Pastors: stop putting women down with your cheap laugh lines

I recently tweeted:

If you are listening to a sermon and they use “You know how women are, they always …” for a laugh line, it’s OK to get up and walk out.

That must have struck a nerve, because this is turning out to be the most re-tweeted thing I’ve ever written on twitter. I think it’s because a lot of people have been hurt by humor from the pulpit that’s just not funny.

laugh line

I’ve heard it from liberals and conservatives, from egalitarians and complementarians, from men about women and women about men. The lesson here is that it’s never appropriate to use a put-down for a cheap laugh in an effort to make a point about Jesus.

Not Just Sermons

One pastor at a recent conference tweeted:

It’s exciting to be in a room with 1,300+ people none of whom are Rachel Held Evans fans. It gives me hope for the future.

When I tweeted back a question as to why he would say such a thing he responded that it was all tongue in cheek, using the “I was only joking” defense. He eventually decided to take down the original tweet and apologized directly to Rachel Held Evans, though, and that’s good. After all, the Bible says that the I-was-only-joking excuse is no excuse at all.

Like a maniac shooting
    flaming arrows of death
is one who deceives their neighbor
    and says, “I was only joking!” (Proverbs 26:18-19.)

Whether it’s a sermon put-down about women in general or a tweet that throws one particular woman under the bus for a cheap laugh, pastors need to remember that members of their congregations are listening and reading. As James said:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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. (James 3:1-2.)

I’ve said a lot of dumb things in my life, things I’ve regretted immediately and things I’ve come to regret over time, so my point isn’t to shut pastors up nor to ridicule those who misspeak. The point here is to bring awareness to the power of words, even those meant only as a joke.

Because some jokes just aren’t funny.

Joking for Jesus

There’s a place for laughter in God’s kingdom, though, and I think it’s a prominent place.

Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” (Psalm 126:2.)

Laugh and sing and speak of God. Now there’s something for pastors to remember as they prepare their next sermon.


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75 Responses to Pastors: stop putting women down with your cheap laugh lines

  1. Yes, we women can be a cheap shot! I discovered that a man had tweeted his uncalled for comment on one of my blogs and it was most upsetting. I am glad that I don’t tweet–so easy to sin this way. Christ says in Matthew 12:36 “for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.” Thank you, Tim, for taking up this cause.

    • Tim says:

      It’s easy to take cheap shots at those on the margins and in our society and especially in a large part of the church, women are still marginalized. These cheap shots are never appropriate in the body of Christ.

  2. Jeannie says:

    I agree with Carol, Tim. I think it makes a different impact if a man “takes up this cause,” so thanks for doing so. But I see that your broader point is it doesn’t matter who’s making a joke at whose expense — words are powerful and we should be careful how we use them. Whether it’s a general “women/men are so [insert putdown here]” remark or a direct slap at a specific person as in the RHE example, it’s just unkind. And NEVER necessary!!!

    • Tim says:

      Precisely, Jeannie. If someone thinks that this kind of “joke” is necessary in order to get a point across, then the point probably isn’t worth making in the first place.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And “What’s the Matter? CAN’T YOU TAKE A JOKE?” is a standard Bully tactic to shift all blame back onto the Victim.

  3. Mary Anne says:

    Two things: agree with Jeannie that we women also need to watch the tendency to smack men with our humour. There’s an essay called “Confessions of a Female Chauvinist Sow” that covers ways in which women are taught by our culture to put down men. Unkindness is unkindness, period. Some would say that kind of humour is the oppressed hitting back at the oppressor, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse it.

    And the second: think of how Jesus dealt with women in a culture where women were definitely considered second-class citizens. The Samaritan woman at the well, the women taken in adultery (and where was the man, hmmm? Did she commit adultery all by herself?), Mary and Martha–and giving instructions from the Cross, no less, on how his own mother was to be taken care of. In light of what we went through with my mother, I find that last example especially humbling.

