Is Exhibiting Humor Wrong?

Is Exhibiting Humor Wrong?
David W. T. Brattston

Did the Apostle Paul forbid Christians to tell jokes? Does God want us to never laugh? A convincing argument could be made from the earliest documents of our Faith that Christians are to always be grim and gloomy. These documents, the New Testament and Christian writings that followed soon after it, date from a time when the unwritten teachings and Bible interpretations of Jesus and His apostles were still fresh in Christian memories, a time when most Christians in our own day believe the Holy Spirit was still actively guiding the church.

The King James Version of Ephesians 5:4 prohibits “foolish talking” and “jesting”, which in the Revised Standard Version are “silly talk” and “levity”, and in the NIV are “foolish talk” and “coarse joking”. Many translations of Luke 6:25 have Jesus pronouncing eventual woe and doom “unto you that laugh now”. A collection of sayings for the Christian life compiled in the next century goes into detail: (1) believers are to be serious rather than frivolous, (2) light heartedness is to be “rare and timely”, (3) Christians are to confine their levity to smiling and are never to laugh, and (4) a believer is to make a lifelong struggle at being serious.i A church manual compiled in the early third century AD actually contains the proverbial condemnation against laughing in church, with the instruction that deacons are to stop worshippers from doing so.

But what is the larger context of these restraints on originating and reacting to humor? A precept must be interpreted within the book in which it appears, and then within the setting of other Christian writers of the same time period. We must examine the spiritual literature as a whole, seeking the points on which its authors agree. Where they appear to differ, we must go deeper in an attempt to harmonize them and resolve whether they are merely looking at the same subject from different viewpoints. Only in this way can we find the whole meaning. Like a human being, a moral precept is known from its associates.

Like many moral considerations, foolish talking and jesting in Ephesians 5:4 are part of a list. The verse also contains the word translated as “filthiness” in many English translations, while the NIV renders it as “obscenity”. A Christian collection of instructions for life, dating from the first half of the third century A.D., lumps foolish talking with “buffoonery” (described below) and “boisterous laughter”, fornication, and wantonness in a list setting forth products of “the mind of the flesh”.iii Later, the collection speaks against laughter in a context that includes shameful sexual passion and “looseness” as opposites of chasteness and purity.iv

The fullest discussion on humor in ancient Christianity is found in Chapter 2.5 of the book The Pedagogue by Clement of Alexandria. Clement was well-educated and well-versed in both Greek philosophy and Christian teaching. He wrote The Pedagogue while dean of Christendom’s foremost institution of higher learning between A.D. 192 and 202. This chapter is followed by one strongly against “filthy speaking”, including “corrupt communications”, shameful deeds, unnecessary nudity and immodesty, licentiousness, and conversations dwelling on subjects such as adultery and pederasty—commonly the subject of risqué humor even today.

Chapter 2.5 itself curtails many aspects of joking and laughter. It opposes savage and insulting merriment, laughing too long, too often, and on all occasions, laughter that goes beyond appropriate bounds, licentious humor, and filthy speaking, because they “travesty the gift of speech, which is the most precious of all human endowments”. Dirty jokes in particular cause both speaker and listener to think of sinful acts, which may lead them more readily to committing the acts themselves. According to Clement, laughing at such jokes only furthers people’s inclinations to shameful deeds.

Clement in 2.7 would allow a certain amount of constructive humor that builds up a person’s good feelings about him/herself, and edifies listeners or the person. However, in 2.5 he was against making a human being the butt of jokes, even if that person is oneself. A Christian is not to be a buffoon, or “play the clown”. We are not to make ourselves laughing-stocks, or stir up laughter by foolish antics. As representatives of Jesus and His kingdom, we should be grave and dignified instead of making ourselves and them to be regarded as laughing matters.

Clement’s approach is illustrated in two paragraphs of 2.5:

Pleasantry is allowable, not waggery. Besides, even laughter must be kept in check; for when given vent to in the right manner it indicates orderliness, but when it issues differently it shows a want of restraint.

For, in a word, whatever things are natural to men we must not eradicate from them, but rather impose on them limits and suitable times. For man is not to laugh on all occasions because he is a laughing animal, any more than the horse neighs on all occasions because he is a neighing animal. But as rational beings, we are to regulate ourselves suitably, harmoniously relaxing the austerity and over-tension of our serious pursuits, not inharmoniously breaking them up altogether.

He especially opposed wags and waggery, which in the language of this translation means someone who makes jokes one after another, on all occasions, and on all subjects, including sex and religion.

A little later, Clement wrote:

We are not to laugh perpetually, for that is going beyond bounds; nor in the presence of elderly persons, or others worthy of respect, unless they indulge in pleasantry for our amusement. Nor are we to laugh before all and sundry, nor in every place, nor to every one, nor about everything.

Clement’s successor as dean and, in his own right, the most influential Bible scholar and teacher of the first half of the third century and for centuries afterwards, added valuable insights as to what kind of humor displeases God. In his first sermon on Psalm 38 he discountenanced laughing after sin and other happiness over one’s misdeeds. He explained that “Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep” in Luke 6:25 is directed to persons that do so.v

Clement’s successor wrote a commentary on the Song of Solomon, the Bible’s only explicit love poem, in which many readers find sexual innuendos. When interpreting “sweet is thy voice” in 2.14, he reminded readers of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 12.36f: “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.  For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned”, and Paul’s injunction in Colossian 4:6: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”vi Years earlier, Clement himself had applied Matthew 12:36f against foul language, in Chapter 2.6 of The Pedagogue, following the chapter on laughter.

So joke, laugh, and speak as would an ambassador of the United States of America, remembering that you are a representative of a higher sovereign. In order for our message about the kingdom of heaven to be taken with the importance and seriousness it deserves, we must not intersperse nonessential jokes into it, for this may lead listeners to dismiss the whole presentation as a joking matter or an idle tale intended for amusement rather than for earnest consideration. Humorous points may arise, as Clement indicated, but our seizing on them must be rare and timely, and calculated only to uplift other people. Still less are Christians to be buffoons and invite laughter at themselves, for this inclines listeners to think less highly of representatives of the heavenly king, and consequently of God Himself.

Incidentally, the same passage of the church manual that forbids laughing in church also discountenances whispering, sleeping, and making signs with the hands there;vii in short, irreverent conduct and failing to pay attention to the worship service then in progress. The restraint on laughter and these other diversions fits well within the teaching of all the ancient Christian authors that we accord due attention and respect to all serious matters pertaining to our souls and bodies—and the souls and bodies of others—and not treat as trifles either sex or religion, unless we can thereby edify another person.

This article “Is Exhibiting Humor Wrong?” was submitted by the author personally to AIS. David W. T. Brattston is the copyright holder. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”
i Except where otherwise indicated, all patristic quotations are from The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Reprint of the Edinburgh ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96; continuously reprinted Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson)
Sentences of Sextus Sayings 278-282, ed. and trans. Richard A. Edwards and Robert A. Wild, [n.p.] Scholars Press, 1981 p. 49.

ii Didascalia Apostolorum 12.

iii Two Letters to Virgins 1.8.

iv Two Letters to Virgins 2.11.

v Origen Homélies sur Psaume 37.1.5.

vi Origen Commentary on the Song of Songs 3.13.

vii Didascalia Apostolorum 12.