First of all, if you had told me I would be writing about why it is wrong for Christians and Christian leaders to use insults such as stupid, idiot, and moron just a couple of weeks ago, I would not have believed you. What do I know?
This post is devoted to the following questions: “Is it ever moral to intentionally insult your opponents because they disagree with your view on an issue?” “Is it always immoral to insult your opponents by calling them denigrating names?” “Was personal insult a necessary component in the challenge-riposte game played in Jesus’ culture?” “Can we make a distinction between personal insult and insult in general?” “Does the Bible have anything to say about insulting behavior?” I am going to explore a few of these questions and more in this post. My proposition is simple: It is always unethical for a Christian to engage in behavior designed specifically to inflict personal insult. The opposing proposition contends: It is perfectly ethical for Christians to insult anyone who disagrees with them on any subject whenever they choose.
To begin, does the NT have an equivalent word for the English “insult?” As it turns out, it does. The Greek language has several words translated insult in the NT. One of them is, ubrizw and it means “to treat in an insolent or spiteful manner, mistreat, scoff at.” Louw-Nida says, “to speak against someone in an insolent and arrogant manner.” It appears in Luke 11:45. Another one appears in Matt. 5:11, oneidizw and it means, “to find fault in a way that demeans the other, reproach, revile, mock, heap insults upon as a way of shaming.” Louw-Nida says, “to speak disparagingly of a person in a manner which is not justified.” Lastly is the word, loidoria which means, “to reproach, insult, revile, even blaspheme.”
The lawyers accused Jesus of insulting them in Luke 11:45. This is an interesting story because it demonstrates that Jesus did not consistently follow the patterns of His own culture. One of the Pharisees invited Jesus in for lunch and He accepted. However, Jesus neglected to wash his hands before the meal. This was something you simply did not do. The Pharisees has established this ceremonial cleansing for a reason and they expected Jesus to honor it. It had become an established cultural practice. Jesus did not oblige and controversy ensued. What was Jesus dealing with here? Was this merely a matter of following a cultural practice? The problem was the hypocrisy of the Pharisee. They paid close attention to matters like this, and even went beyond the law, all the while leaving the more important aspects of God’s teachings fully unattended. The question that one of the Lawyers asked is interesting when we think about the context of this post, especially in terms of how insult rhetoric relates to the challenge-riposte game. If insult was part of the culture and always a component of this game, why was this lawyer protesting something that Jesus would have been fully expected to do? As Bell would say, good question. The gist of this question indicates the Lawyer was displeased that his group had been insulted and this was not only surprising, it seemed unacceptable to him. One has to wonder what the basis of such a psychological protest was given that Jesus was only doing what everyone done all the time in this honor-shame culture. At a minimum, the lawyer’s response is puzzling to say the least.
Another fine example of insult or offense appears in Matthew 15. The Pharisees issue the challenge to Jesus over His disciples not washing their hands. Jesus directs his riposte at their violation of the command of God to honor one’s father and mother. This was seriously upping the ante. Then Jesus issued a stern rebuke, calling them hypocrites because they expertly circumvented the command of God and gave more weight to their tradition. Jesus did not call them hypocrites merely to win the game. Jesus was calling them to repentance. While it seems true that Jesus used the cultural method of challenge-riposte in his ministry, he did so for very different reasons. Moreover, once again, it seems that the resulting condition of offense was a surprise. Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you said?” If offense is a naturally recurring result in the challenge-riposte game, why do the disciples seem concerned that it resulted here? The element of offense feels out of place if we accept the assumption that it is a natural result of challenge-riposte. This casts significant doubt on that assumption. At a minimum, this result should cause us to wonder if in fact offense was part of the game or not. Jesus was not just a man attempting to win honor in His Culture. He was God in the flesh, on the most inimitable mission in all of redemptive history. It seems reasonable to conclude that one should avoid uncritically comparing Jesus’ words and methods to those of his contemporaries. It is one thing to acknowledge how understanding the challenge-riposte game aids in hermeneutics, but quite another to imply that ancient cultural practices should be adopted in our own culture so that we can “do it” like Jesus did. After all, Christian ethics transcends all cultures and serves as the standard by which cultural practices must transform to the acceptable standards revealed in the law of God. It is illegitimate praxis to deem one culture above another as if it is morally superior on the sole basis that it is the culture that Christ inhabited. That is a baseless assumption if ever there was one. In fact, one could argue that there was never a more hypocritical culture in the history of man than the one into which Christ was born. In fact, historians acknowledge that Jesus entered humanity in an extremely immoral culture to be sure. It is unwise and foolish to imply that we should adopt practices from that culture for any reason other than that Scripture commands us to do so. In this case, Scripture makes no such demands.
