Friday, November 16, 2012

Differentiating Sins from Stumbling Blocks and Debunking the Doctrine of "Taking Up Offenses"

In the discussion of forgiveness, the words we use can be confusing, especially those in older translations of the Bible. Words like “trespass” make sense because we see “Do Not Trespass” signs on property lines in the countryside, giving us some current context for meaning. Transgression becomes complicated because we rarely use the term in our modern vernacular. It can refer to both a violation of the law which is well-defined and understood, or it can refer to the violation of a duty which may be vague.

In modern English, “offense” represents multiple words found in the original Biblical text:
  • asham (Hebrew): to do wrong, to injure 
  • mikshowl (Hebrew): stumbling block 
  • scandalon (Greek): a trap or snare that causes another to stumble; something that causes another to sin (a term applied to Jesus who offended men in His divine holiness) 
  • paratoma (Greek): a lapse or deviation from truth (to fall to the side) 
  • proskomma (Greek): stumbling block 
  • proskope (Greek): to do something that causes one to stumble 
  • hamartia (Greek): a sin or a violation of the law (“missing the mark”)

Like the word “trespass,” the term “offense” can refer to both a sin (determined by objective standards) as well as something we do that makes it easier for another person to sin as a “stumbling block” (a more subjective matter affected by perspective). This index of previous posts (in the Matthew 18 section) specifically explores the issue of confronting others about sin. Stumbling block issues also call for confrontation, but we must consider that they are more related to motive and thought as opposed to sins that are acted out.

Stumbling blocks are of special interest in the context of spiritual abuse because manipulators use their subjective nature to exploit ambiguity as a means of avoiding scrutiny. High demand religion and group leaders focus on perfection in a way that makes all matters seem like a cause for shame and blame. In terms of what has been previously discussed about forgiveness, this type of manipulation encourages people to reinterpret stumbling blocks as no offense at all, consistent with the Path of Denial as David Stoop has described it.

Humility and Love When “Offenses Come”

The New Testament makes clear the imperative of the Law of Love, showing kindness and consideration to others which helps prevent offenses from occurring in the first place. Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets in the command to love one's neighbor as one's self, and as discussed in previous posts on this broader topic, Paul tells the Ephesians to avoid wrath and strife in favor of love which manifests as a disposition that is patient, kind, and gracious. The significance of the disposition of care and kindness that love brings in our hearts should not be diminished. We are even called to be known to those who don't follow the Christian faith for our love and consideration for our fellow Christians.

That said, people still develop expectations of one another which go unmet which can result in disappointment, offense, and even bitterness. Again note that such problems develop in the realm of the subjective, stemming from personal perspective. Sometimes, the offending party has no clue that they've even caused hurt or challenged another person, and many offenses arise just because of personal preference having nothing to do with morality or failing in some duty. Some people offend more easily than others. While such situations may reveal true motives and tell much about character, these situations do not constitute sins, even though the Bible teaches us to handle the all offenses owing from either sin or disappointment/disagreement by assertively confronting one another with discretion and care.

Quite simply, we must be careful that we don't hold people accountable for sinning against us when they may have just disappointed us. Love combined with personal humility should help us keep on track, preventing us from putting our personal desires before then needs or even the limitations of others. When we get too consumed with ourselves, we can magnify our personal pain and upgrade offenses to the level of sins.

Living the Christian life in wisdom requires balance of principles and considertaions, not pitting them against one another. We must be honest with ourselves, noting that offenses do “come.” The Gospels indicate that though woefully undesirable, they are inevitable. We are called to be slow to anger and to overlook one another's shortcomings in a spirit of love (Proverbs 19:11), but we do experience challenges with one another. Note also that the Word does not declare that the development of offenses over personal matters to constitute sin, though many aberrant Christian ideologies teach that it does. Offenses happen as a consequence of individuality, and love helps us work through our differences, particularly the interpersonal ones.  We should always be mindful, however, that we are not "the law," and we must be lovingly considerate of others, even when we are offended.

Addressing Offenses as a Positive Process

Addressing offenses can be considered a very good and healthy process of fostering trust and bonding. Keeping quiet about the internal discomfort we feel with others divides us, but by addressing our pain and offenses, we remove those impediments. We find new opportunities to love one another, and we create opportunities to learn about ourselves and we do. By confronting one another, we teach each other how to walk in love and all that it entails. Denying offenses serves only to alienate us from others and from God. And when we are approached with offenses, even if they are just points of friction between us, the offending party has the opportunity to practice humility. Assertive confrontation maintains communication and encourages our maturity as we grow in our abilities to be rightly joined together.

