The Humorless Pulpit

I have a word for you preachers out there.  Humor has no place in the pulpit.  Especially Reformed ones.  I am so serious. I am not joking. Some guys like to refer to themselves as TR – Truly Reformed.  Well, just know that I can top that because I am RR – Really Reformed. Preachers should know enough never to use any jokes when they preach. For humor in the pulpit is no laughing matter.

I’m serious.  Laughing violates the Regulative Principle.  Think about it.  Where are we commanded in the Bible to laugh in worship?  Abraham and Sarah thought they would laugh in front of God, and what happened to them?  They got a child named “Laughter.”  You think that’s funny?  How would you like to go call your kid to supper and have to yell out in the neighborhood, “Laughter, time to eat!”?  Or if he is misbehaving say, “Laughter, cut out the laughter!”  That’s not funny.

People try to justify some levity in the pulpit by saying there is joking material in the Bible.  No, I don’t mean the made up ones, like “Who is the shortest man in the Bible?” Answer: “Bildad the Shuhite.”  I mean saying things like Jesus used lightheartedness and satire in his messages!  Of all the crazy ideas!

He was not trying to make us laugh when he said things like “get the log out of your eye before you get the speck out of someone else’s.”  What is so funny about picturing someone having a tree trunk sticking out of his eyeball?  That would be a serious medical condition.  Nor would he be jesting in any way when he spoke of a camel trying to squeeze through an eye of a needle.  That’s not even possible, and besides Louis Berkhof in Principles of Biblical Interpretation would tell us we need to get straight to the point and determine the tertium comparationis of this phrase, not sit there and laugh about it. (Yes, I know Latin. I told you that I am RR.)  Referring to pompous Pharisees as those who wash the outside of their cups but don’t clean the inside is not satire.   That’s not funny, that’s just unhygienic.  I say what really needs cleansing is not just the outside of the pulpit through dusting, but the inside of the pulpit by removing any humor.

Some might try to say that since John Calvin himself taught the Psalter contains the whole range of human emotions, laughter would be included.   Then they might try to use that to justify using some humor when explaining a text of Scripture.  But Calvin did not mean this because laughing is not a godly but worldly emotion.  Laughter is not reverent.  Listen, I tell you that I am RR and sing the Psalms, so I know about not laughing in worship. Trust me.

Others point to Luther’s use of sarcasm.  Do you really think it’s funny that he told Erasmus when they were discussing the serious subject of sin’s bondage that “Perhaps you want me to die of unrelieved boredom while you keep on talking”?  Or worse, when he told other opponents such things as “You are a toad eater,” or “I beg you put your glasses on your nose, or blow your nose a bit, to make your head lighter and the brain clearer,” or “For you are an excellent person, as skillful, clever, and versed in Holy Scripture as a cow in a walnut tree or a sow on a harp”?  Maybe those quotes are a bit funny and, sure, he helped start the Reformation, but again remember that Luther did not believe in the regulative principle.

Some try to guard against the abuse of humor by saying that you can use it carefully, such as by using it sparingly and only employing it to illustrate the message.  But I heard Sinclair Ferguson once preaching on Psalm 51 about being cleansed from sin. He then used a personal illustration (something else you should never do) about how, since he was a Scotsman, he used to only bathe once a week.  But then when he came to America a friend told him that he did not smell good so he needed to bathe more often. At this point people actually started laughing as he was telling this (though, of course, I did not), and I think Ferguson was even chuckling though it was hard to tell. Yes, he related it to God telling him how bad his sin smelled.  But do you really think talking about B.O. in the pulpit is appropriate?  Joking like that really makes you wonder if Ferguson is becoming Arminian or something.

To insure ongoing gospel preaching, we RR’s need to make sure that our pulpits are humorless. For if someone starts laughing during a sermon, how can they hear the truth?  Charles Spurgeon tried to defend his use of humor by comparing it to fishing, like the bait enticing people to bite on the hook of truth.  That just seems deceptive and crass to me.  Yes, Spurgeon was reformed and used humor, but remember he also was a Baptist so what do you expect?  I’ve heard others try to be elegant in their defense of humor, such as saying humor can pop open the cork of truth and allow us to pour into downtrodden hearts the wine of gladness.  But I say our sermons need to be dry, free from the wine of wittiness.

So, don’t forget, as we preach let us be RR – Really Reformed.  C’mon, say it with me.  RR! RR! RR! 

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22 Comments

  1. ham oncan February 13, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    If half of the congregation isn’t falling asleep, you’re doing it wrong!

    (I find the dearth of smiley faces in this article quite disconcerting)

    • ham oncan February 13, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      PS, next week lets deal with smiling

  2. Sarmishta Venkatesh February 13, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Is this a serious post? Or should I laugh after I read it? Now I’m thoroughly confused ( seriously! ). Personally, I do believe that the use of humour trifles the sermon, but there are times that humour has been used to drive home a point, and I don’t see a problem with that. However, if the post is indeed a serious one, then it sort of lacks the “gentleness” that is characteristic of most genref posts.

    • Barry York February 13, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

      Shammi,

      Read the last three exclamations out loud quickly. I hope this will, to quote you, “drive home the point.”

      • Sarmishta Venkatesh February 13, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

        Ok, maybe I’m totally stale and don’t get the humour. Or is this some kind of subliminal prank?

        • Barry York February 14, 2014 at 2:23 am #

          Shammi,

          Not subliminal really, but certainly satirical. But don’t tell anyone else I let you know that.

