This article will tackle as to whether or not we should be gentle or harsh depending on the context.
I have been compelled to right this article. This is indeed an issue that is on my heart and I want to get this down.
Can we use harsh words toward an individual and what is the limit that we cannot cross? Well, let's first dive in.
Gentle times and Harsh times
In giving a defense of the faith we are exhorted to do the following:
"1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For,
“Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech.
11 They must turn from evil and do good;
they must seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”[a]
13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats[b]; do not be frightened.”[c] 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."
In regards to presenting the Gospel to others, there is a time when gentleness is the good route and the key. This doesn't mean that we are to be wimpy and stare at the ground, but it does mean that giving an apologia or defense for the hope that we have, definitely needs to be conducted with the greatest respect.
We also observe in the Gospels that Jesus himself did not see fit to treat unbelievers harshly, but nevertheless exhorted them to repent and turn away from sin and back to God. Such examples can be found in the Gospel of John:
"John 4:16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” "
"John 5:8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, 10 and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”
11 But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ”
12 So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
13 The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.
14 Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well."
"John 8:1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”"
It is important to note that despite Jesus' attitude towards these individuals, he doesn't tolerate the sins they are guilty of, but instead sternly exhorts the individuals to repent. This is an appropriate level of tenderness and doesn't take it to the extreme of being incredibly doting or being apathetic.
What Jesus is doing is showing compassion and grace to the people themselves, whilst at the same time not running the risk of being namby pamby.
But there were times however where gentleness was not the approach and Jesus took a difference stance. Jesus did speak harshly in his ministry but once again, it was appropriate. If someone is guilty of teaching false doctrine or false teaching, Jesus pulled no punches and exposed that Pharisees for the false traditions they have embedded into the minds of the people. Just a read of Matthew 23:13-38 demonstrates that harsh language can be used of false teachers, such as white washed tombs, hypocrites, liars, vipers etc.
The apostles, as well as James and Jude also did the same with respect to the false teachers as we observe in the following passages:
"Philippians 3:1 Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence."
"2 Peter 2:9 if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh[c] and despise authority.
Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; 11 yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from[d] the Lord. 12 But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish."
"Jude 1:8 In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings. 9 But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”[d] 10 Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand, and the very things they do understand by instinct—as irrational animals do—will destroy them.
11 Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.
12 These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. 13 They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever."
Here we find an appropriate level of condemnation that Christians can use. In light of the descriptions of false brethren and heretics being utilized by Jesus and the apostles themselves, What makes anyone think that we cannot use such descriptions and be harsh with heretics.
Having said that, it also depends on the person and the group they are part of. The late Doug Harris of Revelation TV when dealing with Jehovah's Witnesses spoke in a calm demeanor to them due to the fact both Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses expect aggression or opposition. Again it depends on the individual being spoken to. Don't misunderstand me, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are heretics and deceivers and need the Gospel, I am simply saying that aggression with them is not appropriate.
You could make the case that this also applies to unbelievers, regarding the subject of harsh words which I can agree with certain individuals, but NOT all individuals.
Lastly, there is a difference between what the apostles did in speaking harshly of false prophets, and just simply using a word just to insult them, doesn't matter what the word is.
It's one thing to be harsh if the person is trying to destroy the Gospel, but it's another thing to let's say refer to them as "gay"(slang for stupid) or "fag" (again slang for stupid). I do not want to go that particular route and to be honest, I am not impressed with that particular route and object to it. Calling them stupid, no problem and is something else entirely but calling them gay in the sense of being stupid, not going to go there. Call me a semantic wimp but I'd rather be safe than sorry.
James warns us to keep a tight reign on our tongue:
"James 3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water."
The tongue is often a part of the body that is overlooked when it comes to harming others. We mostly worry about actually hurting them physically, but very few of us consider the fact the tongue can do just as much damage mentally to the person as assaulting them on the street. The human tongue while a useful harmless instrument to help enunciate our words, it can at the same time, cleave emotional scars into an individual if left unchecked.
Think of a scenario where someone calls another fat lazy and a slob, when they despite being fat are hard working and ambitious, striving toward a goal, that is going to hurt them rather than build them up. In the context of the Christian life, our words are to edify our fellow believers, not destroy them, which can be found in individuals:
"Ephesians 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."
The Proverbs also give us a warning about what a harsh word can do in an improper context:
"15 A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
2 The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge,
but the mouth of the fool gushes folly."
Sometimes however a gentle answer may not be the appropriate response to an individual and this ties into a proverb NOT being a promise. I'll explain later in the paper.
Another thing to watch out for is what Paul warns about in Romans 1:
"Romans 1:28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them."
Paul tells us about the fallen man outside of the faith, Slander and Gossiping are INEXCUSABLE. When Jesus himself referred to the Pharisees as vipers or any harsh words of the Bible are directed at false teachers, there was solid 100% truth to these claims and he backed them up. Calling someone out as Jesus did must have a solid foundation of truth, you do NOT engage in slandering the individual, namely spread malicious lies and untruths about them. That kind of behavior is unacceptable and Jesus is not honored by lies:
"Revelation 21:6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”"
Again this situation ties into what is said regarding the tongue. Lies will cause damage and as the old saying goes "Oh what a web we weave when we practice to deceive".
Again, depending on the context or individual, this is tricky. There is a biblical basis for mocking false Gods and false idols. Take Elijah for instance:
"1 Kings 18:22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention."
Similar to the harsh words against false teachers, there is a basis for mocking the false Gods of the nations and sometimes, if a heretic or a certain (but not all) unbeliever mocks you, you can answer him according to his stupidity:
"Proverbs 26:4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes."
It depends on the individual, their attitude, their sincerity, it all comes down to the person that you are addressing at the time. A proverb is only generally true, so keep in mind a proverb is not always true in every situation. A proverb is NOT a promise, but only true in a given situation. NEVER rush in and assume that a proverb applies to an individual, assess the situation beforehand, otherwise we can seriously hurt people if we turn these proverbs into promises. Just read the book of Job as an example to see how the proverbs of his friends were true in some cases, but NOT in the case of Job. Wisdom literature as said before, is only true in a given context. A promise, be it conditional or unconditional, you can be sure is true (Assuming the one who made it will carry it out).
While there is mockery that is good and right in YHWH's sight, the opposite is also true. There is mockery that is indeed evil and it's that type we need to avoid. Even 2 Peter highlights this point that there will be scoffers in the last days:
"2 Peter 3:3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly."
This kind of mockery, where opponents of the faith mock the Gospel or even heretics mocking the true Gospel, not only is Peter warning us of those individuals, you can also make the point that this is a position that Christians are not to take. Scoffing at the truth will lead you to face God's judgement if there is no repentance.
I need not labour the point too much otherwise I will come off as redundant.
Another thing to note is dealing with someone who may have sincere questions to ask or someone who hasn't. Let's observe the following:
"Matthew 21:23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
If someone is asking a sincere question, you can answer them directly, but in some cases, you answer a question with a question. I would recommend this article here which has excellent points on this section and others: https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/486-answering-the-fool
This is really all I have to say and I am glad I have gotten this off my chest. Thanks for reading.
PS. This offers an interesting perspective on mockery here: https://scarletlettersblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/what-the-bible-says-about-scorn-and-mockery-tbb/
Read also this for another perspective: http://www.biblesprout.com/articles/salvation/sin/cursing/
It deals with foul language which is indeed a problem in our society. His summary is pretty interesting.
Bottom line, study this issue.
More may be added to this paper if the Lord Wills.