In Defense of Harsh Speech Among Christians

In light of recent posts and comments, it seems timely to write something in defense of the use of harsh speech and satirical tone in communications between professing believers. The most recent critiques of the theology and practice of certain elders of Hillside Community Church has caused quite a stir. As usual, there has been no comment whatsoever about the actual content of the critiques. Instead, we have been condemned for the tone and style of the critique. I do not believe the authors have sinned in what they said nor do I believe they have sinned in the way they said it.

The standard argument used by most Evangelicals is that we are required to submit to our leaders in the church. So far, so good. Submission is defined to exclude the use of harsh language with leaders or fellow believers. That is where the problems start. I Timothy 5:1 is quoted (“Do not sharply rebuke an older man, bur rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters…”) and universalized to support the position that it is always wrong to use a harsh tone when communicating to fellow Christians.

Hebrews 13:17 is quoted (“Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”) and universalized in support of the position that it is always wrong to use a harsh or mocking style with any person in Christian leadership. Submission, it is argued, precludes harsh style.

The harsh words of Jesus for the folks He came into contact with are dismissed as being in one of two categories. First, they were words spoken to people who were heretical apostates. It is argued that if a person (or group of people) has been properly declared to be a heretical apostate, it is then proper to use harsh terminology. That is the only time, it is said, it is proper to use a mocking style. Second, Jesus is God and was infallible in His use of harsh tones and mocking style. As a result, men are not permitted to use a harsh tone and a mocking style since they are not infallible and only God is permitted to use a harsh tone with people who are not heretical apostates. In this case the old question “What Would Jesus Do?” no longer applies. According to this position, we should only do what Jesus did when He did things that were not harsh or mocking (again, with the exception for groups that have been declared heretical apostates).

I believe it is fair to assert that Evangelicals believe it is always sinful to use harsh tones or mocking style when communicating to fellow believers who have not been properly declared to be heretical apostates. Harsh tones and mocking style are alleged to be disrespectful and to not show the requisite honor that we are required to have for one another. Hence, since there has been no judicial proclamation that the elders of Hillside are heretical apostates, it is sinful for us to use a harsh tone and a mocking style when we write in critique of their horrible actions. I disagree.

Several items need to be considered about this topic. First, let’s look at the example of Paul in Acts 23. Evangelicals use this passage in support of their position. They say that Paul repented of the immoderate and sinful use of an insult against the High Priest. I will show that just the opposite took place. Second, let’s look at the example of John the Baptist in his dealings with the religious leadership of his time. Third, let’s look at the issue of how our culture can influence the way we think about this topic.

Acts 23:1-6 contains the first part of the encounter between Paul and the Sanhedrin. Paul begins his defense before this body of religious leaders by asserting his innocence before the law. Ananias, the High Priest of the Council, ordered him to be struck in the face for saying that he had a clear conscience before God. After he was struck, Paul shouted out, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall. And do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck.” Luke records that some bystanders then informed Paul that Ananias was the High Priest. Paul then said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.'”

Evangelicals assert that Paul’s statement quoted above constitutes repentance and an apology to Ananias. That can hardly be the case. Paul did not apologize. Paul did not address Ananias. Ananias never responded to his alleged request for forgiveness. Paul could hardly have been unaware that Ananias was High Priest. What was Paul doing when he quoted Exodus 22:28? Calvin gives us some great insight into this passage. He says, “Therefore Paul knew what place he (Ananias) had when he said that he abused his power….Therefore, subscribing to Augustine, I do not doubt but that this is a taunting excuse….plain speech becomes the ministers of the Word. For seeing there be two sorts of ironies, one which is covered with subtlety and means to deceive, another which figuratively points out the matter that is at hand; in this second there is nothing which does not well fit the servants of Christ….he (Paul) denies that Ananias is to be counted a priest of God, who hath corrupted and perverted all the order of the Church.”