    • Tim says:

      The example Jesus gave us in how he treated women and spoke of them is something everyone who teaches God’s word (whether from a pulpit or a blog) should keep in mind.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The Samaritan woman at the well, the women taken in adultery (and where was the man, hmmm? Did she commit adultery all by herself?)

      Maybe he was in the crowd of Righteous accusers with a big rock ready in his hand?

  4. Thank you for this, Tim. As other commenters have said, thank you for standing up for women. Another type of “humor” I have heard from the pulpit is from people who are pro-spanking and make jokes about it. We left a church because of that. It’s just not funny.

    • Tim says:

      Pro-spanking and joking about it? That sounds to me like a preacher who doesn’t understand parenting and the role discipline has in a parent/child relationship. I’d have walked out too, Callie.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Pro-spanking and joking about it? That sounds to me like a preacher who doesn’t understand parenting and the role discipline has in a parent/child relationship.

        Or a preacher who’s into Christian Domestic Discipline(TM).
        “PAPA SPANK!”

        • Heather G says:

          Headless Unicorn, sooo many comments of yours on so many different blogs are of a sexual nature. Why?

        • Tim says:

          I didn’t catch the innuendo, Heather. Is it really there? If so, I’ll probably delete the comment.

  5. Preaching is a huge responsibility and every word should be thought out carefully beforehand. I know most if not all preachers improvise or ad-lib, but it takes discipline to not say a joke or share a story on the fly. Often times the desire to be funny outweighs the desire to change a life. Humor is great and should be thought out, and put downs should not be a way to get laughs. Now with that being said here comes confession time. More than 10 years ago I was still new to preaching and fulfilling my call. Wanting to start a sermon with some laughs I said something along the lines like, “I’m sorry to say but while I was studying this week I came across Revelation 8:1, and discovered there will be no women in heaven” I then read the verse and then get laughs, but later when I reflected back on it I wondered, why did I do that and what was I thinking?
    I guess for me the part that was disappointing (besides me saying that joke in the first place) was no one corrected me (not even the Lead Pastor). That’s how we grow, learn, and mature. Ok, enough of my transparency and confessions….

    • Tim says:

      Rodney, I think the thing to do with that Rev 8 joke is tell it again and then explain all the other great stuff you put in your comment here. That’s awesome stuff!

      And when it comes to confession, as I said in the post above “I’ve said a lot of dumb things in my life.” Still saying them occasionally.

    • bonnie k. says:

      Well, I’m a woman and I might have laughed at that. The reason that was funny is that it relies on the generalization that woman are more talkative than men, and, generally speaking, that’s true. (I’m refraining from making a little joke about men here that explains this phenomenon, lol.)
      If someone jokes and is willing to give AND take, jokes that rely on stereotype can be funny. The problem for me arises when there is no give and take or when there seems to be an underlying issue of contempt for a particular group of people.
      There is one popular pastor whom I’ve heard on TV who seems angry at women. (Actually, he seems angry period.) I’ve heard him make jokes that I think are disparaging to women. Just recently, I heard him again. Sure enough, he made a joke that was disparaging to women. It seems to be a pattern. Enough already!

      • Tim says:

        Great points, Bonnie.

        Good-natured ribbing back and forth is a joy. A pastor whose self-deprecating humor is well-placed and who also delivers an occasional jibe at another person or group is probably also able to present the word of God in a way that does not needlessly offend the listeners.

      • bonnie k:
        You should have known my ex fiance. The man talked non-stop and never let me talk about me or stuff I found interesting.

        If I tried to talk about me or anything I thought both of us would possibly find interesting, he acted bored or annoyed. His favorite topic was HIM.

        It was a very one sided relationship in many regards, and that was one of them. It got so bad I would unintentionally “tune him out” when he went on his long, rambling monologues, and he never noticed.

        That’s why I sometimes get slightly irate when men makes jokes about “women who talk too much.”

