When we talk about things in our world that are offensive, we of course have to go to Paul and one of the more challenging teachings that he offers. In writing to the Corinthians, the gist of what Paul says is this:
It's perfectly okay to eat food offered to idols; these idols are powerless, so the offering of the food to them does not change the nature of the food. But you may find yourself next to a brother who does not understand this yet, and it may bother him - or worse, lead him astray - to see you eat this food. Therefore, if you have such a brother next to you, do not eat the food, for his sake, even though you know it is okay.
Wow. Okay. This is...complicated.
What is initially most challenging about this is that in a world in which we tiptoe around anything that might possibly offend anyone, we want to think that what Paul is saying is that we should all just live to the lowest common denominator and limit our lives to the non-offensive. That we can never do - or should never do most of the even basic things that we understand that we can do because someone else might not understand that we can do it and we might offend them, or worse, lead them astray.
We actually see this a lot in the seeker-sensitive church, where we have decided that the greatest thing we can do is preach the most basic message of Christ possible so that we don't risk missing anyone who wanders into our building to hear. And what we end up doing is neglecting the growing disciples among us and never offering spiritual food because we're too busy offering milk.
Yet, we know that the Scriptures also tell us that the whole goal of discipleship is that we do grow up and start eating solid food, that we don't live on milk forever.
It's the same principle when we think about what it means to be potentially 'offensive' around our brothers and sisters. It's not that we should never do anything that might be in any way questionable; it's that we have to be mindful about the times when we choose to push the envelope and the relationships we have that would allow us to do that in such a way that we would spur one another on toward growth.
So back to the party with idol food. The reason you don't eat the food offered to idols at the party when it might upset your brother is not because your brother dictates your behavior, but something much greater. The party is not the place for a teaching moment. Regardless of the relationship that you have with this 'weaker' brother (as Paul calls him), it's not a great time, in someone else's home, to talk about how worthless the idols are and therefore, how worthless the food is. This is not the moment to dive into that; we know that as Christians, we have a call to both graciousness and hospitality. So you cannot teach your brother in this moment, and if you cannot teach him, then he is likely to get the wrong impression and form conclusions that will be more difficult to change later.
Thus, you don't eat the food right then. Later, when you have the time to engage relationally with your brother without being rude to your host (say, after the party and when you have all left the building), you can begin to teach him why it would have been okay to eat the food, what God says about such things, and how the powerlessness of the idols means that the food is actually okay and will not question the faith of the faithful.
See, it all goes back to that relational thing. Your weaker brother doesn't get to forever define what you do and don't do, but whether or not you're in a teachable moment absolutely does.
That's the way it is with our language. We should not go off spouting offensive words whenever we feel like it, nor should we be ignorant about the circumstances in which we share our stories. Rather, we have to be mindful about whether what we have is a teachable moment or not. That is, do we have the time and the space to put it in context?
If someone were to walk by our conversation and hear us using an offensive word, they are likely to form a certain impression of us. Are we listening for those who are walking by? Or are we just talking without a care as to what it might suggest to others? If we're listening for those walking by, are we able and willing to reach out an arm, draw them in, and make sure they have the whole context and not just a striking word? Can we explain ourselves? Not just 'can we,' but is it possible given the present circumstances and relational realities? If not, then we should not use the word.
The word that I used, I used on my social media in a closed, privacy-restricted setting with persons with whom I have at least some degree of relationship. I used it in the context of my own story without a broader cultural implication, and yes, I would have been able to use it as a teachable moment if someone were to question it. Therefore, it was appropriate for me to eat that food offered to idols.
But that brings up another challenge that we face in our culture, one that is much more challenging (but to which Paul also speaks). More on that tomorrow.