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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 

Offending That Which Is Offensive

When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" 4 And Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me" (Matthew 11:1-6, NASB).

I used to have one of those "Jesus fish" emblems on my truck, but due to an unfortunate accident my truck suffered at the hands of a friend's knee (don't ask -- it's still difficult to talk about), the emblem is no longer there. But, driving around an area like Louisville, you are bound to see your share of them on the back of cars. And they come in all variations -- some small or large, gold or silver, and some with either the words Jesus or ICTHUS (which is the word for "fish" in Greek, and actually is an acronym, the words of which are Greek and mean "Jesus, Christ, God, Son, and Savior) inside them. I even once saw one on the back of a Cadillac Escalade that said "Jabez" inside of the fish. Guess those guys were expanding there territory so much that they pushed Jesus out of the fish.

Unfortunately though, even as people have celebrated this symbol that once aided in the recognition of Christians in the 1st century while helping them to avoid persecution, there are a number of people who find this symbol to be fun to use to mock Christians. Not understanding its significance in the history of Christianity, all sorts of people display a fish on the backs of their cars with the term "Darwin" on it. It's usually fitted with a pair of feet to emphasize that the driver believes in evolution, as opposed to Christianity. Of course, there are other types of fish parodies as well. Some say "N Chips" or "Bite Me" or even "Sushi."

Every time that I see this on the back of someone's car I have a real desire to go up to them and ask them if they know how offensive those parodies of the FISH are. Do they, for instance, know that upwards of tens of thousands of Christians were killed by the Romans when the symbol of the FISH was employed in order to acknowledge fellow brothers in Christ without running the risk of being killed? Or that the numbers are even worse today, with some estimating that throughout the world as many as 170,000 Christians die due to persecution every year? Or that many more are persecuted by being starved, beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, all because of the name of Christ? When I actually consider the numbers and what the symbol of the FISH meant to the early Christians it does anger me to see it used so flippantly by some Christians and mocked by those who are not of the faith.

But then I have to stop and remember the offense that Jesus said He would be to people. I have to remember that, according to Paul, the cross itself is an offense (1 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 5:11). The word for "offense" in those passages is "skandolon," from which we derive the English words, "scandal" and "scandalous." Jesus Christ and the cross are scandalous, He is offensive and what He did was offensive. So should we be surprised to see people react to the man and His message with mockery and disdain? Of course not! In fact, we should rejoice that Jesus words noted above are fulfilled even in our day, as they were in His.

When we approach the problem of postmodernism and its emphasis on moral relativity, we cannot be shocked by what a scandal it is to preach truth. Today, many church leaders and pastors are attempting to meld postmodernism with Christianity -- to "contextualize" it to the postmodern culture. But can it really be done? Can something so offensive like Jesus' words of absolute truth, His work on the cross, and His call for His disciples to lay down their lives for Him really be contextualized into a culture that finds it scandalous to proclaim such things? And what about God? Is He surprised that so many people in this new postmodern context reject His message of Love and sacrifice?

I think the answers to the above questions are "NO." The early believers weren't persecuted because they were giving the Romans an alternate choice of gods. Rather, it was because they proclaimed the absolute superiority of Christ to all other choices. They were bold in teaching that the Roman gods were demons or were merely figments of the Romans' imaginations. And as they did this, the Church grew. Read that sentence again -- THE CHURCH GREW! It grew so much despite the culture's rejection of the Christian worldview that Tertuallian, a third century Christian who came to Christ through examining the courage of those enduring persecution, is said to have written, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

So next time you see something like what Madonna did on stage this week, placing herself on a giant mirrored cross as she sang one of her songs, or notice one of those FISH emblems with "Darwin" stuck in the middle on a passing car, let it serve as a reminder of the persecution of the early Christians, the persecution that continues today in places like China and North Korea and Iran, and the persecution that will surely be a part of ours or our children's lives one day. Remember that they are merely offending that which is offensive to them. And let it remind you to be bold, even as those who have lost their lives were, with the message of Christ, not compromising it for the sake of a "contextualization" that will never be as effective as "the blood of martyrs."

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Is contextualization synonymous with compromise? That seems to be what you're saying, but I need not remind you that every culture contextualizes everything to their own situation- even you.

It seemed like you forced that whole stream of thought into the rest (about offending that which is offensive) to take a shot at those of us who are trying desperately to tell the SAME STORY YOU ARE (that found in the Bible) in a way that people today will understand. Most of us compromise nothing, but we certainly seem to have more patience than those who have preceded us.

Joe, I think you assume I am talking about some people that I may not be (and include yourself as if this was directed at you). I think some people use the term 'contextualize' to rid the message of Christ of the offense of the cross and the call to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. I see a lot of people out there who seem to focus on the culture to the absolute exclusion of the message. I think if you knew who I had in mind when I wrote this you might agree with me more.

But, just for clarification, I am not talking about guys like Mark Driscoll, Joe Thorn, and Steve McCoy. I am talking about an extreme branch of the Emerging Church that seems to 'compromise' under the guise of contextualization. But thank you for your thoughts and I am glad I at least illicited a response, even if it was a negative one. BTW, did you see my response to your comment on my earlier post about homosexuality. What did you think about what I said?