        • Sarmishta Venkatesh February 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

          Phew. Thanks for letting me know that it wasn’t serious after all! Maybe you should let people know. It will earn you the reputation of being RR ;)

          • Edgar February 16, 2014 at 2:07 am #

            Shammi, your comments about whether Dr. York is being funny or not reminded me of a recent movie I watched where an American comedian is trying to figure out what makes Indians and Pakistanis laugh (a task given him by the US Govt)…none of them get his jokes or he does them wrong…lol!

  3. Joan February 13, 2014 at 9:00 pm #

    And I thought the RR thingies at the end had something to do with pirates….

  4. Aaron February 14, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

    Barry,

    Thank you for the post. It’ll be helpful in my preparing for the Life Focus conference next month in Kansas.

    Your article reminded me of what Chrysostom preached, “This world is not a theater in which we can laugh; and we are not assembled together in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins….It is not God who gives us the chance to play, but the devil.” Also the Rule of St. Benedict, “As for coarse jests and idle words that lead to laughter, these we condemn with a perpetual ban.”

    I must confess that I have laughed thinking about a 90-year old woman nursing her infant son, “Laughter.” I’ve often smiled thinking about the looks other people must have given to his centenarian parents. I also struggle with the story of Eglon in Judges 3 and the meaning of his name in Hebrew (not sure of the Latin though!). In my unsanctified mind, I’ve laughed at Sabbath circumcision and the Pharisaical complaint when the Man of Sorrows made an entire man well on the Sabbath (John 7:23).

  5. Tim Bloedow February 15, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    Loved this piece, Barry. Looking forward to your pastoral theology courses at RPTS. Every TR or RR sermon should begin and end with a Grr rr rr… :-) Perhaps humour is an art-form that only a few people learn how to use well, hence those who are nervous about it and completely shy away from it.

  6. Jonathan February 16, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    And making everyone laugh about lack of personal hygiene to show them how seriously God takes their sin is how effective? We should be serious about the things that God is serious about. I really don’t think the main problem in the church today is that we need more humor and lightness.

    • Tim Bloedow February 16, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      That judgement might be better on a congregation by congregation basis. But I think lightness and humour are not synonymns. Only some humour is light. I think there are various types of humour.

      • Jonathan February 23, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

        You tell me: did Sinclair Ferguson’s joke about sin add or take away from the weight of what he was trying to convey about what God thinks of sin? Does God joke about sin, ever? And do you really think Jesus was trying to make a joke when He talked about a camel passing through the eye of a needle? He was talking about the desperate condition of the lost souls of sinners. The effect on the disciples was not to laugh, but to be appropriately concerned about how any could be saved.

        • Tim Bloedow February 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

          Prof. York did use the term “joke” in his introductory paragraph seemingly as a synonym for humor, but he does not use that word anywhere else in his column. I won’t speak for him, but as with the idea of lightness, I don’t think that humor is a synonym for joke. I think jokes are only one form of humor, so every form of humor does not have to be a joke. I think that for most of us uncultured moderns, we have mostly reduced humor to the scope of lightness and jokes or even crassness in the wider society, but I expect that more educated and literary types would have the capacity for greater linguistic versatility in the use of humor along with their use of other expressions of communication.

          • Jonathan February 23, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

            I use the word “joke” in the common sense of the term. I think it is an accurate description of the illustration Mr. Ferguson gave, which Prof. York seems to think is an example of good use of humor in the pulpit. So I ask again, did that joke add or detract from the seriousness of sin? Does God use “humor” when describing His attitude towards sin?

            Reformed christians aught not to be so concerned that the world (or the worldly church) think of us as “fun” that we resort to this kind of thing in order to “engage” people. To this day, the Puritans are looked upon as boring, austere, and humorless, largely because they took the realities of heaven, hell, and sin so seriously. As Jared Olivetti has said, we aught not to be ashamed of being a serious church. The preachers of old went to the pulpits with a sense of the seriousness of the issues they were dealing with. They recognized that the preacher’s mantel is soaked in the blood of Christ, and singed by the fires of hell. I’m not saying that all humor always detracts from the weight of a subject, but the example given in this article certainly did, and that is something we can do without.

  7. Jon Gleason February 17, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    I enjoyed this, but then, I’m a Baptist, so what do you expect?

    • Barry York February 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

      :)

  8. Jonathan February 23, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

    So much for the “solemn assembly” we see spoken of so often in reference to the worship service on the Sabbath(s) (Lev 23:36, Num 29:35, Deut 16:8, 2 Chron 7:9, Neh 8:18, Lam 2:6, Zeph 3:18, etc.). I suppose many will begin to say “humor and solemnity are not always mutually exclusive.” Yes, but they usually are, and the humor in Pastor Ferguson’s sermon (which is held up to us as an example of how humor aught to be used in preaching) certainly did not add to the solemnity of the issue of sin.

  9. Jlea September 8, 2014 at 3:41 am #

    How about when the pastor says as he’s citing scripture during his sermon, ….and you know what happened to the pigs when Jesus sent the legion of demons into them? They became deviled ham. Is that humor or a joke or both because the congregation thought that was awfully funny. I go to this church and the guy has at least one for every verse in the bible. Yah! It’s a real laugh fest. Like going to church in a Bizzaro world, since he’s deadly serious as he points out how I grieve the Spirit when I don’t lift my hands during worship service.

    • Barry York September 8, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

      Appropriateness, timing, moderation, tastefulness, and tact must all be considered in the use of humor. This satirical piece was addressing the opposite extreme of your experience.

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