The following is part 1 of a 2-part blog post on insults.

I’m quite fond of @LexLutheran on Twitter, but we had an interesting difference come up this morning that bears expanding to do it justice.  Quoting @ZionBerean:

I never respond to the insults. I never reply in kind. To do so would be an affront to my Lord and a damage to my witness.

I respectfully disagreed with the premise that insulting someone is automatically an affront to our Lord.  My premise is that this widely held belief is an example of cultural eisegesis.  In other words, we have such fundamentally held cultural values that it’s quite natural to read them into scripture unthinkingly, instead of parsing them and weighing them against all of scripture.

My position: While insults are most often sinful, they are not automatically wrong, because God (in the Old Testament), God’s Prophets (In the Old and New Testament), Jesus who was and is God, and the God-breathed words of the apostles in the New Testament contain personal insults left and right instead of dry or impersonal denunciations of theological positions or doctrines.  WHY?! I believe that insults can carry a sharper edge to the piercing and discerning action of the Holy Spirit to convict with law (Hebrews 4:11-13), such law being the pedagogue that drives us to Christ.  The difference between godly but insulting speech and ungodly and sinful spew-bile being that the goal of even the most painful godly speech is the love of other that may inflict pain to eventually cure, while the goal of sinful insult is the destruction of the other for selfish ends.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of insults specifically, the following objection came up as a general point:

We are not to repay anyone evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  -Romans 12:17 echoed by 1 Thessalonians 5:15.

  1. This was given in a society that had an honor/shame dynamic foreign to modern Western culture.  Honorable response in this cultural context (and for about 1700 years afterwards) dictated that it was more honorable to rebut a verbal opponent AND show them to be inferior to you.  Reference: All of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, Paul’s rebuttal of the ‘super apostles’ in 2 Corinthians, and every classical text on rhetoric that I’ve ever seen.
  2. American honor is not automatically the same as Greco-Roman honor, easily demonstrated by the fact that we don’t introduce ourselves by our family name (with its connotations of social status and position) before our personal name, just for starters.
  3. To say that this scripture forbids insulting a verbal attacker or theological opponent is to denounce God, Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, John’s disciple Polycarp, Irenaeus, most of the rest of the church fathers, Martin Luther (hey, I’m a Lutheran), and non-postmoderns of sin that you know better of.  This point bears proving, so let’s be about it.

Let us begin with the prophet Elisha, immediately after Elijah’s ascension into heaven.  To adopt the above interpretation of what a good an honorable response is to say that God sinned by this miraculous intervention.  Um… I’m not going to touch that with a 10′ pole.

23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. -2 Kings 2, ESV

The Man of God’s response to an insult by little children was an instant death sentence.  God’s ways are not our ways, and God is not mocked.  OR God sinned.  Pick one.  Did God sin here or is this an instance when the insult was returned in a godly way?  Before you expect me to buy “That’s the Old Testament” remember that as a Lutheran I believe that Christ was and is God, and what God does in the Old Testament was and is what Christ does.  Suddenly Christ’s ultimate and lovingly-delayed response to the world’s apostasy in Revelation seems consistent, n’est-ce pas? God sinned for Elisha or God did not sin for Elisha, because Elisha didn’t have control over those bears.

God is good.  God is the standard for ethics.  We were made in his image, and became less so (Genesis 1-6).  God remains the standard of truth (John 14:6).  God’s conviction of sin and theological rebukes are consistently wrapped in personal and shaming insults.

God repeatedly refers to faithlessness as “whoreing”, “playing the whore”, or makes references to Israel as having her skirts lifted up and her nakedness exposed.  Folks, if you don’t think calling someone a whore is a personal insult, try it sometime.  I suggest you check your exits and make an escape plan first.  Also, don’t conduct that experiment at work.  God doesn’t always use the more polite term ‘adulteress’.  When he really wants the point to hit home, he hits home with his words.

