I recently used the word “nipple” in a blog, which understandably generated some comments of concern. The Nipplegate scandal gave me a sizable dose of conviction, so I decided to study the issue of “crude joking,” which is clearly condemned in Ephesians 5:4.
My initial stance was that the crudeness of a joke is relative to the company you’re with. When you’re with your Baptist grandma, don’t talk like you’re Daniel Tosh, but around close friends, just make sure you execute your jokes well.
I was wrong.
In context, the command against crude joking (εὐτραπελία, the only time it appears in the NT) comes right after Paul tells the Ephesians to not let any sexual immorality, impurity, or covetousness be “named among them,” (5:3) and right before he instructs them not to become partners with the “sons of disobedience (5:6)." In chapter 4, Paul urges the Ephesians to no longer walk in the "futility" of their minds (4:17), to put off their old selves (4:23-24), and to get rid of "corrupting talk (4:29)," which includes bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander (4:31).
Since Scholars have observed that the Ancient Greek culture loved dirty witticism, “crude joking” is not relative to what’s culturally acceptable, but involves the very intention (goal) and content of the joke. Intention does not mean “I intended it to be funny, you just took it the wrong way,” but refers to the desire (subconscious or not) for
degradation of others
making light of sin
making light of God.
There are many “clean” jokes that fail this test.
In terms of content, Paul is not saying that joking about sex is wrong, but rather making light of sexual immorality. A married woman saying to a married man "You know what we're going to do tonight, wink, wink," is not crude because sex within marriage honors God and is uniting rather than divisive. But joking about rape, for example, even between a husband and wife, is forbidden.
This principle is timeless and universal, so it doesn’t matter if we’re in the pulpit or the bar - the manner in which we are to joke stays the same.
So, can we watch South Park or not?
Now, South Park is one of the best at using satire and irony to give insight into society, but in a way this is like saying a massive quantity of beer is healthy because it is a source of Niacin.
But before you shout "Fun-da-mental-ist!" I’m not urging everyone to avoid good TV, I’m just saying that if you think about your mental diet, what are you feeding your mind with the most? The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart (Matt. 15:18), and our hearts do a good job of loving what we surround ourselves with.
But isn't sarcasm off limits?
Sarcasm can pack a mighty punch, so it got thrown out of the boat entirely in some circles, turning Christian humor into this:
But God-honoring humor does not mean that jokes have to involve either 1) Noah’s ark being a smelly cruise, 2) Eve commenting about the outdated style of Adam’s leaf skirt, or 3) Jesus turning water into Mr. Pibb. There are numerous passages in the Bible that use sarcasm as an effective rhetorical device. Here are two of my favorites:
1) 1 Kings 18:27:
With a severe famine plaguing Israel because the nation had abandoned God's commandments in favor of Baal worship, God sends the prophet Elijah to give this message to the prophets of Baal:
"'Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.'”
That’s right, prophets of Baal. Your fake god can’t get rid of the famine because he must be going to the bathroom. Ba-zing!
2) 1 Cor. 4:8-9:
The church in Corinth had mistakenly believed that the future aspect of the Kingdom of God had already arrived, so these immature believers were living like they were wise kings and rulers of the world. This is what Paul says to them:
"Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men."
Paul could have said “You have expressed that you are now living as kings, which insinuates that the apostles are not, which is amusing for the reason that it is untrue.” But instead, he said it like this:
“Oh my gosh, you have become kings? All by your biiiig selves? Can a widdle apostle like me join your mighty ranks?”
We can assume the message had more sting because of this rhetorical device. Sarcasm, when used effectively, is a tool that pierces listeners with the truth.
God-honoring humor reveres what is good, points out what is true, encourages other people, and exposes (not glorifies) what is evil. When used in a timely, appropriate manner, sarcasm can be a powerful tool for doing these things. When used in an inappropriate manner, it conveys nothing but scorn, arrogance, and self-glorification.
"Sarcasm must be used wisely or not at all, and must always fit into the "speak the truth in love" category."
Rather than telling yourself “I must stop joking,” make an accurate assessment of what your heart is joking about in the first place. Do you delight in what is pure, lovely, commendable, worthy of excellence and praise (Phil. 4:8), or do you delight in what’s wicked? Do you make jokes to cut other people down?
I asked myself these questions, and I didn’t like my answers. My jokes often reveal that my heart is bitter, a mocker, and flat out obscene. But it’s not that I need to shut my mouth, it’s that I need my heart to be changed.
When our mouths remind us of how wicked our hearts are, we can do nothing but repent and thank Jesus for saving us despite them, and pray that the Holy Spirit continues to refine our minds, hearts, and mouths. Then we can joke in a way that honors the God who created joking.