Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Teasing: A Meditation For Christian Leadership

It occurred me last night that teasing discourages godly relationships. At times. Not all the time. But quite often. Especially with those who already have trust issues and difficulty opening up and seeking godly counsel, whether from a peer or from a mentor. This is tricky because, under certain other conditions, teasing also strengthens and affirms friendships. There is a delicate balance between the benevolent belittling you find between good friends and the hurtful harassment of a one-sided relationship.

Teasing And Godly Counsel
Why is it so hard for some people to open up? Because as sinners, we all have things to hide; sinful things, shameful acts of evil, things we do that we're afraid to admit to others. For us, the command to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph 5.11) terrifies us!
But some people do take that step. At some point in every young Christian's life, there is a realization that for growth and maturity to happen, they MUST confess their sins to other people and seek accountability. At that point in their spiritual walk, the road forks. One is the narrow, precarious path towards holiness and the other is the enticingly safe and firm highway towards a Pharisaical, outward, performance-based religion. Do you realize that sometimes Christians choose to take the narrow path and we punish them by teasing them?
When you are talking to a young Christian who is learning to open up to you and allow you to speak the truth in love into their lives, the absolute WORST thing you can do is abuse the authority you've just been granted. How does that happen? It happens when they're talking to you about a girl or guy they like and you tease them. It happens when you make light of their struggles and imply that it's not a big deal. It happens when you betray their trust and gossip their secrets away.
We are doing our people the greatest disservice when they take a big step to expose their life to the light (in the form of accountability) and instead of shining the light of the Word on them, we make light of their pursuit of holiness by making fun of them. Our job at that moment is to be Christ to them and to speak his Word into their life. HOW DARE WE, at that moment, choose humor and self-indulgence instead of choosing to love and encourage and soberly instruct?

One of the issues that I'm seeing at GracePoint, especially among the young men and women that I spend most of my time with, is a lack of accountability and godly, fruitful relationships. Most of us are content to hang out with one another in the name of Christian fellowship, but we shy away from rebuking and challenging each other to live the Christian life. I think there are a number of factors that contribute to this, but I'm realizing that teasing is a big one. If, on the rare occasion a young Christian makes the difficult decision to open up to an older brother, and we PUNISH him for that by making it really embarrassing, by badgering him needlessly for more information, by devilish banter, how can we expect accountability and trust to be a part of our community life? Take heed, leaders. Each individual is judged for his or her own sin, but teachers are judged more strictly in accordance with the extra responsibility they have (Jas 3.1).

How do I know when it is appropriate?
As I mentioned above, teasing in and of itself is not wrong. It depends on the motive. It can be for the purpose of advancing oneself by putting down others, or it can be for the purpose of affirming and strengthening a friendship. The first question you have to ask is, “what is going on in my heart?” Do you genuinely want to hurt that person? Even if you don't, are you at risk of being too careless with your tongue (your words and language), which James says can be used to corrupt the whole body (Jas 3.6)?
After you thoroughly examine and test your motives, you still need to consider whether your friend understands and appreciates your motives. If your language causes other people to stumble, then it is better for you to give it up for the good of others. Here are some practical questions you can ask to determine if teasing is appropriate:
Does my friend trust me? To what degree does he understand and believe that you love him and want to build him up? Have you adequately demonstrated to him in the past that you care for him? Have you demonstrated that you are trustworthy? Perhaps the biggest factor here is trust. When you make fun of someone, you are, in a sense, exposing a vulnerable part of their life and using it for humor purposes. Before you do that, consider whether you have permission to access your friend's vulnerabilities and exploit it for the funnies.
How sensitive is my friend? What is his disposition towards embracing playful ribbing? We must acknowledge that, due to different culture, upbringing, and personality, different people have differing sensitivity towards teasing. This diversity is a beauty of God's kingdom, where all different kinds of people are brought into unity under Christ. But it's also why you need to consider that some people are more sensitive than you are and you need to respect that and honor them. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4.3)
How far am I going into indulging my appetite for putting down others? This goes back to the original heart motives question. We are all sinners. Sinners elevate themselves over others. To do a good job at that, we also need to put down others. Therefore, even as saved Christians, we all from time to time still need to wrestle with and kill that desire to hurt others. I know that I often don't notice myself crossing that line; I think I'm just taking advantage of an opportunity to make a joke and then later I realize what I said was really hurtful and definitely not worth the laughs.
Ultimately, teasing is not always unwholesome talk, but it can become so if you do it the wrong way or if you're not careful with your thoughts and attitudes. If in our language, there might even be a hint of impurity, we are clearly told to skip it (Eph 5.3)!

On Gay Jokes
We need to stop making gay jokes. We SERIOUSLY need to stop.

In Closing
There is a pastoral move that we leaders love to pull off; one that most people don't even realize they do, but sounds so familiar because we all do it. It is the, “lead off with playful teasing and then transition into the 'in all seriousness, this is what the Bible says mode...” move. It's a predictable trope, but it works well. The idea is that when you begin with teasing, you are building rapport. “Friends tease” you say, “That's what they do, so in order to get in good with this guy, I must tease. Plus, it'll also be fun.”
I'm becoming more and more convinced that this doesn't work. In fact, it can be harmful in a number of ways:
It makes accountability more of an ordeal than it needs to be. Some people just love putting others in the hotspot. A group of girls turn into a group of flesh-eating predators when the conversation turns towards the topic of romance, and often one girl gets devoured. But girls are not exclusive offenders. When we do this, especially leaders to the people they lead, we're putting a shame tax on godly counsel. We're saying, if you want my biblical wisdom, you first need to pay with your humiliation. Ultimately we're discouraging others to share their lives and seek the help of others. Whether they're confessing their sins, disclosing a portion of their personal life, or asking an embarrassing question, treat them with the utmost dignity and honor, and don't do anything that will make it harder for them.
Some teachers can't back up their jokes and teasing with actual godly advice. If your motive isn't edification, or if you lack the biblical knowledge to give godly wisdom, then kindly keep your (often) damning words to yourself. Also keep your jokes to yourself, because without counsel, they become little more than senseless aggravation.
It runs the risk of making light of something we want to take very seriously. We want to take holiness very seriously. We want to take sanctification very seriously. We want to take accountability, rebuke, correction, and edifying love very seriously. If we want these things to be a part of our community life, then maybe regarding these things with sobriety and solemness might be a good idea. Don't get me wrong; there is a place for light conversation and (as I've said many times already), teasing can be a very joyful thing at the right times, but maybe the right time isn't an occasion where you are hoping to give godly counsel. Maybe, for the sake of your people's spiritual health, you can skip the jokes during those occasions and make up for it during the times when you're just hanging out.

I should also mention that the above is a result of deep and sincere introspection into the way I lead and pastor my people. In everything I've said, I am the worst offender. I've hurt people, made too many inappropriate jokes, and discouraged people from trusting me. I am sincerely sorry for it and I resolve to be a better leader and model by being more wise with my words and my banter. Know that every grave command I issued to my peers at church is first and foremost one that I issue myself for the sake of my own godliness.

Oh God of all people, you created every living thing to give you glory. For man's sinful condition, you've given your Son Jesus as the ultimate, final, all-sufficient cure. For holiness, you've given us your Spirit, who moves us to hate our sin and to love and pursue Christ. And you've given us each other, to mutually encourage, strengthen, correct, and exhort. In our residual sin we exploit our relationships for self-advancement and empty, hollow, unproductive, cheap humor. For that we ask for forgiveness. Give us your grace to work with one another for your glory instead of against one another for our own. In Christ's name, amen.

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