Calvin clearly asserts, I believe quite properly, that Paul was mocking Ananias with his response. Ananias was the legitimately constituted religious authority over him and he mocked him nonetheless. Calvin goes on to deal with the question of submission to unjust authority. He says, “When the spiritual government does degenerate, the consciences of the godly are at liberty, and set free from obeying unjust authority.” The question is not merely if a person (or group of people) has been declared to be a heretical apostate. The question has to do with the justice of the proclamation. When an unjust proclamation is made and enforced, the Christian is required to resist. Clearly Paul had no problem with using a mocking style when he confronted those who issued unjust orders.

As far as the harsh tone of Paul was concerned, Calvin goes on to say this, “So Paul did not speak for his own sake, that he might, with sharp words, requite the injury done to him by the high priest; but because he was a minister of the word of God, he would not wink at an offence which did deserve sharp and serious reprehension; especially seeing it was profitable to bring to light the gross hypocrisy of Ananias….If the spirit of meekness is reigning in us, we may handle the wicked according to their deserts, as it were out of the mouth of God…”

The message is simple. A harsh tone and mocking style are not wrong provided the motivation behind their usage is not based upon selfish revenge and vindictive pettiness. However, when a biblically justifiable anger is brought to bear upon a grievous act of tyranny and oppression by a religious leader, it is entirely proper and correct to use a harsh tone and a mocking style in responding to the tyrannical behavior.

Matthew 3:7-10 contains the record of John the Baptist addressing the Pharisees when they presented themselves to him for baptism. The Pharisees were the legitimately constituted religious authority over John. At this point in time nobody had declared them to be heretical apostates. Jesus, in fact, said that they were to be respected because they “sit in Moses chair”. This example of John cannot be dismissed as an example of dealing with a heretical apostate group. Furthermore, these people were coming to John to be baptized. They were not looking for a fight.

Here is what John said to them as they approached him for baptism. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” That is rather harsh and intolerant speech. Here is something of what Calvin had to say about the words of John. “Does any one suppose that John acted improperly, in treating them with so much harshness at the first interview? I reply: They were not unknown to him, and the knowledge he had of them was derived, not from acquaintance or experience, but, on the contrary, from a secret revelation of the Spirit. It was therefore necessary that he should not spare them, lest they might return home more inflated with pride….Those whose habits of uttering falsehood to God, and of deceiving themselves, lead them to hold out hypocrisy and pretension, instead of the reality, ought to be urged, with greater sharpness than other men, to true repentance. There is an astonishing pertinacity, as I have said, in hypocrites; and, until they have been flayed by violence, they obstinately keep their skin.”

Notice what Calvin is saying here. Sometimes it is necessary to use an extremely sharp tone just to get through to a hypocrite. The hypocrite is an expert at creating an alternative universe that he can live in consistently. The use of mocking is designed to get through to them.

Calvin always emphasizes the importance of not being motivated by selfish ambition when using a harsh tone and a mocking style. He says, “Yet let all godly teachers beware, lest, while they are influenced by a holy zeal against the tyrants of the Church, they mingle with it the affections of the flesh.”. This will be my principle (indeed it has been my principle for many years): If the cause is just and the audience is deaf, employ massive doses of satire, harsh tone and mocking style. If the cause is motivated by selfish ambition and my own hurt feelings, keep the mouth shut.

I have used Calvin extensively in my defense. I have been told that Calvin cannot be used in defense of harsh speech because he lived in a time when such things were common and he was, therefore, unable to overcome his culture and see the impropriety of it all. Calvin, we are incessantly told, was quite the nasty person himself. Using him to defend my style is akin to using the writings of Hitler to defend my anti- Semitism.

There is no doubt that Calvin lived in a different time. That is not the question. The question is this, was his time better or worse than ours with regard to the issue of harsh tone and mocking style in communication? The question is was his culture more biblical in it’s approach to communication than ours? I would argue that his time was much better than ours and that his culture was more biblical in it‘s communication style.

