When I joined the United States Army in June 1970, I was shipped to Fort Jackson, South Carolina just outside the capital of Columbia for basic training. One of my fellow recruits was a guy I’ll just call by his first name, Edison. Edison was from Alma, Georgia and according to his account he left behind a young wife and a forty acre farm. Edison’s enthusiasm for the military life waned quickly, and one evening while we were polishing our boots in the barracks he confided in me he was planning go back to his wife and farm. I told him, “Edison, this isn’t the Boy Scouts; they’ll come looking for you.”
In the military when one fails to report for duty and cannot be located he is AWOL, absent without leave. If the absence was intentional it is punishable with a fine, jail time, or demotion, or any combination thereof. The military takes it seriously when one takes the oath to defend the Constitution of the United States from “all enemies foreign or domestic.” I am not sure what Edison was thinking.
It is not uncommon for a person who has been a member of a church or attends one to be hurt by some incident that happens at church. While it is much more, the church is in one sense a gathering of people and as such is a social gathering. And as is the case with any social gathering it is amazingly easy for someone to get offended and their feelings hurt. Emotions can be especially heightened when the subject matter addresses those things we believe and how we should live in the light of those beliefs.
The problem is twofold. I have found some who claim to be Christians capable of saying and doing some of the most thoughtless and insensitive things imaginable. They seem to ignore Paul’s admonition, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person,” Colossians 4:6. Christians should be careful and thoughtful in what they say as those who are concerned about others and will give an account (Matthew 12:36).
Then there are those who have a very high opinion of themselves and the things they believe and do. They are quick to take offense if anyone questions their practices or intentions. They are resistant to change, but the Christian faith is all about change. It is about being transformed into the image of Christ.
Jesus made it clear that the Gospel itself is offensive. It requires one to accept or reject His exclusive claims. As He said, “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Matthew 12:30). So it is to be expected that some will not embrace the Gospel and turn aside to do as they please. But while the message of the Gospel is offensive in the sense that it requires a decision that is exclusive and demanding, it does not give Christians the right to be offensive in their presentation of the Gospel, or in the way we live and interact with others.
So where does that leave a Christian who has been offended by someone at church. He should objectively examine his own behavior and beliefs to see if there is some truth in what was said or done that caused him to be offended, and determine what, if any, corrective action should be taken. The fellowship and interaction between those within the family of God are elements of the maturation process in becoming more Christ-like.
But sometimes the offense creates a division, that despite forgiving the other party, harmonious cooperation in furthering the Gospel is impossible. This happened with Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:36-41). Despite the disagreement that parted Barnabas and Paul, they went their separate ways and God blessed the work of both.
When such a conflict occurs it does not give the offended party a right to go AWOL. For the Christian, going AWOL is not an option. If necessary the believer may need to move on and find another place of worship and service, but going AWOL is not permitted. Baptism is an oath of service.
In the military when one is AWOL long enough it becomes desertion. It is much the same in a spiritual sense. Those who are AWOL from church long enough usually desert the faith.