I recently had the opportunity to speak on the power of speech (ironic, I know), and offered at that time a brief “theology of teasing.” I sought to defend the notion that teasing—poking fun, irony, even sarcasm in its less technical sense—can serve a life-giving purpose within the Christian community. My comments were not received favorably by everyone. So I wish now to give a fuller defense of what I only hinted at earlier.
Some would argue that teasing should never form a part of the Christian’s repertoire. The argument seems to follow 1 Corinthians 13:5, which says love is not rude. The underlying assumption is that teasing is necessarily rude, and since we are called to love—and therefore called to kindness, not rudeness—we cannot tease. I suspect this is a subtle form of begging the question, however, as it assumes what it is trying to prove, viz., that teasing is wrong. If we slow down and work through the argument as a whole, we may come to a different conclusion.
Scripture offers an absolute injunction as regards our speech. Paul says in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV). That the injunction is absolute—covering all of our words—is clear from the strongly dichotomous language: “Let no . . . but only . . . .” Thus, the test we must apply to teasing is whether or not it is wholesome or corrupting, good for building up, giving grace to those who hear.
At this point we may be tempted to answer cavalierly, “Teasing is never wholesome, never builds up, never gives grace.” I am not sure we have the biblical right to say this, however, as Scripture happily forbids the sort of speech that can never give grace. In fact, Paul does so a few verses later, enjoining the Ephesians, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, what are out of place” (5:4). Filthiness, foolishness, crude humor—and other forms of speech, such as gossip, slander, deceit, hatred—can never bring grace, and so God explicitly prohibits them. Teasing does not make this list.
It should not be hard to see why. A simple logical syllogism should do the trick.
- If teasing brings grace, it has a place in Christian conversation.
- Teasing brings grace.
- Therefore, it has a place in Christian conversation.
The point of disagreement is statement #2. However, it seems unwise to disagree with the proposition, as (1) Scripture does not speak condemningly of teasing, and we always must be careful not to teach as doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:9) and (2) many people’s personal experiences agree with it. It seems far wiser to be more situation-specific, rather than sweepingly dichotomous, asking in each case if the teasing comment brings grace or not.
Not everyone enjoys teasing, and so we must be careful when using it. Some people have experienced grace through teasing—strengthening the relationship as it often does—but this does not give us the blanket right to assume that all will. We must, as Paul commands, see what “fits the occasion” and what will give grace “to those who hear” specifically. This requires sensitivity to the person and to the Spirit. We well understand the psalmist’s prayer, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (141:3).
As Proverbs reminds us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). When teasing will bring life, we should joyfully use it to bring humor, intimacy, wit, and the like to our gracious interactions; when it will bring death, we abstain. The decision will never be easy, especially when it proves so hard to tame the tongue (James 3:8), so we must choose our words carefully and lovingly. Love, not law, has the final say.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
 Sarcasm technically means speech intending to mock or wound, which would of course be sin. But in today’s vernacular, it usually means little more than irony, which is something altogether different.