I know of one internet apologist who attempts to justify his use of words like “stupid,” “idiot,” and “moron,” by leaning on the cultural practice of the challenge-riposte game of Christ’s day. He even contends that Jesus Himself engaged in personal insults in the very same way when he dealt with the religious leaders of his time. In fact, one particular apologist authored a paper on the subject that I intend to review in light of the Christian ethic revealed in Scripture. While this individual decries modern, western cultural projections on the text, he seems to be guilty of his own projections onto the challenge-riposte game by insisting they were always insulting and that Christ MUST have had the same goals and exactly the same methods as His challengers. Those presuppositions are baseless. The purpose of this review is to set the matter aright according to Scripture with the hope that some of those reading will repent of this behavior and abandon, what I believe is behavior incongruent with the Christian ethic.
Peter penned I Peter 3:9 in the context of providing believers with specific relational instructions for a number of relationships. In 2:1, he begins by telling us to put aside all malice. He continues by informing us we are to abstain from fleshly lusts. He then instructs us on how to relate to human institutions, such as governments. He then tells slaves how to relate to their masters, wives how to relate to their husbands, and husbands how to relate to their wives. Then he says, “to sum up, all of you…” and here he issues a number of commands. As he comes to verse 9 he says, “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead.” I treated the meaning for the Greek word for insult above. Peter issues us a command not to return insults with insults.
I Cor. 5:11 and 6:10 both list this word among the vices of the flesh. The English word is reviler. This describes a person that is constantly throwing out malicious insults against others. Paul unambiguously condemns such behavior.
In summary, what can we learn from the inclusion of the challenge-riposte game by the gospel writers? It seems to me that the gospel writers included these stories for a number of reasons. For purposes of this discussion, I would contend that one major reason for their inclusion was to testify that Jesus is indeed the Christ. They wanted to demonstrate that our Lord always retained God’s honor when confronted by his detractors. No one was ever able to impugn our Lord’s honor or put Him to shame in the challenge-riposte game. Moreover, when it appeared that such was the case, the writers of the gospels demonstrated that God had a greater purpose even for that. Moreover, the prophetic evidence of the Hebrew Scriptures always supported God’s purpose for those occasions.
No one is saying that Christ did not engage in challenge-riposte on occasion. What I am saying that is he did so for very different reasons and even his riposte had a very different form. He was not interested in selfish honor like his godless enemies were. Nor was it His goal merely to inflict shame. He had an interest in exalting God, preserving truth, and bringing to repentance. While the typical riposte in some forms may have contained personal insults for immoral reasons, we can be sure that this was not the case with our Lord. The entire NT warns against such practices and provides no exceptions for private or public exchanges. Moreover, we are dealing with a matter that is in the distant past about which our understanding is quite imperfect. After all, we were not there. To adopt a dogmatic position on a subject such as this one may be more the result of prejudice than scholarship.
Based on the lexical and biblical evidence, it seems to me that it is never ethical for a Christian to engage in personal insult either, publically or in private. Everywhere we read about this behavior in the NT, it is strictly prohibited. The opposite conclusion draws upon ambiguous evidence and makes numerous faulty assumptions, not to mention engages in special pleading to prop up its conclusion. Moreover, the idea that we should do what Christ did, (even if He had done this) is carried out in a most inconsistent fashion by those who assert we should adopt insults in our method. I conclude it is safer for the conscience to avoid insulting, slanderous remarks until it can be clearly shown from Scripture alone that it is acceptable to do otherwise.
This post is not intended to be a thorough-going treatment of the challenge-riposte game of Christ’s culture or of the appropriateness of insult rhetoric in the Christian community. I am preparing a response to J.P. Holding’s paper on this subject in the near future. As it stands, I have other pressing demands that require my attention.