Is it Ever OK to Use Insulting Language?

Kelly Givens | Contributing Editor to | Updated: Aug 06, 2015

Is it Ever OK to Use Insulting Language?

I’ve been spending the last several weeks studying the book of 1 John. One of the overarching themes of the book is that if God is abiding in us (i.e. the Spirit of God is within us), the fruit of his abiding will be greater love for others.

John’s teaching on abiding love parallels what we learn in Galatians 5 about the fruit of the Spirit. When we are filled with the Spirit, we overflow with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So knowing what we know about a Spirit-filled life, is there ever an occasion for insulting language or harsh speech? Gospel Coalition writer Joe Rigney believes so.

In his trending piece, Surprised by Scripture: Love and Spirit-Inspired Insults, Rigney makes a compelling case for insulting language. The key, though, is understanding who should be using this language, and when.

Rigney’s article centers around Acts 13, after the Holy Spirit has commissioned Paul for missionary work. Rigney writes:

“[T]here’s a magician named Elymas, a prophet, most likely a soothsayer who gets paid to predict the future. He opposes the apostles’ preaching and tries to turn the governor away from Christianity (Acts 13:8). Here’s where our expectations about the Spirit-filled life get upended:

“But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?’” (Acts 13:9–10)

This doesn’t sound like what we would call kind or civil or gentle. These are biting words, pointed words, sharp words directed at a particular person. In this case, the fruit of the Spirit is name-calling, insults, and harsh words. In this case, Spirit-prompted boldness means not mincing words about the wickedness of this magician.”

This was an appropriate response from Paul, Rigney writes, because Elymas was an apostle of the world. “Apostles of the world” actively oppose the gospel of Jesus, spreading a false gospel in their path.

In other situations, Paul, Jesus, and other Biblical leaders are shown exercising a much gentler approach to unbelievers. Rigney reasons that they do so because these people are refugees of the world – “They may not believe, but they’re curious,” he writes. “They may recognize there’s something missing in their life.”

So, Rigney concludes, we must “labor and pray that God would help us distinguish between apostles and refugees, and that we would have the Spirit’s wisdom to speak appropriately in all circumstances. And that burden falls particularly on Christian leaders” (emphasis mine).

Church leaders can’t afford to go easy on sin. Crosswalk writer Kathi Macias writes this about how the love of God compels leaders to speak up in the presence of sin.

“[L]ove does not refrain from speaking truth for fear of offending. Love “does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.” Love understands that we live in a world that is bound for hell and eternal separation from God, and that only we have the words that can deliver the captives and restore them to right relationship with their Maker. Will we offend some by those words? Absolutely. The message of the Cross is always an offense to those who prefer to remain in their sins. But better to risk offending the hell-bound sinners than to hear their voices echo in our ears on Judgment Day, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

As lay people, we might not be called to speak in the same way church leaders do, “Even though lay Christians may never be called to speak like Paul does here,” Rigney writes, “they are called to say “Amen” when their leaders do. This means all Christians must learn to recognize worldly apostles and false prophets.”

To that end, here are several helpful articles to help you recognize false teachers. Let us pray for wisdom to recognize the “Elymases” of our day – those who twist God’s word and “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” And let us be in prayer for our church leaders—those who lead the charge in confronting sin head on. Let’s pray they would speak boldly, perhaps even harshly, against false teaching.

7 Sure-Fire Ways to Recognize False Teachers
How Can You Tell a False Prophet From a True Prophet?
8 Keys to Responding to False Teachers

Kelly Givens is the editor of

Is it Ever OK to Use Insulting Language?