Hey man, I wasn't really thinking about Steve or Joe, although I was looking that the Emerging Church type folks. (Not all, we both know there are messed up people in all groups.)

The rest of the post, though, I agreed with. In fact, I liked it.

As for the other comment, I wanted to clarify that I wasn't attempting to compare my statement to Paul's in Romans. I prefer to begin my argument against homosexuality's status as natural or unnatural in Genesis (Creation, the Fall). Of course, it doesn't work if one doesn't believe it, but... you know. And that's where it came from.

Also, I'm willing to concede (and may be proven completely wrong one day, or completely right) that people CAN be born with the propensity toward same-sex attraction. But Day and I have had this conversation enough times now that I'm used to thinking that concept through.

Joe, thanks for the clarification about your issue with my post. I realize that I was a bit ambiguous, but it was intentional. And while my stream of thought might have been somewhat jumbled, I felt that the issue of offense tied in well with those who worry more about offending than they do about the message of Christ, which the Bible clearly declares to be offensive. So those were my thoughts going in and that is what came out. Not my best post, but what was on my heart.

As to your views on "natural/unnatural" I think you may be right about being born with the propensity to sin in this regard. It wouldn't actually affect my theology one bit if they did find a "gay gene," but my problem with using the words "natural/unnatural" is that they were used by Paul and if you notice Dan T's argument, he took what Paul meant and twisted it to mean "one's individual nature." And so that is why I won't use those words to describe propensity. I understood how you used them, but I just wanted to point out that they often confuse the issue because of the pro-homosexual side's use of that term.

Glad to see you interacting with Day on this though. There is a wealth of pro-homosexual material out there and so few sites that defend the Biblical view with clarity AND charity. This is one of those issues that is better dealt with one-on-one with people in the homosexual community that we can talk to, not talk at. The few conversations I had with a former co-worker who was gay always were calm, respectful, and mutually charitable. But his view of my position before our conversations was due to bad material out there and the crazies that preach at folks while waving Bibles and signs that say, "God Hates Fags." It is unfortunate that true Christians have to witness to homosexuals when that has shaped their view of Christianity.

DR, Day is one of my best friends from high school. We even share the same birthday, except I'm a year older. He wasn't gay back then (he'd tell you different, but he'd understand what I mean by saying that). We have a lot in common, outside of that one glaring difference.

As for this post, I think we're on the same page. There are a lot of people who avoid offending people, and that's their primary concern. I also think there are plenty of people on the other side who don't watch their words nearly as closely as they should, and they are offensive when they do not need to be. It goes both ways.

You know that, because you cited the epitome of offensiveness that is Fred Phelps.

"So next time you see something like what Madonna did on stage this week, ... or notice one of those FISH emblems with "Darwin" stuck in the middle on a passing car, let it serve as a reminder of the persecution of the early Christians..."

and the next time you hear some religionist compare the latest book's "heretical" writings, the actions of pop stars or signs on cars to actual persecution of the early church, we all need to let it serve as a reminder of how far we've come (or not...) from the early church's radical witness.


Good reminder of the inherently offensive nature of the gospel. There is a rub of discomfort when sin is addressed and one realizes he or she cannot fix the problem.

(and, for the record, the 'knee of the friend' incident was entirely minimal compared to what you did to his car one year later; you seem to always forget that small detail)

Jason Sampler

Dan, did you actually read the article or just skip to the part about Early Church persecution?

If you noticed I wasn't comparing what Madonna did to the Early Church persecution, I was pointing to the offense of the Gospel to those who are not Christians. I used the Madonna "offense" as an example of "offending that which is offensive" and in so doing pointed to the fact that doing what Madonna and those who put such things on the back of their cars is indeed offensive to the Early Church who endured incredible persecution for their beliefs.

However, I made sure to clearly not suggest that we have been persecuted like the Early Church, but rather we have merely been inconvenienced, nothing like what the Early Church went through. Wow, how did you get just the opposite message of what I intended? Please re-read the article with a more open mind.

BTW, Dan,

What "latest book's 'heretical' writings" are you referring to? I mentioned no book in this post. And if you are referring to McLaren's book, I have never used the word "heretical" to describe it, nor have I compared it to Early Church persecution, even as I didn't compare what Madonna did to that either.

When I mentioned the heretical book, I wasn't even really referring to anything you had written, as my point was a general one, not directed towards you in particular. (The heretical book I had in mind was the DaVinci Code.)

My point was that those who find pointed to the fact that "doing what Madonna and those who put such things on the back of their cars is indeed offensive to the Early Church who endured incredible persecution for their beliefs" have a low threshhold for "offensive" and that they should not confuse that for persecution.

I didn't confuse it with persecution and yet, it was offensive. Again, my post was clear that the point was that the cross is offensive to non-Christians, even as Jesus said He would be. Hence, "offending that which is offensive."


As I reflect on the "Darwin fish", I wonder...are they offended by the cross and the gospel, or are they offended by (or at least poking fun at) certain Christians.

Don't get me wrong, the first time I saw the fish with feet, my stomach turned. But do they know what they're mocking? Or do they think they're mocking the Christian consumerism that buys and brandishes whatever the latest "Christian" trinket might be. (Hence the Jabez fish, the "Truth" fish eating the Darwin fish, knockoff Livestrong bracelets, etc.)

Just wondering out loud...

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About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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