Last summer while struggling to connect with a group of cool and quiet 21st Century teens I relished in a fleeting moment of fraternity with one young man in the high school Sunday school class that I taught. You see I recently turned 42 years old and it is no minor task to appear hip (or groovy or stylin’ or cool or chill or whatever) to such an audience.
This particular Sunday we studied 2 Timothy 2:20-21 (WEB), “Now in a large house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of clay. Some are for honor, and some for dishonor. If anyone therefore purges himself from these, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, and suitable for the master's use, prepared for every good work.” The context immediately before and after suggests that the “vessels" in our house are the words and stories in our conversation. The passage is Paul’s exhortation to Timothy and any reader desiring to live a godly life to clean up our speech by removing unprofitable words and stories from our speech and filling our speech with profitable words.
To emphasize the import of godly speech I relayed the story of my own Christian mother’s willingness to scrub my mouth with soap whenever bad words were found in my mouth. Several students looked aghast as if I truly was in fact an anachronism from the dark ages as they suspected all along. In the effort to salvage my reputation I asked the class if any of their mothers performed similar procedures on their vile tongues. One young man sheepishly raised his hand with mild laughter coming from his squeaky clean smile. Though I do not necessarily endorse soap on the tongue as more effective than grace in the heart, I am still thankful that there is at least someone who shares a kinship with both me and Ivory soap.
The point of this is that most of us raised in Christian homes have been taught to stay clear of bad words and especially the name calling of others. And whether taught by a bar of soap or some other means our upbringing has left a significant impression that name calling in particular is offensive and wrong. Yet is name calling always bad? I know in the past we have considered loftier subjects such as justification, the image of God in man, and salvation. However, let’s take a moment to briefly consider the earthy and perhaps more practical subject of the Theology of Name Calling.
MAKIN’ MOMMA PROUD
I am a tad surprised at times about the speech that too many Christians allow into their homes in our day. Though I do not frequently hang with teens, yet as often as I do, expressions such as “Oh My God” and other Valley Girl irreverencies, though quite common today, would have had my mom heading for the soap or my dad for the belt. In fact I was also taught that even milder language such as “Gosh” and “Jeez” were simply unacceptable euphemisms for God and Jesus. So what does have the greater influence in our speech; movies, music, and questionable company, or Ephesians 4:29?
The Bible is an excellent resource to bring into our Christian homes. In fact we can hardly have a Christian home without it. The Bible is filled with practical and challenging story and instruction to guide our tongues to godly purposes.
We read in Genesis 4:26b (WEB), “Then men began to call on Yahweh's name.” This is extremely helpful. Though we were severely punished for our disobedience in the garden, instead of lashing back at God with curses, some men called on the name of the Lord for help. Instead of calling God or their enemies names, some men began to respectfully call on the Lord for help by his name.
Another name calling story our mommas may or may not like is II Kings 2:23-24, “He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, some youths came out of the city and mocked him, and said to him, Go up, you baldy; go up, you baldhead. He looked behind him and saw them, and cursed them in the name of Yahweh. Two female bears came out of the woods, and mauled forty-two of those youths.” The youth in my class thought my mom was tough with the soap, and I often thought my dad was tough with the belt, but here Elisha cursed these rebellious youth in God’s name and then God sent bears to punish the youth for saying less than is commonly on our tongues today. Maybe moms ought to again pull out the soap, dads the belts, and pastors some preaching, lest God send in the bears.
Youth are not the only ones tempted to a foul tongue. Job, on the absolute lowest day of his life, was brought even lower with the vile counsel of his wife in Job 2:9-10 (WEB), “Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still maintain your integrity? Renounce God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?' " While the OMG Valley Girls are ignorant of God’s grace in restraining his wrath as he waits for their repentance before hell fire, Job’s eyes were wide open to the temptation and consequence of irreverence. No thanks to his wife, but by the grace of God Job held his tongue and turned his face to Heaven waiting for an explanation of the suffering he faced on Earth.
The high calling we have for our speech is summarized in Ephesians 4:29 (WEB), “Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for building up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Though our mommas did their best, we need God’s grace to follow this instruction. Soap, belts, and bears may be some governor on the mouth. However, Jesus reminds us in Luke 6:45 (WEB), “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out that which is good, and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings out that which is evil, for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks.” To be truly good we need to have a good heart and only God can change hearts. So God’s instruction in the Bible is clear that vile speech and name calling is a sin and will be punished whether by godly earthly authorities or by God himself.
