“Turn their Reproach Upon Their Own Head” (Or, Uses and Abuses of Satire)

By Ron Halbrook

Satire speaks with a sparkle in its eye; and with a chuckle. Alerted by Satire’s mischievous grin, the listener looks behind surface humor and other appearances for the real meaning. Satire generally mixes the witty and the caustic, though one may be relied upon more heavily than the other from time to time. Its effort at clever humor is an effort to highlight the inconsistent and the incongruous. Not mere child’s play nor humor for its own sake of Satire employs expressions of ridicule, sarcasm, irony, and contempt for serious purposes. It exposes or attacks vice, follies, stupidities, abuses, and error. To employ Satire in one’s service, successfully, is. not easy. The “noose” prepared by Satire for another can all too easily end up on the wrong neck! Swift said, “It is as hard to satirize well a man of distinguished vices, as to praise well a man of distinguished virtues.”

Far from opposing all satire, we commend its proper use. Proper use is cautious and careful, and above all in the service of nothing but truth. Torch Magazine sometimes carries “Sessions in Satire.” This writer’s “Startling Report: Some Now Preach That Sin Consigns One to Hell!” is satirical (Truth Magazine, August 29, 1974, p. 12). But “Ridicule should never be used as a substitute for answering the arguments of an opponent . . . True, humor belongs to the family of truth” (Leslie B. Flynn, Serve Him With Mirth, pp. 80-1). In other words, satire is perverted and abused when it is resorted to as a mere gimmick of craftiness. There is a cunning, unscrupulous cleverness of “fleshly wisdom” which perverts and subverts by “good words and fair speeches.” But Paul said, “We . . . have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully” (Rom. 16:18; 2 Cor. 1:12; 4:1-2).

The very same Apostle recognized that “there are certain conditions which can be most successfully touched by the shafts of ridicule” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 19, p. 152). In 2 Cor. 4:8-10 and many other places, Paul employed “the weapon of satire.” With their claims of attainment, spirituality, knowledge, and regality, the Corinthians had assumed a position which “far transcended their early master.” “And all this without the insignificant aid of such a very commonplace teacher as Paul!” (ibid.). Charles Hodge, in his Exposition of the passage (p. 71), said,

That the passage is ironical, and even sarcastic; cannot be denied. This is not the only instance in which these weapons are used by the inspired writers. The prophets especially employ them freely…. The propriety of the use of weapons so dangerous depends on the occasion and the motive. If the thing assailed be both wicked and foolish, and if the motive be not the desire to give pain, but to convince and to convert, their use is justified by Scriptural examples.

False teachers, sometimes with smug self-confidence, may lightly scorn “the day of small things” when the faithful people of God set out to work. But when the work begins to progress, anger joins astonishment to produce scorn and ridicule. The classic example is found in Neh. 2-4. The Jews returned from captivity and said, “Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.” At first their enemies “laughed us to scorn, and despised us.” “But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.” Can these weaklings erect a wall of defense? Who will help them, their gods? Do they think this is the work of a day? And what will they do for materials – “revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?” Tobiah could hardly wait to add his sarcasm to the taunts of Sanballat, so he caps off the satire of the Jews’ labor with this scornful barb: “Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.” Not because he opposed satire but because it had been pressed into the service of wrongdoing, Nehemiah prayed, “Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head.” “To the shallow judgment of the Samaritans, Nehemiah and his workmen seemed to be engaged in a work that would come to nought – they would ‘have their labor for their pains;’ but their contempt was wholly misplaced.” Though satire has its proper uses in the service to truth, “it is the favorite weapon of wrong in its weakness. When men can do nothing else, they can laugh at goodness and virtue” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol: 7, p. 40).

In their own effort to stop the Jews, the Samaritans used every trick of ingenuity and might of power. All to no avail. “The last laugh” was on them. Neither their power nor their subtlety could stop that miserable little band of Jews from “turning ashes into stone.” Their reproach turned “upon their own head” – but it was no laughing matter. It is never a time for levity or flippancy when people “oppose themselves” in evil, error, and wrongdoing (2 Tim. 2:25). In tears rather than laughter, Paul told the Jews after their rejection of the gospel of Christ, “Seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). Yet he could say, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Rom. 10:1):

