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Published Date: July 31, 1998

Published Date: July 31, 1998

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Paul and Sexual Harassment

Unwelcome, sexually suggestive comments are not a new phenomenon, beginning with the alleged activities of either Bob Packwood or Bill Clinton (depending on your political preference). Sexual humor that degrades an entire gender (or sometimes both genders) into mere objects for sexual gratification has a long history.

Not everyone in antiquity approved of sexual joking or of degrading jesting in general. Ancient rhetoricians commented regularly on the need for some restraint in joking of various kinds. Aristotle (who considered the mean between extremes to be virtuous) considered witty those who joked in good taste, but boorish those who ridiculed in excess.1 Plutarch warned that those who could not limit joking to the suitable and discreet occasions ought to abstain from it altogether.2 Among Romans, “light jesting” and “ceremonial abuse” of the groom were customary at weddings.3 A Roman rhetoric professor observed that it was good to season one’s speech with jests,4 but one should use restraint for dignity’s sake.5 Inappropriate levity at the wrong times could get a person in trouble: thus, for example, a Roman who cracked a joke while being addressed by a censor was reduced to commoner status.6

Philosophers tended to be even more restrained. Some philosophers like Pythagoras avoided laughter, insults and vulgar remarks altogether; others, like Aristippus, reportedly fled from having to listen to someone reviling him with vulgar language.7 The Stoic philosopher Epictetus warned against mocking another person, or even bringing oneself down to a mocker’s level by responding in kind. Rather, one should reprove a person who speaks in that manner.8

Likewise, Jewish teachers rejected inappropriate mocking of others. The rabbis never condemned laughter or play or even ridiculing enemies, but they did object to base speech.9 R. Akiba in the early second century remarked that “Jesting and ‘lightness of head’ ” produce “lewdness” (the term can include shame or unchastity).10 Later rabbis often developed this opposition to lewd or inappropriate jesting.11

But most people were not as restrained as philosophers or rabbis, and the practices Paul prohibits in Ephesians 5:4 characterized a great deal of public speech in the ancient Mediterranean world. The term for the final speech practice he mentions in this verse has to do with cleverness of speech and may refer to what some ancients treated as “educated insolence”—being able to make one’s debate opponent an object of derisive laughter.12 In the immediate context of sexual vices (5:3, 5), the term must at least include cheap jokes about a person’s “love life” or other sexually mocking jokes.13

Modern gossip columnists and talk shows (and even soap operas) did not introduce the practice of revealing or mocking details of other people’s sex lives, real or imagined. Such raunchy humor fills the pages of ancient satirists like Martial and Juvenal, or the more strictly comic Satyricon of Petronius (which focuses especially on homosexual attraction). Around age thirteen (two years before my conversion) I unfortunately derived considerable adolescent entertainment from the pornographic humor in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. Most ancient mimes were outrageously immoral or obscene.14

Many commentators thus point out the matter of sexually related jesting in Ephesians 5:4. Walter Liefeld suggests that all the kinds of speech prohibited in this verse “relate to what we might call ‘dirty languge’ or ‘dirty jokes.’ ”15 This verse may also refer to treating “sexual matters as a topic of amusement,” hence failing to take them seriously enough to create a morally appropriate sexual environment.16 While the text does not exclusively address direct sexual harassment, it certainly includes sexually laden humor at another’s expense. To borrow a line of logic used by ancient rabbis, Jesus, and Paul: If the lesser is prohibited (which makes sexual issues a matter of general levity), how much more the greater (which actually degrades the worth of a particular individual or group over sexual matters). As Klyne Snodgrass notes in his application comments on this passage, one can also “engage in sexual sin” by a “pornography of the mouth.”17

I have often heard the painful experience of Christian women, even new believers, who have experienced such sexual harassment or worse from “Christian” men in the church, sometimes their pastors. Often these women moved in circles where the church members or pastors would escape censure or discipline. Unfortunately I also hear of male ministers who themselves engage in inappropriate talk about women in their churches (though most ministers I know do not engage in such talk). While I know of no way to bring discipline into circles where it is unwelcome, we can choose to model what Christian speech should be like, and hence provide a place of refuge to those battered by such offenses. But merely modeling truth in our lives is not sufficient. Though our culture bristles at the thought of correcting others, in the same context Paul warns us not only to avoid participating in the works of darkness, but to expose them (5:11-13). There is a biblical role for prophets who will gently but firmly challenge the sexual hypocrisy of professed Christians and ministers.

Significantly, however, Paul spends much less time on the sort of speech that he prohibits than on the sort of speech he encourages; ridicule and sexual humor are presented as contrasts to other kinds of speech. Paul explicitly states that the alternative must be “giving of thanks” (5:4). The Spirit-filled life, in fact, is characterized by sharing with one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; by thanking God; and by submitting to one another, including in marriage (5:18-33).

As people of the truth (4:24), we should speak truth to one another (4:25). We should “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29, NASB). Otherwise we may grieve God’s Spirit (4:30)—a rather strong warning, considering that the probable background for this phrase is Isaiah 63:10, where it involved Israel’s full-scale rebellion against the Lord. Lewd speech is a characteristic of the old existence (4:17-19), and no Christian should behave in such a manner (4:20-24; 5:5-6). We should put away the old behavior (4:22), including slander (4:31). We should love one another as Christ has loved us (4:32-5:2); if we do, there will be no place left for reviling others made in the image of our precious Master.


  1. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 4.8.3, 1128a.
  2. Plutarch Table-Talk 2.1.4, Moralia 631C.
  3. Lucan Civil War 2.368-69.
  4. Quintilian Institutes of Rhetoric 2.10.9.
  5. Quintilian Institutes of Rhetoric 5.3.30-31.
  6. Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 4.20.4-6; cf. 4.20.11.
  7. Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.1.20 and Lives 2.70, respectively.
  8. Epictetus Encheiridion 33.15-16.
  9. See e.g., C. W. Reines, “Laughter in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature,” Judaism 21 (2, 1972): 176-83.
  10. Mishnah Aboth 3:13. In rabbinic Hebrew the expression we have rendered literally “lightness of head” means irreverence and frivolity.
  11. E.g., Gen. Rab. 22:6; Ex. Rab. 30:21; Song Rab. 8:14, §1.
  12. E.g., M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (Greenwood, SC: Attic Press, 1971), 157; J. A. Robinson, St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, 2d ed. (London: James Clarke, 1904), 197-98. Jesus did shame his interlocutors with witty repartees (as did Paul with imaginary interlocutors in his diatribes), but not to entertain his audiences.
  13. Cf. e.g., C. L. Mitton, Ephesians, New Century Bible (Greenwood: Attic, 1976), 178-79.
  14. See L. Friedländer, Roman Life and Manners Under the Early Empire, 4 vols. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1908), 2:90-95, especially p. 92.
  15. W. L. Liefeld, Ephesians, IVP New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 125.
  16. See A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary 42 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990), 323.
  17. K.Snodgrass, Ephesians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 281.