Sarcastic Pastors Round 2: Your Hermeneutic Matters

How do you read Scripture? And what understanding of Scripture do you expect from the pastors and preachers who are teaching you? Many of us don’t recognize that pastors/preachers/teachers sometimes have very different views of how to read and interpret Scripture. Most reformed pastors hold to a Christ-centered, gospel-focused hermeneutic — that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection enable us to interpret all the other stories of Scripture. Our hermeneutic then plays into how we respond to Scripture. And it particularly plays into how we interact with Scripture’s stories and instructions. I noted this in The Gospel-Centered Woman. It’s really important to understand Scripture’s own instructions for interpreting itself when it comes to reading Old Testament stories on women in particular. The overarching story of Scripture is God’s pursuit of His Children and the work He did to bring Jesus forward as the rightful King in the line of David. God wrote for us a long, winding story, with commentary in the forms of instruction to us. Each informs the other – the story opens our eyes to His sovereign plan before time began to redeem us. The instruction and words of wisdom are lights to our paths to keep us from missteps along the treacherous walk until we see Him face to face.

When a pastor decides on his hermeneutic, a question that separates many of them is where they see themselves in this story. Where you locate yourself in that story is an indicator of whether you see yourself constrained by the written canon of Scripture or over the canon of Scripture. This question relates directly to the discussion we had on the blog last week on Sarcastic Pastors, a post which definitely struck a nerve. While most commenters strongly agreed with the original post, a few pushed back using the idea that since the Bible uses sarcasm, even sarcasm at the expense of specific groups of people, we can not say that modern day pastors are in sin if they use it similarly at the expense of specific groups of people. As a side note, I want to specify again that my main concern is not all uses of sarcasm at all times but what the Bible says about sarcasm used at the expense of someone or some group of people in particular. I have an issue with sarcasm that cuts down another image bearer of God. But can I go as far to say such sarcasm at the expense of another is actually sin?

I fully concede that Scripture does at times employ sarcasm at the expense of some in the audience. It is valuable to make a distinction between sarcasm and satire. The Bible uses a lot of satire. It uses less sarcasm. Satire mocks ideas while sarcasm mocks people, with some overlap. Nevertheless, Scripture does give examples of biting sarcasm. God used it in Jeremiah 46. Elijah used it in I Kings. Paul used it in Galatians 5.

But here is where our method of reading and interpreting Scripture matters. Though the Bible employs biting sarcasm, Paul in Ephesians 4 specifically warns against using language that cuts down another person. So the Apostle Paul writing the Word of God under the inspiration of the Spirit uses a manner of speaking that he also tells us not to use. How do we reconcile that?

The temptation I see among those who defend the use of biting, cutting sarcasm is to dismiss clear instruction in Scripture to not use cutting language because the authors of Scripture sometimes used cutting language. But that seems to me the use of a bad hermeneutic to justify disobeying Scripture’s commands. Think of the problems if we apply such reasoning more broadly. God cursed Satan at the fall, yet Paul instructs us in Romans not to curse our persecutors. Jesus calls the Pharisees fools and then proceeds to tell His disciples not to call anyone a fool. But biggest of all, God struck Uzzah dead for touching the Arc of the Covenant, yet He clearly instructs us not to kill!

This is not rocket science. The fact that GOD, or His prophets/apostles moved by the Spirit of God to write HIS WORD, used biting sarcasm is completely irrelevant to whether pastors today (or you and I) should use it at the expense of another, especially since Scripture specifically says, “Don’t do that.” They, under the inspiration of the Spirit, spoke for God! They spoke words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that have been recorded for eternity in God’s Written Word. Yet those eternally recorded words include the command to you and I to temper our language out of love that ministers grace to the hearers. God used it as He told His story, but clearly instructs us not to do it on our own. He is God, so the wisdom in that discrepancy truly makes complete sense to me.

To be fair to some of the pastors/preachers best known for biting sarcasm, they often truly believe they are God’s modern prophet/apostle. They think this office is still open—that God speaks to them today the way He spoke to Paul or Elijah before the canon of Scripture was finished. The extension is that they don’t have to submit to the canon of Scripture when it contradicts what they believe is the biting, cutting Word from God He’s commanding them to speak at the expense of other image bearers of God. The problem with this is obvious. If your flesh wants to flay open your opponent and you believe you are a prophetic apostle, you can say whatever you want to say. You are God’s anointed, and you get to sin against whomever you think the Holy Spirit is telling you to. Deep down, I think such pastors know it is the flesh, not the Spirit, prompting them to speak such ways. Or else they are grossly self-deceived.

