Biblical Social Ethics: Offense Principle

As we think through social ethics from a biblical perspective, we need to be careful and not confuse God’s absolute laws with His biblical principles. God’s laws are to be obeyed as stated and not filtered through our own justification. However, there are many things that God did not include in His Word. In those cases we are given a set of principles that we can apply to give us direction in making decisions.

Offense Principle: Defined

The Bible teaches that we should be willing to abstain from anything—even if the activity isn’t itself wrong—for the sake of another Christian. The Offense Principle states that we should put aside our own desires and activities if doing the activity would cause a stumbling block in the life of a weaker brother.

When thinking through this principle it is important to understand who a weaker brother is and what it means to offend them. First look at the concept of offend. The Greek word used in Matthew 5:29; 18:6 and Romans 14:21 for offend is the word σκανδαλίζω (skandalizō or skän-dä-lē’-zō). According to the Strong’s Concordance this word is a metaphorical word that means to place a stumbling block in someone’s way which causes them to fall. In other words, to entice someone to sin. Paul says in Romans 14:21 that we should not do anything that may cause a weaker brother to fall into sin because of our action.

Offense Principle: Clarifying Questions

Will participating in this activity cause a weaker brother to sin?

The question now becomes, who is a weaker brother? A weaker brother would be a new or immature Christian who is humbly seeking the truth. This is not someone who has a personal agenda, but someone who honestly wants to learn God’s Word and grow spiritually.

Cold can of CokeI remember when I was in high school there was another teen who had recently been saved and was hungry to learn anything about God and His holiness. My friend concluded that since our bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost, we should not drink any beverages like Coke because of the chemicals they contain. As more mature Christians, we decided that we would not drink any Coke-type products when we were with him. Is drinking Coke sinful? No. Yet we choose to abstain from drinking carbonated beverages around our friend while he tried to grow into a stronger Christian. However, when we were away from our weaker brother we still drank carbonated beverages. The outcome was that within a couple of weeks he also determined that they were not necessarily wrong and he lifted his personal ban.

There will always be people who try to preach their own agenda and make everyone around them feel guilty. The Offense Principle is not intended for those situations. The Bible’s teaching is clearly that we should abstain from any activity that would cause a weaker brother to sin.

Offense Principle: Biblical Basis

Again we can look to the key passage on biblical decision making, 1 Corinthians 8-11:1 to help us with this principle. In 1 Corinthians 8:9, 10 Paul is talking about eating meat offered to idols. He has already concluded that it is fine for a Christian to eat this meat. However, he says in these verses that just because it is non-sinful to eat the meat, you should still abstain if it might cause a weaker brother to sin.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23 and 24 that we should be concerned with the welfare of other Christians around us.

Other verses which support this principle are Matthew 5:29; 18:6; Romans 14:21 and James 4:17.

Offense Principle: Application

This principle primarily deals with activities that are not questionable as to whether they are right or wrong. If something is sin, then you shouldn’t do it. The issue here is knowing when to abstain from non-sinful activities for the sake of others.

You may know a new Christian who concludes that any music composed by a non-Christian is evil music. Your friend honestly wants to grow in the Lord. If he gets into your car while you are playing music by Beethoven (who may have been a Christian but reportedly did not go to church), would you still play the music? Is there any question in your mind as to whether or not Beethoven’s music is sinful? You may not personally have a problem with listening to a certain type of music, but if it causes your weaker brother to sin (and he would be sinning if he believed it was wrong and listened to it anyway according to Romans 14:22 and 23) then you should abstain.

This principle can help you make decisions not on whether something is right or wrong, but whether you should participate in the activity in certain situations. Do you have another situation in which you wonder if this principle applies? Leave a comment below and allow us to discuss it.

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4 thoughts on “Biblical Social Ethics: Offense Principle”

    1. The Bible does not directly say that drinking alcohol is a sin. Proverbs 20:1 says that we should not be deceived by alcohol and those who are deceived by it are not wise (Proverbs 23:31; 31:4-5). However, being drunk is clearly condemned (Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:6). If you look at the principles that are in this series, you can see at least three of them apply pretty directly.

      First is the wedge principle. If being drunk is a sin, then you obviously want to avoid that. You will never get drunk if you don’t drink.

      Second is the doubt principle. Because you are asking the question then you obviously have doubts. Until you get a firm clarification that it is fine to drink, then this principle says you should avoid the activity. You may come to the conclusion that it is not wrong to drink alcohol, but until that time, then drinking with a guilty conscience would be against this principle.

      The third principle that can apply here is the offense principle. If you consider yourself a mature Christian then one of the things you want to do is help those who are less mature than you to grow in Christ. If they see you drinking (even if you have come to the conclusion that it is appropriate to do so) are you helping them grow in Christ? Or, would you be offending them to the point of leading them into the sin of drunkenness by a poor example of the liberty we have in Christ? This is specifically addressed in one of the proof texts for the offense principle when Paul says not to eat meat or drink wine if it causes your brother to be offended (Romans 15:21). Even if you don’t consider yourself a mature Christian, remember that people are still looking to your testimony to help them make a decision for Christ. How do you want to lead them?

      An argument could be made from the other three principles as well. Is drinking the best thing you can do? Will it help build others in Christ? What is the dominant association of drinking alcohol?

      For me, thinking through these principles, I can confidently say that I don’t think I should drink alcohol. Not because the Bible forbids it directly, but because I want to be a mature Christian bringing others to the Lord. I believe that can best be done by abstaining from alcohol. No one is offended and drawn away from the Lord because I don’t drink, but the converse cannot be said.

      Many people argue that Paul told Timothy that he should take a little wine for his stomach’s sake. Even if you consider the possible medicinal uses of alcohol back in the first century, we have much more effective medicines today that are not questionable. I would prefer to use something more effective and less controversial.

      I hope this helps you think through these principles and how they apply in this situation.

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