Humor evokes laughter through a personal quip, story or non-verbal cue. A cursory glimpse at the Church’s history might lead one to believe that Christians are a humorless lot.

Many of the early Church Fathers associated humor with moral vices and preached against it. The Puritans banned comedies, believing they were inherently immoral. And the Rule of Benedict eschewed “foolish chatter” and urged speaking “nothing just to provoke laughter.”

At first glance the Bible might seem to support such a dour outlook on life. One Proverb says, “like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives a neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking'” (Proverbs 26:18-19). But when we look at the surrounding Proverbs, they are filled with humor and bring a smile to the face: “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own” (26:17); or “Like tying a stone in a sling is the giving of honor to a fool” (26:8). Or we might think of Sarah and Abraham’s response of laughter when God informs them of a coming son long after her biological clock is past such possibility (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). God, of course, has the last laugh, as he tells them to name him Isaac, meaning, “He laughs.”

God has created us with the capacity to laugh. Humor that evokes laughter helps to relieve stress and is physiologically therapeutic. It helps us to not take ourselves too seriously and reminds us of the finitude and falleness of all human endeavors. But of course humor also has its dark side. And thus we need ethical principles to guide us. I suggest three.

First, we should strive to protect the dignity and value of every individual. Being created in God’s image, all persons have an intrinsic dignity that needs to be preserved, regardless of the perversity of their character and actions. In his discussion of the tongue and its “deadly poison,” James wrote, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9). Humor that denigrates a person, especially over things not easily changed, is ethically suspect.

Second, we should guard against stereotyping of particular groups of people, be they cultures, races or classes of people. Historically, much humor has been at the expense of whole groups of persons, and such stereotyping breeds prejudice and lacks integrity.

Third, we should not appeal to base and immoral thoughts and innuendos. Christian character should always be preserved in our humor, for as Paul reminds us, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Such virtues do not lead us to refrain from humor, but call us to a wise and righteous use of this good gift of our Maker.

This article originally appeared in the NAE Insight.

Dennis Hollinger
Dennis Hollinger is president and the Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Previously, he served as president and professor of Christian ethics at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. Hollinger received a B.A. from Elizabethtown College, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, an M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Drew University, and did post-doctoral studies at Oxford University.