YO, WHERE’S THE SOAP?
Yet is all form of name calling wrong? This seems an odd question to ask in light of our momma’s zeal for cleanness in the mouth, yet to those familiar with the Bible, there are some problematic passages worthy of discussion.
How did Elijah’s momma respond after reading, I Kings 18:26-27 (WEB), “They took the bull which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any who answered. They leaped about the altar which was made. It happened at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud; for he is a god: either he is musing, or he is gone aside, or he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleeps and must be awakened.” No doubt Elijah’s mom taught him as my mom taught me not to mock others or to make fun of the losers. Yet here Elijah openly mocks the followers of Baal and mocks their false God. I have heard that ‘gone aside’ was a euphemism of the day meaning, ‘to step off the path to urinate or defecate.’ Imagine the outrage if someone in our day would say, “Where is Allah? Is he too busy ‘taking a leak’ to answer your prayers?” Elijah’s momma may have been looking for a bar of soap, but the followers of Baal were reaching for swords of steel.
What did Isaiah’s momma do after hearing, Isaiah 44:13-20 (WEB),
The carpenter stretches out a line. He marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes. He marks it out with compasses, and shapes it like the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to reside in a house. He cuts down cedars for himself, and takes the cypress and the oak, and strengthens for himself one among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir tree, and the rain nourishes it. Then it will be for a man to burn; and he takes some of it, and warms himself. Yes, he burns it, and bakes bread. Yes, he makes a god, and worships it; he makes it an engraved image, and falls down to it. He burns part of it in the fire. With part of it, he eats meat. He roasts a roast, and is satisfied. Yes, he warms himself, and says, ‘Aha! I am warm. I have seen the fire.’ The rest of it he makes into a god, even his engraved image. He bows down to it and worships, and prays to it, and says, ‘Deliver me; for you are my god!’ They don't know, neither do they consider: for he has shut their eyes, that they can't see; and their hearts, that they can't understand. No one thinks, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, ‘I have burned part of it in the fire. Yes, I have also baked bread on its coals. I have roasted meat and eaten it. Shall I make the rest of it into an abomination? Shall I bow down to a tree trunk?’ He feeds on ashes. A deceived heart has turned him aside; and he can't deliver his soul, nor say, ‘Isn't there a lie in my right hand?’
We can rightly ask if Isaiah laughed as he penned this irony. To be sure he laughed… or cried. Yet today we live in the era when truth and error are both true and to point out the error of another is 'mean,' even if intended to protect them from harm. Imagine the scorn if someone in our day laughed that proponents of free will make exactly the same mistake as the foolish idol maker above. Rather than worship Christ for his gracious choice to save us, they worship their free will on one hand and yet on the other they cannot do the simplest thing of willing to quit hating our good God and his commands. Belts have been applied to those pressing this point, yet God delivers his faithful ones.
Did Ezekiel’s momma throw him out after seeing Ezekiel 23:1-20 (WEB),
The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Son of man, there were two women, daughters of the same mother. They became prostitutes in Egypt, engaging in prostitution from their youth. In that land their breasts were fondled and their virgin bosoms caressed. The older was named Oholah, and her sister was Oholibah. They were mine and gave birth to sons and daughters. Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem,’…There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.
Imagine the emptied pews if someone would remind Christ’s followers that our fleshly righteousness is at least as corrupt as the Old Testament people of God as we caress our bodies with the hands of the world. Our only righteousness is Christ. Imagine a preacher preaching this rebuke to God’s people today! Why I tell you if his mom was present she would be leading the charge to drag her son from the pulpit and feed him to the bears.
God himself also personally and compassionately joins the name calling. Now the Scriptures above are also his inspired words indirectly through men. However, in Jonah 4:11 (WEB), God himself directly makes a remark that would offend any but the most humble. He rebukes Jonah’s selfishness and prejudice toward Nineveh saying, “Shouldn't I be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons who can't discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much livestock?"
