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Rock of offense

Rock of offense

Reaction to a simple song reveals gospel truth

This summer's much commented-on banning of "Kum Ba Yah" at a Florida camp sounded at first like a tempest in a teapot. Those of us with happy memories of sitting around the campfire or retreat lodge had a common initial reaction: This is silly. Although "Kum Ba Yah" occasionally outstayed its welcome while the die-hards kept proposing new verses ("Someone's happy!" "Someone's dying!" "Someone's ready for this song to end!"), none of us imagined that we were engaged in an objectionable activity. We might have agreed with the mother of the girl who was forbidden to sing it: "I learned that song in Girl Scouts, not in church. It's a campfire song, for goodness sake."

But take another look at the camp director's concern about the song's generous use of the word Lord ("we didn't want to take the chance of a child offending another child's religion") and his postmodern contention that in a secular setting "you have to check your religion at the door." Gene Edward Veith correctly pointed out in these pages that "Lord" is a designation used for a god in many religions ("Censoring 'Kum Ba Yah,'" Sept. 2). In one sense, however, the girl's mother was wrong, and the camp director was right, if only on instinct. If we assume that "Lord" is a Christian expression referring to Jesus Christ, then the song could well be offensive. Christians need to recognize this, particularly in the atmosphere of increasing christophobia that surrounds us: Our Lord is an offense.

"Those who are perishing" are insulted at the proposition that everyone-even supposedly innocent children-stands condemned before the awesome holiness of God. They are repulsed by the idea that "mistakes" are really sins that can't be purged without the blood of a perfect sacrifice. They laugh at the assertion that the perfect sacrifice lay dead in a tomb for three days, then came bodily (not just spiritually) back to life and walked the earth for 40 days before He was taken up to heaven. This has been the response of the world from the first preaching of the gospel, and will be until the last-scorn and repulsion. In a word, they are offended.

"That offends me," today often means no more than, "My feelings are hurt." But the word commonly translated as "offend" in the New Testament is skandalizo, meaning to trip up or stumble, or cause to stumble. Later translations often render it that way: Chapter 16 of the Gospel according to John (in the New King James Version) begins, "These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble" (in the King James Version, "offended"). Matthew 13:21 states, "For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles" (in the KJV, "is offended"). First Peter 2:8 states clearly that to unbelievers Jesus has become "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense." Pious Jews and worldly Greeks had this much in common: Jesus tripped them up. The reaction to Him was either fury from the Jews (Matthew 13:57) or scorn from the Greeks (Acts 17:32), but unless their hearts were changed by the power of the Holy Spirit they could go no farther with Him.

The modern world has plunged into paganism, and Christians face a situation remarkably like the first-century Roman Empire. Efforts by social gospelers, unitarians, and secularists to domesticate Christ have failed, and thank God for that. He will not be domesticated, will not be anything less than Lord. When He "comes by here" again, those who rejected Him will stumble indeed. Modern pagans are instinctively grasping, better than some Christians, that Christ is an offense-the stumbling block set square in the middle of human history by God Almighty to divide those who are justified from those who are not.

But we who belong to Him must understand that we are not greater than our master. Paul is brutally plain: To unbelievers Christians are the stench of death (2 Corinthians 2:16).

Not that Christians should crawl into a cellar and close the hatch to avoid insulting the delicate nostrils of the unsaved. On the contrary, we are commanded to be out in the open air, continually holding up Christ with a gracious spirit and a humble heart. But we should also be wise as serpents in understanding the nature of the world, and the nature of our Lord. They cannot offend us (make us stumble). But we will offend them, unless God mercifully uses our witness to transform hearts of stone into flesh. Our reward is not the respect and good will of the world, but the promise of Christ Himself: "... and blessed is he who is not offended because of Me."