        (That, and I’ve often been in one sided friendships with female friends and one male friend who talked (or e-mailed) about themselves non-stop but who never cared to listen to me talk about me or my problems or life. Suddenly they would find excuses why they had to get off the phone, or they would ignore my e-mails about me.)

        • Tim says:

          Those conversations (if they can be called that) can be so frustrating!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          We had a pathological nonstop talker like that in local fandom. (With the exact same choice of subject.) Can’t use his name because of liability, but his name actually became a local verb meaning “to be cornered by a pathological nonstop talker.”

  6. Amen! As a woman, I appreciate this to the depths of my core. I am so weary of being told who I am, in seriousness or in jest, simply because I am a woman.

    I think this concept needs to be applied all across the board. As an advocate for homeless people for example, I am also quite sick of hearing “bums” be the punchline simply because they are an easy target and will rarely rally together to push back…although that is a bit of a tangent 🙂

  7. On a somewhat related topic, and this is from Single Adults in Your Ministry: Why They Stay and Why They Stray by Dick Purnell

    He has a section in his book called, “Number 10: Frivolous jokes degrade the single lifestyle”
    The author mentions several things under that section, but one of them is a story about how when he was single he invited a platonic female friend with him to church.

    Some of his married church associates began cracking jokes about it, which put him on the spot and made him and the friend feel awkward.

    He wrote,

    When we [the author and his female friend at his church] stopped to turn into the row [of pews], he handed my friend a bulletin and said to me loudly so most of the people could hear, “Hey Dick, when are you going to marry her?” I wanted to die right there, but first I wanted to punch his lights out.

    These kinds of jokes will not attract singles to your church! No way! They degrade single life as if the only bright future is for married people. That idea is not found in the Bible.

    • Mary Anne says:

      Yes, PLEASE, think before you joke about anyone single. I have a very close but entirely platonic friend and at one congregation I attended, everyone acted like it was only a matter of time before we got married, and when we denied it they’d just smile knowingly, as if they knew better than we did what the state of our relationship was. Most of the time it didn’t stop until I let out some of my guid Scots ancestors for a little conversational caber toss . . .

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for adding this about singles. That whole idea that the speaker knows better than the individual what the individual is really like is at the heart of how harmful stereotypes are.

    • Heather G says:

      However, I would add – not all singles in the church ARE happy being single. There are many who really really want to be married, and end up feeling invisible on the other end of the spectrum, with everyone being trained by the happily single type singles to assume that singles want to be single.

      • Tim says:

        True, I imagine there are as many different ways to experience singleness as there are single people.

      • Daisy says:

        Heather G, I agree.

        I was a single who wanted to be married, and I still hope to marry, but I’ve not met the right person.

        Another thing I find annoying is that a lot of Christians will tell Christian singles who want marriage that they are “making an idol out of marriage,” which I find an unfair, insensitive, and weird thing to say.

        You’ll get shamed a lot if you’re a single who admits to married Christians you’d like to be married some day. You might get accused of making marriage an idol, and get lectures about how you should be content where you are, and so on. There’s not a lot of empathy for singles who ‘d like to be married, but it’s just not happening for them.

  8. Thank you for this, Tim. I’ve been hurt by jokes about women delivered from the pulpit, but I know that women can be guilty of taking shots at men, too – we just don’t have the public platform as often. I recently heard a non-Christian friend describing a visit to a church last week and the pastor made a joke about “sissy boys”. I’m afraid in the cultural climate of the moment, people in the LGBT community are easy targets in conservative churches. But I told my friend I would have been tempted to throw something at that pastor after hearing that. Our words need to reflect the character of the Jesus we serve.

    • Tim says:

      Wow, Sharon, I can just imagine what your friend must have thought hearing that from the pulpit. If I’d heard it you would have seen the back side of me as I went out the door. There’s just no excuse for pastor’s saying such things.