Love loves to forgive, and therein is the power which allows us to frame confrontation as a positive practice.

Twisting Love into a Trap of Conformity in High Demand Religion

Aberrant groups use the Law of Love to squelch honest criticism and conflict in an effort to maintain milieu control as a function of spiritual abuse. Demanding perfection of followers, high demand religion requires people to feign and maintain a false sense of peace by shaming them into denying conflict.   Gothardism teaches that it is sinful to even become offended with others because “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Reinforcing the idea that merely developing an offense itself is shameful and sinful (as opposed to how we deal with offense), Bill Gothard teaches that individuals have no personal rights which must be yielded to God by way of yielding to earthly authorities and circumstances. He establishes yielded rights as a truism and includes it as an element of his 49 Character Qualities.

If a person has no rights (including a lack of personal boundaries), they have no right to be offended. These kinds of presumptions about rights predispose people to the Path of Denial.   Though Gothard teaches this formally, I think that the same kind of logical conclusion develops for many Christians who are well outside of unhealthy, cultic religion.  Anyone who feels guilt over their personal needs (which are God-given which require that degree of self-love that Jesus spoke of), believing that they really should have none, will likely struggle with admitting to offenses.  And honestly, no Christian enjoys acknowledging their own lack of love -- resulting in disappointment in ourselves.

Much like my own tendency and example, like many Christians, I have learned through certain social pressures and expectations an impression that even getting offended is a sin. As Christians, if we are truly doing what we're supposed to be doing, we will walk in perfect love, seemingly without a great deal of difficultly. 1 Corinthians 13 says that love is slow to anger and doesn't keep track of wrongs. But note that the passage says that it is not easily offended. It doesn't eliminate the possibility of offense altogether.

In high demand groups, the concept can be taken to another extreme by requiring followers to suffer abuse. By misinterpreting the concept of authority and chain of command as a military-like hierarchy, authoritarian groups often tell those who suffer abuse to resign themselves to abusive situations in the name of love. Not only must they deny a host of offenses as such, they are required to ignore sin deliberately. The concept of a loving disposition as the mechanism by which people can avoid offense becomes a mandate to tolerate all manner of sinful behavior against them. Their love for the offender should blot out sin, and suffering for ignoring sin which is repeated just banks up points of favor with God. The concept wrongly equates all rights and assertiveness as a type of sinful pride.

The concept also blackmails Christians into keeping quiet in the name of preserving unity. Such groups will overfocus upon and distort any verse of Scripture which speaks of unity and mutual care to avoid “discord among the brethren.” Groups use fear to force a highly controlled conformity, mistaking it for unity within diversity. The concept throws wounded people “under the bus,” and legitimizes sin in many cases. Such systems treat victims as the true and greater offenders for “sowing discord,” the sin that cannot be pardoned. All must fall on the sword in order to preserve the illusion of unity and peace.

The Doctrine of Taking Up Offenses

While on the subject of offenses in the context of spiritual abuse, the doctrine of “taking up offenses” deserves honorable mention. Avoiding confrontation by talking to everyone but your offender about the offense they caused is clearly wrong. Matthew Chapters 5 and 18 teach that an offended person should go directly to the those who offended them to privately to address their concerns. However, gossip should be strongly distinguished from this means of manipulation which deters critical thinking and open communication. 

In a high demand or cultic system, tight control of communication keeps people from stimulating one another to think about natural doubts and problems within the group.   “Taking up offenses” serves as just one of the buzz phrases of loaded language in groups like Gothardism.  By tightly controlling and limiting communication among members,  the doctrine is interpreted in ways that discourage and punish warranted dissent and reasonable, spontaneous thought by denying people the right to feel offended, even though offense is inevitable.  If someone wounds one of our loved ones, particularly those for whom we are responsible (e.g., children), we should be offended.   Love should never hide sin, minimize the truth of the harm done to others, or condone evil.  In spiritually abusive settings, love is used to condone evil and requires subordinates to suffer as a religious duty.

Proverbs 3:30 states that we should not “strive with a man without cause, if he has done you no harm.” But the verse does not also say that we should ignore strife when there is a notable cause, nor does it say that we should not be concerned with one another. It does not instruct us to ignore harm that is done to others, nor or that we should ignore what goes on around us.  Our love for one another calls for justice to be established, therefore, legitimate offense serves love by providing for safety and care. 

More yet to come on forgiveness. 

(Link Here to the next post on Nov 17, 2012.)