Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Sarcastic Pastors

I am literally a pajama blogger. I am, in fact, right now typing in my pajamas. I have no authority. No one needs to listen to me. But some of you do seem to consider my opinion, and I feel a need to articulate, at least for myself, why I believe the sarcastic, smart-ass pastor is offensive to God. I've thought a lot about it, and I've decided to use that word, smart-ass, in this post, by the way. Sometimes, it's best to call a spade a spade and to name a sin the sin that it is. Scripture models this with brutally honest language at times (there is a difference in brutal honesty and sarcasm, by the way). Whether smart-ass refers to a donkey or the least clean part of the human anatomy, it is an appropriate term for an ungodly, sinful manner of speaking that is tolerated in Christian media and blogs. Half of the readers here will have no idea why I'm explaining why I am using that word. The other half is searching right now for the unsubscribe button on their email. But it is the most appropriate word for an ugly trend I see among some popular Christians who hold the office of pastor in influential churches, so I'm using it. I can be sarcastic too. I can be a smart-ass. It is tempered in myself by a strong conviction not to use sarcasm at the expense of the person who is listening to me speak. But sometimes I do use it sinfully, and when I do, I try to correct it as soon as I catch myself or come to my senses (because sarcasm can inflate you and feed a prideful attitude that distracts you from the virtue of humility and love for your brother).

The Scriptural argument against exploitive sarcasm is so clear that I feel a bit like I'm arguing against pastors tweeting about lusting after their church secretaries. I don't know why I even need to make this argument, except that I do. Consider the definition of sarcasm.
sar·casm 
1. harsh or bitter derision or irony. 
2. a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark: a review full of sarcasms. (dictionary.reference.com)
The entire point of sarcasm is to cut down. Yet, the Apostle Paul instructs this.
Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Here's the thing about sarcasm, especially publicly spoken sarcasm heard by a broad audience that cuts at a particular person or group of people. It is simply disobedient to Scripture. Even secular, potty-mouthed society recognizes its ugliness, which is why it's attached the title smart-ass to people who employ it as a regular part of their conversation. Oh, smart-asses are smart. When I use sarcasm, I use it often simply to display my perceived wit and superior knowledge. I'm embarrassed with myself just writing that last sentence. But at times, I have thought, “I'm smart, and here's a little cutting remark at someone else's expense to prove it.” But the final 3-letter add-on is the truth. Such wit and superior knowledge displayed by way of cutting down someone else actually reveals you to be either a donkey or the filthiest part of the human anatomy. What it does NOT reveal you to be is a man or woman after God's own heart, speaking fitting words like apples of gold in settings of silver according to the wisdom of Proverbs.

I hear some who regularly employ cutting sarcasm referred to by others as wordsmiths. But really, they are disobedient Christians who despise the limitations Scripture sets up on the language they can use at the expense of the people God has called them to love or serve. I perceive that other leaders don't call such sarcastic, cutting pastors out on their language because they don't want to become their fodder. It's painful to be cut at by the sarcastic Christian leader! I've felt the sting of their whip a time or two.

Worse yet, sometimes leaders don't call out other leaders because they actually enjoy hearing someone else's sarcasm, especially when it cuts at their own enemy or someone in a demographic they already dislike. It saves them from violating their own conscience with cutting words which maybe they don't employ as well as the sarcastic pastor. But it's sin at the expense of another, and we should not tolerate it or secretly enjoy it when others employ it.

When I think how I would respond if a pastor tweeted that they robbed a bank or lusted after their secretary, it's clearer to me the appropriate response when they make cutting comments at the expense of their audience. They are smart-asses, and while God uses each of us despite our weaknesses and propensity towards sin, He never calls us to sweep such sin under the carpet, especially when it is at the expense of another of His image bearers

Finally, it's good for me to post this publicly, because it keeps me accountable from using such sarcasm to inflate myself as I am sometimes tempted to do.

27 comments:

  1. For some time now, our family, sadly prone to sarcasm, has had this verse taped up on our refrigerator:

    Proverbs 26:18-19
    Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!”

    Thank you for the good reminder, Wendy!
    ~Leigh Ann

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    1. That is an excellent Scripture reference on the subject. Thanks for adding it!

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  2. Thanks for posting! You are right. Sarcasm just grates and is not helpful. I don't get why in some cases, the "witty" use of sarcasm can actually make people popular. But yes, from a pastor it is not a wise rhetorical tool. Ros

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  3. This is great food for thought. It definitely makes me re-think some of the pastor/preachers I have been drawn to in the past. Is isn't very edifying for the church to have sit under men like that. I can definitely see how easy it would be to have that rub off onto the congregation.