This is not my personal rant for cessationism, by the way. That’s a slightly different issue. I believe gifts are still given today but not in a way that supersedes the canon of Scripture.  When non-cessationist pastors believe that their words supersede The Word, I’ll die on that sword. Cessationist or not, our words do not trump The Word. Ever. And when cessationists act this way, I just wonder, what exactly is your hermeneutic? What line of reasoning are you employing for placing yourself above specific commands and instructions in Scripture on obedient speech?

Anyone who wants to justify why they don’t need to obey what Scripture clearly INSTRUCTS and/or COMMANDS by way of examples of things prophets or apostles did should examine, first, how they navigate through the Bible’s stories verses the Bible’s instructions. Secondly, they should examine their heart. What is going on in your heart that causes you to believe that words that are stumblingblocks that suck grace out of the room are your right to say or that in any way actually support God’s kingdom agenda? I feel strongly that it is the flesh, not the Spirit, that would move any of us in modern times to disobey the very Word that the Holy Spirit moved the men of old to write. And I’m reminded by the previous discussion how very important it is to understand the core beliefs/assumptions of those preaching the Word before I trust them to minister it to me.

Our hermeneutic matters.

11 Responses to Sarcastic Pastors Round 2: Your Hermeneutic Matters

  1. Adam August 21, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

    I had a small quibble with what you said in the last post, but I agree with how you put it here.

    The problem I think does not come down to “does the bible command or allow this some particular thing”. But when teaching others are you extending the command beyond what scripture says?

    As an example, Paul says that if something you eat or drink causes a person to stumble you should stop it. And that fits with the larger teaching of scripture. Until someone takes that command out of context and suggests that it is the eating or drinking that are wrong and we should stop eating either meat or drinking alcohol because there is someone somewhere that might be caused to stumble.

    So I agree with your conclusion about sarcasm in this case. But I can see how people take a bad variant of this and suggest that Christians should not ever criticize another Christian (which I know you are not saying here.)

    We are always bound with the problem of people messing up good teaching. I think the root of bad teaching is often that those that do it are trying to control other Christians. Which I think is exactly what a lot of the sarcastic preachers are doing. They are trying to shame people into obedience. But Christianity is not a religion of shame is it is a religion of grace. (Not to say we should never have shame; we should be shamed by our sin, but shaming others is rarely a good method of bring about repentance and restoration.)

  2. Wendy August 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Thanks, Adam. You are right that they are sometimes trying to shame people into obedience. I've also noted at times that the objects of their scorn are people whose repentance they care nothing about. They feel no guilt about causing someone to stumble because they are perfectly content with the fact that they stumbled. They've written them off and have no heart for their repentance at all. And that disturbs me deeply as well.

  3. Rachael Starke August 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    Nail. Head.

    Gentle warning – I'm not overly optimistic that the hermeneutics police who are sometimes the worst offenders in this area will receive this with joy and gladness right away. *But* I do pray they do so eventually. I don't think some of them realize what a barrier they place to all the really great teaching and preaching they offer when they write or speak this way.

  4. Susan R August 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    I believe that humor, satire, irony, etc. . . have their place, but the problem with using the “Jesus did it, so can I” argument is that it completely neglects the commands about exercising discernment. Just because we *can* doesn't mean we *should*.

  5. Wendy August 22, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    It's more than exercising discernment — it's obeying His clear instructions in Scripture on how we are to treat others in our manner of speech.

  6. bahrelius August 23, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    Is not the phrase, “This is not rocket science” a deployment of sarcasm? However, I thoroughly agree. It's fun to be sarcastic and cynical, but it is often times disobedient.

  7. Ali August 24, 2013 at 4:23 am #

    Hi Wendy,

    I've regularly read your blog and appreciate your insights and approach immensely, as I do on this topic.

    I remember listening appreciatively to a preacher skewering people/positions I also disagreed with, but when a position I held to was skewered, I was angry at the lack of consideration given to my point of view (let alone people who held to it). That caused me to reevaluate my appreciation for the preaching coming from that pulpit.