How many Christians bemoan the cultural bane of politically correct speech? How often have you complained about the need to take course work designed to teach you how to speak in such a way as to never offend anyone? How often have you observed that nothing is really being communicated anymore because we are all so terrified about how we speak? I believe most everyone can related to what I am saying. We all recognize that our culture is a culture that regulates speech in order to eliminate all offense, real and imaginary. We also recognize that that regulation is a degeneration of genuine communication. Why then, do we have such a problem with the old, straight-forward style of communication?

Augustine said that if something was ridiculous it deserved to be ridiculed. Luther was infamous for his tirades against anyone and anything that opposed him. Calvin’s Institutes contain one insult after another for those who disagree with him. Erasmus wrote a book entitled “The Praise of Folly” that is entirely and completely a satirical mockery of those who opposed the Reformation. Luther, thinking Erasmus had not gone far enough, wrote a letter to Erasmus that was entirely a satirical mockery of him. All of these documents are considered to be classics of Christian literature. Today, however, we have no stomach for such style. We have adopted the communication standards of the world and we roar in objection if anyone ever deals with us in a harsh or satirical fashion.

I believe the earlier style of communication is more biblical. Paul opposed Peter to his face, in front of the brethren, when he reproached him for separating himself from the Gentile believers at meals. Do we really believe that he spoke to him according to the modern, seminary trained, objectively stoic, style that we demand of ourselves today? Do we really believe that he first praised Peter for all the good things he had done before getting around to the little, teeny-weeny problem that he had with his behavior? I don’t think so.

Jesus called Peter “Satan” and told him to “get behind me” when he objected to the way of the cross. That was hardly a pleasant conversation. We are to be like Jesus. The mere fact that He is perfect and we are not does not mean we are to ignore all of His harsh statements. If that were the case, no preacher would ever be able to preach because his preaching is not perfect. The mere fact that we will not be perfect in our use of harsh tones and mocking style does not mean we are never to do it. Yes, we will make mistakes. Yes, we will sometimes be harsh when we should not be. But we must never throw out the baby with the bathwater.

We have become a nation and a culture of communication sissies. We are quick to jump up and down and assert our rights the moment somebody says something in a tone or a style that we do not like. Get over it. Grow up. We know this is true. We talk this way about secular communication all the time. Why do we not see it in our Christian communication?

Paul wrote to the Galatians and called them “fools” and “hypocrites”. He said that he wished that some of their teachers would “castrate themselves”. That hardly sounds like acceptable speech in our culture today. That hardly sounds like an acceptable tone for a pastor to take when addressing his congregation. Paul wrote to the Corinthians elders and mocked them. He said that they were “wise” when he meant that they were foolish. Then, he said that they were “babies”. Then he said that they were “arrogant”. Then he said that they were braggers. Then he said that their behavior was “shameful”. Write a letter like that to any church today and all you will hear in response is how offended they were at the tone and the style of the letter. The content would be ignored. Paul was not ignored. He followed up his accusations with a threat to come to them “with power”. That meant that he had the apostolic power to providentially execute them for ignoring him. He got their attention.

We need to recognize that the Church has adopted the culture of the world with respect to our communication style. We need to grow up. We need to get tough. We need to recognize that there is a time for harsh and intolerant speech.

I do not believe it to be the case that we are only permitted to use a harsh tone and a mocking style whenever we are dealing with heretical apostates. I believe we are permitted to do so whenever we are dealing with specific behaviors that are horribly tyrannical, oppressive, and immoral. Our response says nothing about the eternal state of the souls we are talking to. That is not the issue. Christians are so quick to go to the question, “So you are saying I am not a believer?” NO! A thousand times NO! I am not saying anything like that. The only time that can be said is when a person has been justly excommunicated. I don’t know what the state of the soul of the other person is. It is none of my business. I am just dealing with the facts as they present themselves. I am saying that, based upon the facts as they are, what you are doing is viciously wrong and needs to stop immediately.

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