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    1. It does often rub off onto the congregation. In my experience, sarcastic lead pastors don't appreciate the sarcasm others have learned from them being used back with them. So congregants and church leaders learn to use sarcasm, but only at the expense of those under them, which just compounds the ugliness all the more.

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    2. Yeah, definitely. I totally agree with you on this. :)

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  4. I actually laughed out loud at "Half of the readers here will have no idea why I'm explaining why I am using that word. The other half is searching right now for the unsubscribe button on their email." I totally get it.

    Good post.

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  5. The blame for these smart-ass, so-called "pastors" being able to continue to offend the sensibilities of decent people can be squarely laid on the so-called "men" who are supposed to hold them accountable - their elders.

    Unfortunately, too many so-called 'elders' are merely "yes-men," hirelings - timid, spineless, 'men without chests' as C.S. Lewis called them - who suck up to and constantly seek the approval of their master - the abusive, smart-ass pastor who merely uses them to further his own ends. Once he tires of or feels challenged by one of these lackeys, he throws them under his bus.

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  6. When Elijah said to the prophets of Baal maybe your God has turned aside ( meaning maybe he's on the toilet) He was being sarcastic. When Paul said "I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves" he was at the least being a smart ass if not being sarcastic. Your verse doesn't cover everything. There is a place for sarcasm. Sorry.

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    1. "There is a place for sarcasm. Sorry."

      Depends on what it's aimed at. I'm sure God has no problem with us being sarcastic about the devil's schemes. But I seriously doubt that sarcasm belongs in the pulpit. What sane Christian - let alone pastor! - would claim to be in the league of Elijah or Paul?

      I can be sarcastic. We English know how to make an insult sound like a compliment. ;) But I'm hard pressed to think of any time when my sarcasm has been godly, and I've never been edified or encouraged when on the receiving end of someone else's sarcasm. To be a robust Christian is not the same as being a jackass. And I would run a mile from a harsh, sarcastic pastor.

      I've met some Christians who think their particular theological position gives them some divine sanction to be rude. The unconscious attitude seems to be, "Well, I know I'm doctrinally correct (and therefore God is TOTES on my side), so it doesn't matter how I talk to a non-Christian or the weaker brother/sister."

      It matters hugely. Harsh words in church never, ever, have a good outcome. Paul exhorted us: "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." Colossians 4:6 (ESV)

      I really enjoy your blog, Wendy. :)

      - Philippa

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    2. Matt, and God struck people dead. But when He strikes people dead and then tells us don't kill anyone, do you have a problem recognizing the difference in the two?

      However, in Paul's case, he was not cutting at his audience. And that is the important distinction I am making here.

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    3. Matt, I also note the example of the children who mocked Elisha. They were mauled by a bear if my memory serves me correctly. The fact that Scripture gives examples of people using sarcasm and cutting words certainly does not mean that we should too.

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  7. Here's a link to a post from The Gospel Coalition on sarcasm in personal relationships. I found it a couple of months ago when I was searching for some words other than my own to share with someone I love whose use of sarcasm toward me was painful.
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/03/07/battling-sinful-sarcasm/

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    1. I saved this article back in March it was so helpful, and convicting. Good reminder, and excellent post Wendy. Keep 'em coming.

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  8. Thank you Anonymous for the link. It is interesting that the author, I think, nailed it when she likened sarcasm to a shield or a weapon. I also liked the reminder that there is grace for the sarcastic. On the cross in the midst of being a target of sarcastic comments thrown his way, Christ died for our sinful hearts. Amazing grace.

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  9. I agree with you about 95%. I think that especially with digital communication sarcasm just doesn't not communicate well. So mostly it seems mean. And I think that many that use sarcasm intend it to be mean. So they fall into your verses about why you should not use sarcasm.

    But I agree that universal condemnation of sarcasm as sin excludes, the way that sarcasm is used in scripture. In addition to the Elijah and Paul examples above, I would say that in Judges 10:14 (voice is God) when he tells the people, "Go and cry out to the gods that you have chosen for yourselves. Let them deliver you in your time of trouble." There are quite a few other prophetic statements that seem to fall into the sarcastic vein.

    I think intent matters. Sarcasm can be used to shock people into paying attention to the message. The classic '10,000 children died today because of hunger and you don't give a damn, and you are no more concerned about the fact I said damn than the children'. Is a good example of a sarcastic comment that could be used to shock people out of complacency.

    But it is not intended as a directly cutting remark to harm someone, instead it is intended to move them in the right direction. The problem is that many of the sarcastic pastors would claim the same intention. However, they are not self-reflective enough to understand how others might mis-interpret their intentions.

    So I agree with you that sarcasm is a bad idea, especially for pastors, especially in digital communication. But I am not willing to say that it is always sinful. It may be sinful, but I think most of the time it is just unwise.