References: Exodus 35:16-17, Leviticus 17:7, Numbers 15:39, Numbers 25:1, Deuteronomy 31:16, Judges 2:17, Judges 8:27, Judges 8:33, 1 Chronicles 5:25, 2 Chronicles 21:11-13, Psalm 106:39, Isaiah takes a whole 21 verses before it launches into that theme with Isaiah 1:21, Jeremiah 2:20, 5x in Jeremiah 3:1-9, Jeremiah 5:7, Ezekiel 16 more times than I can count, and let’s just count the ENTIRE book of Hosea by context to save me from carpal tunnel.

And if you must launch into the “New Testament God” falafel, you aren’t going to get very far.  Confronted with the the Pharisees, John the Baptist instantly went to the personal insult route.  Did he call the Pharisees false teachers, mistaken, or theologically incorrect?  No, he immediately launched into “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” -Matthew 3:7

Jesus directly takes up the same insulting phraseology for his condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34.  “You brood of vipers!  How can you speak good, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  Folks, once again, go call someone evil to their face.  In Western society you probably won’t get assaulted for it, but don’t try it outside of ‘civilization’.  Also, culturally, calling them an animal was more of an insult to them than it is to post-Disney America.  Additionally, he called them an unclean animal.  Cultural context counts for meany-Jesus-insult points, folks.  Jesus’ other favorite personal insults included calling people sons of the Devil (John 8:44), whitewashed tombs and unmarked graves (Matthew 23, Luke 11), he also refers to people as fools (we’ll get there) and dogs (see above re animal insults).

@LexLutheran appealed to the Sermon on the Mount for justification that insults are forbidden to us by God, particularly because we’re angry.

There needs to be some balance here, because that black/white interpretation of this passage also leads to Jesus seeming to be a hypocrite or a sinner condemned by his own words, and the wheels fall off the cart if you go there, because sinful Jesus couldn’t have died for you, but he’d have had to die for his own sins.

The pull quote:


21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell[e] of fire. -Matthew 5 ESV

Yet Jesus is quite free and easy with the ‘fool’ and ‘foolish’ label himself.  To take a quick example of a verbal sparring match in which Jesus is angry:

“You blind fools!  For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?” -Matthew 23:17

Now, if we take a wooden and literalistic interpretation of Matthew 5’s injunction against calling someone a fool, then Jesus is a hypocritical sinner, or there is a huge double-standard going on and we can’t look to Jesus’ actions as a guide for our own because he’s God and we’re not.  That seems like an easy way out until you try to apply it consistently to the rest of your church sermons and Bible Study curriculum.  Once again the wheels come off the wagon quite quickly with the pat answer.

BUT if we let Scripture interpret scripture, the Judaic context of Jesus and his audience makes perfect sense.  To the audience of religious seekers, familiar with the Old Testament, the term is going to immediately call up Proverbs, which defines ‘fool’ as an unbeliever.  If to call someone a fool is to call them an unbeliever, and belief is the only way to salvation through god’s grace, then to say “you fool” is to condemn someone to hell, to pass judgment on them and verbalize it.  Suddenly the context flips from “don’t insult” to

“Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” -Matthew 7:1-2

That doesn’t mean don’t tell someone they’re sinning, since we’re commanded to do that (Matthew 18:15-20, Luke 17 restating it, 1 Timothy 5:1-2 etc.).  It means to do what the Pharisees did when they called someone ‘sinner’.  They didn’t mean that someone committed a sin, but that someone was irredeemably sinful, beneath them, and damned.

So if Jesus is saying not to pass final judgment in fear of our own, then he is not a hypocrite to use the words, since he as God knows the thoughts of our hearts, and he is the only one able to judge.  (Matthew 9:4, Luke 9:47, Mark 2:8, Luke 5:22, etc etc.)