When the heathen, people, kings, and rulers took counsel against Jehovah and His Messiah, that counsel included a perverted use of satire (cf. Matt. 26:68; 27:29, 40,42). Imagine the incongruity of puny men, mere creatures of dust, rising up against the purposes of mighty Jehovah, the I AM of all Eternity! “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. . . . YET HAVE I SET MY KING UPON MY HOLY HILL OF ZION” (Ps. 2 emp. mine RH). Their reproach returned “upon their own head.” Paul returned the reproach of scorners “upon their own head” when he spoke of the gospel as “foolishness,” using their own terms. “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness …. hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? . . . . it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:18ff). When false teachers “proposed to enter on new regions of truth,” John apparently made “a sarcastic reference to (their) professed higher knowledge.” “Whosoever goeth onward (or forward) and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God” (2 Jn. 9). (Cf, B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, p. 230; W. E. Vine, The Epistles of John, p. 118). When John exposed the folly of false teachers’ claims to superiority, the shame they attempted to cast upon the “old foggies,” “mossbacks,” “stand-pat-ers,” “guardians of orthodoxy,” and “anti-progressives” fell back upon their own heads. ERROR CANNOT STAND LIGHT! It hides behind clever slogans, crafty ridicule, scornful satire, and any other cover darkness can provide.

Faith Magazine: Use Or Abuse of Satire?

The warning of Moses, “Be sure your sin will find you out,” is kin to the prayer of Nehemiah, “Turn their reproach upon their own head” (Num. 32:23). It has come time for the unmanly perpetrator of Falth Magazine to bear the shame and reproach he sought to heap upon others. For those unacquainted with this satire, it appeared in January of 1974 and was mailed to churches all over the country (which raises the interesting question: Who supplied the capital for such an expensive feat?). It was a parody of Truth Magazine, including grossly distorted sketches of brethren Cecil Willis and James W. Adams with articles supposedly by each of them. The former is represented as a self-willed dictator (“Caesar Willsit”) and the latter as an arrogant character-assassin. In a listing of “Associate Editors” (by use of the initials of the Apostles), Brother Adams is presented as a conniving traitor to Christ and as having gain rather than godliness for his goal (in the place of Judas Iscariot). By means of a comic strip, the spirit of Truth Magazine is pictured as that of a “brotherhood watchdog,” “keeper of orthodoxy,” and Final Judge of the hearts of brethren. (The comic implies that no one can judge what or who is “sound or unsound,” thus making Tit. 1:9 and 2:1,15 ludicrous.) Through satire, Willis and Adams are ridiculed as (1) claiming to “know the hearts of everybody else,” (2) repeating gossip without attempting to separate rumor from fact, (3) creating the “fellowship-unity” controversy, (4) “dealing in personalities,” (5) engaging in such crimes for sake of “competition with other faithful papers,” and to promote “business interests,” (6) seeking “the pre-eminence” by using the specific tactics of Diotrephes, (7) “jealousy” at those who “have accomplished a great deal more already than I had when I was their ages,” (8) never changing “on anything,” (9) using a style of writing calculated to “impress with my intellect readers who really cannot understand” the style; (10) being “guilty of worse sins, by my attitude and conduct, than those of which I am accusing” others, (11) regarding “preaching within the context of a passage” as dangerous, and (12) attacking maliciously those who promote “love and unity” in the church. An effort is also made to present and defend the Ketcherside-Garrett-Fudge twisting of 2 John 9.

JERRY PHILLIPS (of St. Charles, Missouri; preacher for the church at St. Charles, near St. Louis) has finally confessed, under pressure, his part in this shameful matter. He shows no remorse for it. Some brethren have been overly impressed with the purely human element in Jerry’s satire: it is articulate, witty, artistic, and sardonic. (The same can be said for the satirical joke denominationalists tell. Scene in heaven: “Who is that little group inside that high wall separated from the rest of the redeemed?” “Oh, that’s the ‘church of Christ.’ They think they’re the only ones here!”) Except for his attempt to discuss 2 John 9, Brother Phillips is meanly vindictive and sadistic in his “dealing with personalities” alone. “When humor becomes meanly vindictive, it may proceed past sarcasm, snobbery, scorn and end in sadism” (Flynn, op. cit., p. 81). As Jack Gibbert said of Phillip’s Falth, it is “a costly slick stab in the back” (Truth Magazine, Mar. 20, 1975, p. 6). When Adams and Willis have named persons, it has been in connection with specific doctrinal issues being discussed. In our use of satire, we have invariably signed our names. Omitting the Biblical pattern of spiritual responsibility in satire (for masterful examples, see 1 Kgs. 18:27 and 22:15), Jerry tries to hide behind what he conceives to be his literary “right to remain anonymous.” As he suggested in Falth, he did everything possible “to insure the anonymity of the satirists.” As the elders in Eau Gallie, Florida, commented, “No servant of the Lord would be ashamed or afraid to sign his name to his writing if it was calculated to glorify God (1 Pet. 4:11)” (Truth Magazine, Mar. 28, 1974, p. 2).

