/ Humor / Barry York

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! 

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

Read More