Deference is putting the welfare of others ahead of our own personal pleasures.
When Paul instructed believers to prefer one another in honor, he defined the essence of deference. In Romans 12:10, the Greek word rendered preferring is proegeomai, meaning “to lead the way for others.” It is a strong word that denotes commanding with official authority, to be chief and having rule. Thus, as we defer to others, we experience the paradox spoken of by Jesus: “Whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all” (Mark 10:44).
Deference is making personal sacrifices in order to help others be successful and putting off words, attitudes, or actions that would cause others to be offended or weakened. We should defer whenever it will benefit the cause of Christ. Deference and discretion work together. “The discretion of a man deferreth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression” (Proverbs 19:11).
Examples of Deference
Scripture contains significant examples of those who demonstrated deference, and their testimonies provide precedents for parallel situations. Therefore, we are encouraged to meditate upon these testimonies so that we can accurately apply the precedents in new circumstances.
Deference to Government
When a tax collector asked Peter if Jesus paid taxes, Peter said, “Yes.” However, Jesus asked Peter, “Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?” (Matthew 17:25).
Peter answered, “Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free” (Matthew 17:26). Having established the fact that He had the right and freedom to not pay taxes, Jesus said, “Lest we should offend them … find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matthew 17:27).
Deference to Children
Jesus gives a strong warning about offending children. “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
The conscience of a child is very sensitive. Vulgar words and actions to which adults may have grown callous can be very hurtful and offensive to children.
Deference to Believers
When new believers who had renounced temple worship saw mature believers buying meat offered to idols because of its bargain price, they became offended, and a major controversy erupted in the young church. In this delicate matter, Paul appealed for deference by those on both sides of the controversy. He appealed especially to those who thought it was right to eat the meat. “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).
The great importance of deference can be seen in this narrative. Paul agrees with those who say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the meat. However, eating the meat becomes wrong if another believer is offended by it or if it is eaten in spite of an inward caution given by the Holy Spirit.
Deference to the Word
After Paul affirms the need to “give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God” (I Corinthians 10:32), he states his own commitment to deference: “Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (I Corinthians 10:33).
In the previous chapter, Paul explains how he demonstrated deference. “Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more” (I Corinthians 9:19).
God’s Mandate for Deference
Deference requires more than choosing to do things that are good. Deference requires that we choose things that are excellent, that we in no way hinder our own walk with Christ or the walks of others.
“And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9–10).
- Do you offend others by the things that you say, do, or wear?
- Do you protect your children from evil?
- Do you keep your home free from things that offend your children or cause them to struggle?
- Do you justify music or activities that offend or weaken fellow Christians?
- Do you offend people of other cultures or ethnic groups by the words you use to describe them?
- Do you make allowances as much as you can to accommodate those from other backgrounds and philosophies?