  9. karen d says:

    I don’t think Joel Ellis, Jr was joking. His rhetoric — from his first tweet to the last is bullying, pure and simple, and no amount of his “I was just tongue in cheek” backpedaling makes it any less so. His comment is designed to silence women — not just Rachel but all women who use their voice in the Kingdom. I’m glad you brought the tweet exchange out to the open, Tim. I wish more leaders would draw attention to this sort of spiritual abuse. Rachel has an incredible support community and clearly she handles these abuses with such dignity (and from reading her blog, she also throws things a lot like, say, someone else I know 😉 …but how many other women out there are just finding their voice or trying to, trying to live out the calling God has made on their lives, and they read Ellis’s tweet and sense deep in their soul that they are putting themselves at risk of spiritual abuse simply to enter the conversation. Atrocious.

    • Tim says:

      It came across that way to me too, Karen. Its effect was to shut down communication by excluding voices, not facilitate it by inviting them into the conversation.

  10. karen d says:

    I just looked at his websites … he’s clearly just a young chap, lots of growing up to do. I’ll try to be more compassionate.

  11. Food for thought, Tim. I agree wholeheartedly that humour at someone else’s expense isn’t on, especially if it belittles them. I also know that there are a lot of people out there who say hurtful things to and about others, causing havoc with their words (I wish I could say that I never have…). However, a coin has two sides, and I wonder if folk don’t sometimes take this a bit far, to the point of feeling themselves victimized every time something is said about their religion/race/gender? Isn’t learning not to take offence readily much more helpful in building bridges between people than being touchy? And, just for the record, I do know what it is like to have been through an emotional mill to the point where even innocent, well-meant remarks about the “sore point” just don’t seem funny. Ever. Coming from anyone. But it still seems to me to be something that I have to work through and be healed from, rather than society at large. Perhaps, if a remark from the pulpit seems off, rather than walking out (which can send such a lot of confusing messages to the preacher, who may not even have a clue as to why you left), pointing out your problem in a private conversation afterwards may have much more positive results, both in his preaching and — who knows — your relationship? Anyway, these are just some thoughts, and I hope I haven’t stirred a hornet’s nest in sharing them!

    • Tim says:

      Those are all really good points, Manie. I would probably follow-up walking out on a sermon with a private conversation with the preacher if it’s someone I have a relationship with already. If it were a church I was visiting on vacation or something like that, I’d just leave.

      Over-sensitivity is another barrier to communication too, that’s for sure. If it’s a matter of a preacher speaking God’s word and someone being offended, then I think it’s unavoidable. If it’s a thoughtless joke at someone else’s expense, though, I think pastors are held to higher standards for communicating in kind ways and they need to be aware of how their own words (in contrast to God’s word) can come across poorly and hurt people.

      Thoughtless words aren’t unforgiveable, of course, but they are regrettable and should be careful attention by those in the pulpit will keep this to a minimum.

      • Thanks for your gracious reply to my thoughts, Tim! I agree with you that ministers of the Word are held to a higher standard and that, even more so than in other contexts, the pulpit is no place to crack jokes at other people’s expense. I guess I was just trying to point out that this thing has two sides and that grace should extend both ways. Also (this is a bit of a tangent of mine), I think we can sometimes go on about our rights too much and lose sight of our responsibilities.

        • Tim says:

          I think you’re right. Any time criticism or correction is actually a defense of our supposed rights, we need to carefully examine whether we’d be better off just letting it go rather than say anything at all.

    • Manie said, “Isn’t learning not to take offence readily much more helpful in building bridges between people than being touchy?”

      I’m of two minds. I am very conservative in regards to politics and other topics, and I think we are living in a very “P.C.” climate in the United States where people confuse disagreement over an issue with “hatred” or whatever, but, on the other hand, it’s easier to brush these things off if you are not the target of said “joke.”

      If you’re a man, you perhaps find it ten times easier when a preacher makes a joke about women that has a sexist tone to it to dismiss it, and tell women to just don’t get worked up about it, than a woman would have dealing with it. It’s a bit easier to brush it off if you’re not the target than if you are a member of the targeted group.