Enemies Aroused

The poem is true which says, “He who has mingled in the fray of duty, that the brave endure, Must have made foes!” Paul found that his every effort for truth at Corinth was scorned and ridiculed by false teachers. He was caricatured as a fickle and, feeble minded, pitiable appearing, common laborer too ashamed of himself to accept wages (see 2 Cor.). When he in turn exposed their false teaching; it was all too obvious why they created a comic character to guffaw at! What kind of enemies have brethren Willis and Adams aroused? To see what Jerry Phillips stands for – and fails to stand for – is to understand why he was so intemperately aroused against Truth Magazine. As James Adams noted on Falth, “Many times, the greatest compliment to an individual and the position he occupies is the character of those who oppose them” (Truth Magazine, June 6, 1974, p. 6). What are the facts about Jerry Phillip’s doctrinal stance?

In 1969, Jerry was with the University church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ed Fudge conducted a meeting on “Unity,” advocating fellowship with brethren who are liberal-minded on institutionalism and related apostasy. Taking Fudge’s line at face value, Phillips began announcing the meetings of such liberal-minded people and calling on such men to lead prayer in public services of the church. Those opposed to such compromise were gradually driven off, so that the church reversed its former stand and openly avowed liberalism after Phillips moved away (Truth Magazine, Sept. 27, 1973, p. 4).

1972 found Jerry with the church on Elm St. in St. Charles, Missouri. His bulletin for December 6 of that year announced “THE HARTFORD FORUM” including these speakers: Wayne T, Hall, Harold Key, Grayson H. Ensign, Leon Fancher, Charles Holt, Boyce Mouton, Kirk Prine, Roy Weece; Hoy Ledbetter, Leroy Garrett. While denying any desire to endorse or compromise, notice how he ends up describing the occasion: “It is merely a gathering of brethren who love the Lord and desire to learn more about His word and each other. Plan to go. You’ll be glad you did. Food will be served by the ladies of the church.” Where did he learn that apostates like Key; Holt, Ledbetter, and Garrett “love the Lord” and desire His word? They may claim such, but Christ rejects such claims on account of “their fruits” (Matt. 7:20-23; Lk. 6:46). They’ are “blind leaders of the blind,” and Phillips was derelict in his duty by encouraging brethren to sit at the feet of such men without clearly identifying their character (Matt. 15:814): Phillips’ view of “loving the Lord” is denominational, not Biblical (Jn. 14:15, 21; 15:14; 1 Jn. 5:1-3).

The same bulletin promoted Dunn Road Chapel’s (a church long under Ketcherside’s influence) “WINTER YOUTH STUDY,” for December 29-31, 1972. “It promises to bean enlightening and faith-building experience. . . . The church has invited W. Carl Ketcherside and Gordon Wilson to conduct the study with the assistance of Rod Langston and Bernie Crum. Brethren Wilson and Ketcherside will also be the evening speakers on Friday and Saturday of that week; respectively.” Jerry speaks of “concentrated study and devotionals” and “a God-centered, scripture-filled, faith building” experience, but never a word about the dangers of sitting of the feet of false teachers “in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15-20). Nor does he express the least caution or reservation about the entertainment program included, or about Wilson’s compromising position on the same program with Ketcherside. What Jerry Phillips, Gordon Wilson, Ed Fudge and others do not seem to realize is that the only kind of compromise possible with false teachers is the kind that occurred between the bear and the hunter. The hunter got a new fur coat … and the bear a full stomach! The sad experience of many young men now lost to the cause of truth, is proof aplenty:


Falth mentions “the satirists”-plural. Whoever the other perpetrators may be, Jerry Phillips must bear his own reproach upon his own head. After the initial “heehaw” is over, nothing remains but sadness. Sadness for Jerry’s sake. Sadness for the sake of churches and individuals who are duped by such deceivers. If Jerry cannot find room in his heart for repentance, and will not seek to repair the damage he has done, then at least let him learn this one thing. “Tricksters, like those who produced Falth Magazine, are not going to laugh us out of the arena” in the battle against error and for truth. Nor have we forgotten what all this maneuvering is for. ALL THIS “MANEUVERING IS SIMPLY AN EFFORT TO AUGMENT AND THEN TO DEFEND A BROADENING OF OUR FELLOWSHIP” BEYOND THE LINES LAID DOWN IN HOLY WRIT (Truth Magazine, Mar. 7; 1974, p. 6). They shall not pass. Their reproach shall be upon their own head.

Truth Magazine, XX:6, p. 8-10
February 5, 1976