts to my two most recent posts on Chapter 4 and on Cultural Relevancy. I would hope to get a good conversation going. Thanks

    Wes

  7. jbstarke permalink*
    August 24, 2007 6:35 pm

    Wes, I have not read Driscoll’s book, but I will definitely give my thoughts. Thank you for your invitation.

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