Law version of this:

Luke 16:15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts.  What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”

The Gospel version of this:

And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. -Romans 8:27

This interpretation of Matthew 5 also clears St. Paul’s epistles of sin in the following passages:

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” -Titus 1:12

You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. -Galatians 3:1

As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! -Galatians 5:12

Liars, lazy gluttons?  Those are personal insults once again, folks.

So if we take a wooden interpretation of Matthew 5, scripture itself is sinning when Paul calls the Galatians fools to their faces.  Also, woah, hoping someone cuts their own balls off isn’t the Gentle-Jesus-Meek-And-Mild approach to evangelism.  Here the harshness is directed at those who threaten the salvation of those who trust in Christ.  Far from sinful anger it is the protective wrath that we typically identify with mother bears, or jealous God who won’t allow us to come to permanent harm but holds us in his everlasting arms.

Finally let’s look at Irenaeus of Lyons quoting his own master, the Apostle John’s disciple Polycarp:

And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me? “”I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” -Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresy, 3.II.4

Polycarp didn’t simply say, as the cultural eisegesis would expect: “I know that you are a heretic” “I know that you are Marcion and that you are mistaken” or “I do.”  He goes for the personal insult that ALSO makes clear the theological rebuke.  In so doing he echoes John the Baptist and Jesus Christ’s repeated rebukes to the Pharisees (who were not a fringe group but the core of Judaism at the time and the only branch to survive the fall of Jerusalem).

@ZionBerean states:

I dont believe (nor would i be convinced) that insults lead to winning souls.

When someone tells me that they won’t be convinced, I usually stop wasting my breath because the intellectual engagement is over.  But I will point out something from the insults above.  Did the insults save the Pharisees?  Did Polyarp save Marcion?  No to both questions.  The public insults did serve another purpose though, and that was to publicly display the wrong in the situation so that the false shepherd may be revealed, so that the sheep might be saved if the false prophet would not.

Remember also the parable of the sower.  Whether by harsh law or gentle gospel, God is the gracious and loving God who casts the seed out even on the ground that he knows won’t bear fruit.  He offers the gospel even to those who will be plucked away by the enemy.  His insulting condemnations are not supposed to be the end, but the beginning of the Gospel

I used to find this song by Johnny Q Public hilarious because it simply quoted some pretty harsh scripture without apology.


The insults of God are not to crush, but to restore.

The most painful thing about a godlly insult is that they’re true.  Compared to the Lord, we’re ignorant.

Jesus says I’m foolish?  He must be right, but he chose foolish me, and calls both me and you:

“To you, O men, I call,
    and my cry is to the children of man.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
    O fools, learn sense.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
    and from my lips will come what is right,
for my mouth will utter truth;
    wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
    there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to him who understands,
    and right to those who find knowledge.
10 Take my instruction instead of silver,
    and knowledge rather than choice gold,
11 for wisdom is better than jewels,
    and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.

12 “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
    and I find knowledge and discretion.
13 The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
    and perverted speech I hate.
14 I have counsel and sound wisdom;
    I have insight; I have strength.

-Proverbs 8:4-14 ESV

God calls me evil?  God knows that I am.  But here is good news on the other side of that pain.

The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted.
Hebrews 12:4-11 ESV

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”[a]

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Do godly insults reveal our sins?  Let that shame and pain drive us to the compassionate Christ who died to take those sins for us!

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

No matter what terrible things God’s word, our conscience, or others say to condemn us, Christ died for us and loves us.

John 3: ESV

16 “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Does it cut too close to your heart if someone calls you hideous things?  Wicked?  Evil?  A wh-re? Pervert?  More?

You don’t have to be that any longer.  Jesus was righteous when we couldn’t be.  He paid the price that our insults point out.  He took our condemnation so that we wouldn’t be condemned.

-1 Corinthians 6, ESV

Or do you not know that the unrighteous[b] will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,[c] 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 

It’s been interesting to look at the Biblical use of insults, but no conversation about the topic is complete without a discussion of the sinful flip-side of harmful words.  I’ll start that in part 2 of the post.