So where is the offense in this Scripture? Though forgotten by our sophisticated culture, we greet one another with the right hand because in time past the left hand is the 'wiping hand' for cultures without toilet paper. God is saying that Jonah should be deeply concerned about the Ninevites because they do not know the difference between the hand they eat with and the hand they wipe with. God is deeply concerned that the Ninevites be helped, while Jonah seems just as glad to let them suffer in their sin and ignorance. How would Christians respond today if a man of God urged us to show compassion for unbelievers because without Jesus we do not know the difference between a fork and toilet paper? We are that hopeless without Jesus.
Perhaps as New Testament disciples, acknowledging the sinfulness of every man, we no longer have the right to point out sin in another, much less name-call. Though, Jesus certainly has the authority to call us on the carpet with names to match our dark souls. In Matthew 23 (WEB) Jesus says to the Jewish Scribes and Pharisees and to every sinful man, “Woe to you…hypocrites! …hypocrites! …hypocrites! …sons of Hell! …blind guides! …blind fools! …blind fools! …hypocrites! …blind guides! …hypocrites! …blind Pharisee! …hypocrites! …whitened tombs! …hypocrites! …serpents! …offspring of vipers!”
Imagine Jesus’ mother, sister, and brothers as the fiery eyes of Christ blasted the leaders of their synagogue. Jesus’ family no doubt thought him insane. We too easily redefine Christ into a person of our liking and reinterpret his words or simply put them on the shelf. Jesus said the inflammatory words above face to face to real people. Have you also heard these words from Jesus heart to heart? Are you better than a Pharisee?
We might think that we should leave the name calling to Jesus, yet Paul sets an example of name calling. Philippians 3:1-3 (WEB) says, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not tiresome, but for you it is safe. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision. For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” The Jews commonly called gentiles ‘dogs,’ but Paul turned the tables and called the unbelieving Jews ‘dogs.’ We also read in Galatians 5:11-12 (WEB), “But I, brothers, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. I wish that those who disturb you would cut themselves off.” Paul uses offensive language and says he wishes the Jews who refused to let go of the Old Covenant would emasculate themselves.
Paul is dead serious about the gospel of grace. Why? Paul, the worst of sinners, knew his only salvation was the undeserved grace of God and counted it great privilege and solemn duty to fellowship with any other repentant worst of sinners at the altar of thankfulness for God’s grace.
Paul also was willing to point his finger in the eye of unrepentant worst of sinners, II Timothy 3:1-8 (WEB),
But know this, that in the last days, grievous times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, no lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof. Turn away from these, also. For of these are those who creep into houses, and take captive gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Even as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so do these also oppose the truth; men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the faith.
Apparently political correctness has no place in matters of Christian faith and practice.
Paul also name called over more common vices. We read in Titus 1:10-13a (WEB), “For there are also many unruly men, vain talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped; men who overthrow whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for dishonest gain's sake. One of them, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, and idle gluttons.’ This testimony is true.” Curiously in this case the Holy Spirit incorporates man’s condemnation of men in his own rebuke to men.
A last curiosity is the Holy Spirit’s use of derogatory stereotyping to emphasize an important point. I Timothy 4:4-7 (WEB) says, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with thanksgiving. For it is sanctified through the word of God and prayer. If you instruct the brothers of these things, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished in the words of the faith, and of the good doctrine which you have followed. But refuse profane and old wives' fables. Exercise yourself toward godliness.” If these were our own words from the pulpit some ‘old wives’ might take offense, though a few might confess fabling is a common problem.
WASHIN’ MOMMA’S MOUTH
Though our mothers may have suffered the stereotype of an ‘old wife,’ they no doubt did their best to keep us on the narrow path. Proverbs 1:8 warns us not to forsake our mother’s teaching. Yet we also must compare the convictions of our mothers with the candor of Scripture. With God’s help we will learn to avoid the fables and speak God’s truth in love with the character of Jesus Christ.
What remains to be said?
I was tempted to use my newly found proof texts to lambaste the terrible denominationalism and worldliness in American churches. Thankfully I am out of paper. So I briefly ask is it possible that we Christians could simply call ourselves and each other Christians and live like Christians? Do we see that the names of our ‘distinctions’ are an offense to Christ and to what we really are?
In Christ we are HOLY. In Christ we are ONE.
The Father will answer Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 one way or another.