In a community such as the local church, we find a variety of people and personalities. Such blessing of variety can challenge the unity of the church. Relationships must endure different cultures, perspectives, and personalities. It is not surprising that God’s Word reveals the unity of the church as a miraculous gift of the gospel. The gospel unites enemies, and the gospel preserves the unity of the people (Ephesians 2 and 4).
As a testimony of the power of the gospel, Christians must preserve the unity of the church (Ephesians 4:1-3). Ultimately, the preaching of the gospel creates the environment for unity. It is through the power of the Word that Jesus creates His church. It is also through the power of the Word that Jesus sustains His church (Hebrews 1:1-3). This is one of the reasons why sins of speech are such a big deal in the Bible. As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called to put off sins of speech that attack the unity of the church for the sake of the gospel. Christians must clothe themselves with words of grace that build the body of Christ.
One of the ways that we sin in speech is through a bad usage of humor. Jokes can edify, helping to create a sense of community and humility among the hearers. But humor can also destroy as a powerful weapon under the influence of sin. Humor is not neutral. Pride finds a fertile ground in humor, creating divisiveness and distracting us from the beauty of the gospel. The Bible describes ungodly speech/humor that divides the church, instructing us to put off bad humor. The following is a sample of five kinds of jokes that Christians must put off:
- Jokes that deceive. “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I am only joking!’” (Proverbs 26:18, 19). The immediate context (vv. 17-22) indicates that there is a bad usage of humor in the quarreling tongue. The passage goes deeper than an exhortation against practical jokes. The passage is exhorting those who deceive and slander and justify their attitude as if it was a game or some sort of living soap opera. Christians must not use deceit as a game. Deceit and slandering divide the body of Christ as a bad witness for the gospel.
- Jokes that mock sin. Bad humor makes fun of sin and out of sin. The same sin that cost the blood of Jesus Christ in the cross is the object of humor for some. Jokes that find a laugh in the enslaving condition of sin (drunkenness, gluttony, homosexuality, stealing, etc.) despise the seriousness of sin. The next step is to mock the possibility of restoration towards the path of life, which keeps the sinner away from true repentance. “Fools mock at the guilt offering, but the upright enjoy acceptance.” (Proverbs 14:9). Or “…he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.” (Proverbs 17:5b). Using sin as the object of humor will keep the sinner away from repentance, creating division in the body of Christ and a hostile atmosphere for seeking help.
- Jokes that make fun of the creature (and the Creator). Sinful humor uses the exaggeration of one’s characteristics for a good laugh. Probably, out of an attitude of pride, one makes fun of someone else’s physical or social characteristics. The Bible connects the judgment of the creature as an offense to the Creator. “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker” (Proverbs 17:5a). “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker” (Proverbs 14:31a). “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense” (Proverbs 11:12a). Or, consider how James connects horizontal judgment with vertical judgment: “Do not speak evil against each other, brothers. The one who speaks against brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11, 12). Making fun of one’s physical or social characteristics is an attempt to establish another judge in the community, creating division from the true Judge’s community.
- Jokes with double meaning. Sexual connotation is a common practice in worldly and sinful humor, but not in the community that holds the name of Jesus. “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking” (Ephesians 5:3, 4). Sexual immorality does not edify the body of Christ, but creates a culture of lust that leads to strife and division (James 4:1ff).
- Jokes that do not edify. Besides all the above, any joke that does not serve the purpose of edification and the glory of God must be replaced by words of grace (Ephesians 4:29). It is the grace through the word of God that creates and edifies the body of Christ. Humor and jokes must serve the purpose of edification, just as any sort of communication should. Think about sarcasm, for example. Sarcasm can be useful to teach and even to promote humility, but never at the expense of relationships that must reflect the gospel. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Are we laughing for the glory of God?“
With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered” (Proverbs 11:9).
Join the conversation
How is the atmosphere of your community? Do you see people laughing at the same time that they are edifying each other in daily humor? Is the humor around you creating freedom or embarrassment? Do you use humor or sarcasm to make a statement of your own strength and power or to serve your neighbors? How can you start to make a change towards godly humor that creates unity around the gospel?