    That said, I'm not sure I totally agree with your explanation of the use of sarcasm in Scripture vs. the command to speak graciously. If I understand you correctly, our speech is to be governed by scriptures such as Eph 4, whereas God and the writers of Scripture are held to a different standard because, well, God is God, and the writers of Scripture wrote the words of God.

    That set up sounds a lot like the argument given when people look at the apostle's use of the OT as poor biblical interpretation (eg. Matt 2:14-15 or Eph 4:8-10), and then say, “but they were allowed to do that because they were apostles.”

    I think a better solution must be found (as it has in the above examples), even if it means we say we don't quite understand how it works at the moment. Verses are not like tetris blocks that don't change shape but must somehow be fitted together. Instead, verses in one place are conditioned and further understood by verses found in other places, eg. the sayings of Jesus on the permissible reasons for divorce.

    So, despite the fact God is against lying, the midwives in Egypt were blessed by God for protecting male babies…by lying. Or, despite God forbidding us to kill, he expected Israel to kill due to certain forms of lawbreaking, in war and allowed people to avenge the death of a relative if the person who killed their relative did not reach a city of refuge in time.

    All this leads me to believe that there is a certain amount of nuance when it comes to the commands in Scripture about grace filled language and examples of sarcasm. Paul said to imitate him as he imitated Christ. If they both used sarcasm (as you point out) then there must be a better explanation as to how the commands and the examples fit together.

    Having said that, by no means do I intend to support sarcastic pastors. I think it can be said that if sarcasm becomes a mark of someone's preaching then they have gone far beyond whatever example can be found in Scripture.

    But, maybe I'm reading everything wrong here. If so, please help me out and show me where I'm missing it.

  8. Wendy August 24, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    Those are good thoughts, Ali! I see the specific instructions following Jesus' ascension and the giving of the Spirit as particularly binding on us today. They aren't just bookends but the fleshing out practically of all Jesus came to do.

    Jesus fulfilled the Law. The winding story of how Jesus came to be King and Messiah is written. And in the epistles of the New Testament, God puts new meat on the bones of what the kingdom at hand looks like, with each of us in His Body called to reflect him. How is this entity, the Church, supposed to evidence all God came to do and is still doing in the world? One of those instructions/restrictions is on how we make our points.

  9. Wenatchee the Hatchet August 24, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    I would think the simplest reason to avoid reliance on sarcasm is the Golden Rule. If you don't want to be the recipient of dismissive and belittling sarcasm it's wise to avoid dispensing it. Now there may be people who want to be the subject of belittling sarcasm and find that edifying but it's too rarely he people who like to dish that out.

    If one feels obliged to use sarcasm (and I know the feeling) try to deploy sarcasm more toward ideas than people. A person can repent of an idea you may make fun of but once you've made fun of the person it's unavoidably personal.

  10. Wendy August 24, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    I definitely agree. The Golden Rule. The Greatest Command. Then Paul fleshes out what love practically looks like in I Cor. 13, which includes the straightforward statement that love is not rude.

    I am curious if such pastors use a line of reasoning for not obeying those instructions or if they are ignoring their own views of Scripture. I think they do often see themselves as above Scripture, and that needs to be known to their audience when they try to justify using such language.

  11. Dana August 25, 2013 at 2:45 am #

    This year the July 17th devotion in “My Utmost” by Oswald Chambers really struck me. I've been mulling it over and would like to share it here:

    The Miracle of Belief

    “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom . . .”
    —1 Corinthians 2:4
    Paul was a scholar and an orator of the highest degree; he was not speaking here out of a deep sense of humility, but was saying that when he preached the gospel, he would veil the power of God if he impressed people with the excellency of his speech. Belief in Jesus is a miracle produced only by the effectiveness of redemption, not by impressive speech, nor by wooing and persuading, but only by the sheer unaided power of God. The creative power of redemption comes through the preaching of the gospel, but never because of the personality of the preacher.

    Real and effective fasting by a preacher is not fasting from food, but fasting from eloquence, from impressive diction, and from everything else that might hinder the gospel of God being presented. The preacher is there as the representative of God— “. . . as though God were pleading through us . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:20). He is there to present the gospel of God. If it is only because of my preaching that people desire to be better, they will never get close to Jesus Christ. Anything that flatters me in my preaching of the gospel will result in making me a traitor to Jesus, and I prevent the creative power of His redemption from doing its work.

    “And I, if I am lifted up. . . , will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32).