      As I was saying in a round about way above, sometimes the jokes that rely on stereotypes (such as “all women talk too much”) are not applicable to all women, or some men are guilty of them, and the hypocrisy is so grating.

      The next many I hear “joke-complain” that women talk or gossip too much – I so want to look up my ex fiance, put him on the phone with you, and after 1 to 3 hours of listening to his non-stop, one sided conversation (which includes gossip of his family members), you might walk away with a new view.

      • Tim says:

        Good points, Miss DF. When I hear these jokes, I don’t think “Oh, we all need to remember not to take offense at offensive things.” I think “Why did that guy have to put down women in his effort to make a point that could have been made better without the put-down.”

        In addition to being hurtful, the put-downs are a poor teaching/preaching tool. Why use poor tools that also hurt people?

      • I agree with you, Missdaisyflower, that it’s easier to brush it off if you don’t belong to the targeted group, but I also agree that Americans (and westerners in general) are so P.C. that it becomes hard to distinguish disagreement over an issue from hatred and what goes along with it.

    • Korrine says:

      Marie, I had a similar conversation with a friend this week who told me I needed to quit taking things so personally. He may have a point.

      That said, the way I explained it to him is that it’s like having a severe peanut allergy. He may love peanuts, but if he introduced anything peanut-related to me, I’m going to have a life-threatening reaction due to so much past exposure.

    • Terri says:

      You make a good point. I’m thinking context is essential in this particular aspect of the discussion. Someone who is already marginalized is belittled, excluded, limited, and put down their whole lives at church for being who they are (that is a lot of the marginalization right there). There is little hope of this changing anytime soon.

      One day the pastor makes yet another joke. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and the listener walks out. (See original post.)

      While I also believe it is part of our character work to not take offense at everything, I believe that when we put the failure of the marginalized to “not take offense” on an equal plane with what the marginalizers have done and continue to do, we really fail to help the situation, and we hurt the marginalized all over again.

      I’ve been lectured and admonished too many times that I should “be the bigger person” while the dominant group goes on steamrolling, dismissing, and excluding the marginalized. It’s pretty clear in the Bible which group arouses God’s ire, although both groups receive God’s compassion as well.

      Perhaps I’ve just come to the point of being sick of it. Sick of people like me being marginalized and sick of being lectured that somehow my feeling hurt and marginalized in response is just as bad. We weren’t created to be rejected and marginalized. Of course it hurts and offends us — it is hurtful and offensive, and it was never supposed to happen in the original plan.

      I can appreciate and pursue growth that helps me be less hurt and offended, but the real problem is in committing the original offense. If I am to bear the weight of guilt for being hurt when someone is hurting me, on top of the person’s hurtful comments, well, I am too tired for that now. Decades into church life and just sick of being blamed as if I am equally to blame. Tired of being marginalized. Just tired of this whole church spirit.

      Obviously, this is a sore spot for me where I’m at in my own spiritual walk. No less true for that though.

      • Tim says:

        Precisely, Terri. It is never appropriate for a person who is in authority and is one of the insiders to make a pint at the expense of those who have been pushed to the margins.

  12. I’m not good with joking. I am good at being silly, but people don’t understand why I can’t “get a joke” or “lighten up” when a lot of what people think is funny I find to be not so nice to someone somewhere. :: sigh :: I also am gullible so people play jokes on me sometimes because they know I’m just a serious person. ugh. I like this post by the way.

    • Tim says:

      I have quite a few friends who – like you – are good at being silly but are don’t always see the humor in jokes that people try to tell, Victoria. Those friends of mine are some of the best people I know, though.

  13. Lynn says:

    For family reasons, I attend a church where I recently heard this from the pulpit: “Now if you are a woman and tell me you have been called to preach, I can you that was a prank call!” (laughter from the congregation) I should have walked out. My stomach still hurts thinking about it..