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  10. I just stumbled on this piece about writing and speaking that I think hits at a lot of what you are trying to say, without calling out sarcasm as sin. It is a very different type of piece, looking at his own writing not other peoples. But I thought you might find it interesting.

    (Alan Jacobs) https://medium.com/this-happened-to-me/241a5a0dc27a

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  11. Wendy, thank you so much for this post. Like you, I often believe that sarcasm by a Christian leader is more about ego and pride than it is about toughness on sin. And when I hear that a sarcastic pastor is called a "wordsmith " ------ well, maybe I better not comment.

    Thank you for saying what needs to be said, and I hope that your post gets wide circulation!

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Laurieg. It has gotten a lot more attention than I expected. It is resonating with many.

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  12. You quote Ephesians 4:29 "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" in relation to sarcasm.

    I would suggest that what you call sarcasm actually has very good use in cutting down arguments, as opposed to people (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). It is often more effective to subject an absurd assertion to wit than a plodding methodical analysis. I think that it was C.S. Lewis, who made the point that the devil cannot bear scorn more than anything else.

    As per directing such sarcasms against the person, I cannot see much winsomeness in it, except as perhaps last resort, when nothing else works. I am afraid that there is much sarcasm in Matthew 23. Therefore, you cannot make a blanket argument against such polemics. "Good for building up" can also mean making people uncomfortable.


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    1. Hi, John. Thanks for commenting. I'm specifically talking about sarcasm employed at the expense of another image bearer of God. I think I've been clear about that.

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    2. John, I couldn't agree more: "I would suggest that what you call sarcasm actually has very good use in cutting down arguments, as opposed to people..."

      I recently wrote a blog post taking on a piece published by The Resurgence which contained some harmful & silly ideas about women, and I did so using sarcasm. It resonated with many people. I absolutely believe it can be an excellent tool used to illustrate points that might otherwise not be well made.

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  13. A good general filter / Biblical principle when using sarcasm is -- am I doing this to feed my flesh or am I doing it humbly out of genuine love for my audience?

    Many Christians have used the stories of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple to justify their outbursts of anger despite the fact Scripture clearly instructs that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Be wary of twisting Scripture's examples of things people did with Scripture's instructions on what you and I should do. Those are two really different things. We recognize it more clearly with an Israelite who cut up his concubine or God striking someone dead when they touch the Arc of the Covenant. But then we throw that discernment out the window when someone is does something in Scripture that our flesh longs to do. There are things God can do that you and I can't. We can't forgive sins or turn water into wine. And when we attempt to use righteous anger the way He does, it goes badly. Which is why He instructs us to not do that. Same with cutting words at the expense of another. Never in Scripture are we instructed TO DO THAT.

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  14. One more idea -- in my experience, pastors who do this regularly and then justify it afterwards practically view themselves as above the Word of God. Some believe they are prophets speaking Words from God on par with the Cannon of Scripture. Paul says don't use words that cut down another but use words that minister grace to the hearer. These pastors disobey that instruction, but do it with the justification that Paul, Elijah, and Jesus did. But that justification reveals that they view themselves as writers of Scripture or God Himself, who gets to pick when and where they actually have to obey the Scripture given by Paul, Elijah, or Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That is seriously troubling. I expect that among denominations without a high view of Scripture, but when it's reformed pastors with, in theory, a high view of the Cannon of Scripture, they do not match in practice their theology on paper.

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  15. "There is a place for sarcasm..."

    I would suggest the only safe place to use sarcasm is from a very low place, a humble place. Paul wrote scathing letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians, indeed, but he said in 2Corinthians that before he was crying out to God. With real tears. And Elijah had some serious humbling after his smart-ass talk to the Baal worshipers. He sure didn't sass Jezebel.

    I once rebuked an adept wielder of that serrated blade of sarcasm for his ungraciousness online, saying "that for those who are proud there is much to be recommended in the use of that serrated edge encompassing satire, sarcasm and Open Letters, ...but I suspect tears and prayer had honed the blades of Jesus and Paul and Elijah. Those kind of motives and emotions keep chances of bleeding to a minimum for rebukers using such messy implements."

    I know my own proud heart and seeing its effects, I have no taste for sarcasm now. I really recoil at its use. I guess because I sit under a pastor who does not seem to have a sarcastic bone in his body, and I see how we as a body are really being built up, through the earnest application of the word of God, and prayer. And I think too, a lot of hidden tears.

    Those who truly mourn over sin are the only ones safe enough to get sassy at sinners about it. But those are the kind who almost never use it, and if they do, it is as a last desperate measure to break a hard heart.

    Karen Butler

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