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  15. nataliakwok says:

    I love this post and think it is so necessary for men to be speaking up about this. Thanks for preaching it!

  16. Barb says:

    I have been waiting to use this in an appropriate blog, and maybe this is it! First, would you believe our pastor actually made a comment from the pulpit about getting ready to go someplace and ironing his own shirt??!!! Yes! The man knows how to iron, and doesn’t mind saying that he does it!! And he wasn’t trying to be sarcastic or make some kind of….uh….joke! On the other hand, there was a Mother’s Day message 2-3 years ago when he said (twice!) that women were not only to ‘submit’, they were also SUBSERVIENT. Yes, it was the same man. Go figure. As soon as church was over, I had to hurry to the car so I could cry. If it ever happens again, I’ll simply get up and leave, ironing skills or not.

    • Tim says:

      Great quote, Melissa. I’m reading Sayers’s “Have His Carcase’ currently, as a matter of fact, and her main character (Vine, not Wimsey) is a woman who is just the sort for Sayers to have put those words in for her dialog.

  17. Ruth says:

    How glad to have had a minister who makes very witty comments, jokes, asides, but all about himself! His wife would be mentioned, but never belittled, so the odd laugh was one we she could join in and enjoy. He would certainly have heard from her if it wasn’t appropriate. Lovely man!

  18. Barb says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the basis of your blog!! “Can’t take a joke” and “just kidding” are not OK! I always believe people mean exactly what they say, except for the occasional and embarrassing foot-in-the-mouth which we’ve all done, and that is a different scenario.

    • Tim says:

      Sermons are supposed to be completely purposeful when it comes to what is said, and if one of these jokes is part of that purposefulness they need to stop. Those times when people suffer foot-in-mouth disease are embarrassing, though, and they too can happen during sermons. The line between them can be a bit blurry at times. I hope to extend grace in all times.

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  20. What say we declare a planetary-wide ban on humour?

  21. Gwen Jorgensen says:

    I know. I was helping a couple girls at their dad’s church. They are both private students, lovely people; and I was supporting their music with one of my own instruments for offertory. I enjoy doing this for/ with students once in awhile, to help them get going on their own. While waiting, I heard pastor make one ‘you know how women are’ joke, after another, and another. It was not done with malice. I’d say it was done lovingly, but I felt complete dispair that these women are raised to think this is ok. It is a tenuous, prayerful line I walk with helping churches , that have this shallow outlook on women. The thing that saddens me, is that it first distracts from who Christ is, and then takes away from all women’s were meant to be in Christ. It’s like a neatly padded prison cell. We should focus on the good news. I hate to take time out for culture wars. They are not won by complete dismissal, but living and communicating,one person at a time, at least for me.

  22. In the words of Queen Elizabeth I, I agree: “there is only one Jesus Christ and one faith, and all the rest is…well…over trifles”.

  23. What I meant was that there is only one culture – Jesus culture, as far as I am concerned anyway. Obviously, wordly culture is a bit more nuanced than that. Please delete my previous comment accordingly, because I can, upon reflection, see that it could have been ambiguously interpretted. Thank you, again.

  24. Colleen says:

    As I’ve grown older, I’m not as inclined to smile and blow these comments off. They really hurt me. Unfortunately, I sometimes handle them very immaturely out of anger and say some quite mean-spirited things about men in response. I need to find a go-to response that tells the other person what they said was unkind, inappropriate, hurtful, and they need to stop saying such things while not shaming or embarrassing them. Hopefully I’ll figure out what those words are, grow up, exhibit the fruits of the spirit, and say them.

    • Tim says:

      A friend of mine responds to these “jokes” by saying, “I’m not sure what you’re getting at. What does that mean?”

      Then the person is forced to explain the attempt at humor. And every attempt is met with another, “I’m still not understanding. What is it you are saying?”

      This goes on until the person is either exhausted, too put out to speak straight, comes to the point of apologizing

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