Question & Answer Forum

What is railing as referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:11?

In practice, the issue of railing has been one of the most difficult problems to handle. The accusation of railing has been abused at times. An answer to this question requires great care and the fear of God.

The noun translated “railer” in 1 Corinthians 5:11 is used in only one other passage (1 Cor. 6:10). The related noun, “railing,” appears twice in 1 Peter 3:9 (“not rendering . . . railing for railing”) and once in 1 Timothy 5: 14, translated “speak reproachfully.” The related verb is always translated “revile” in its four uses (John 9:28; Acts 23:4; 1 Cor. 4:12; 1 Pet. 2:23). The other related word is translated “reviled again” (1 Pet. 2:23).

A blending of the meanings given by various language helps (Vine, Thayer, Strong, Moulton and Milligan, and Kittel) and commentators indicates that railing is abusive, insulting language intended to wound, vilify, and defame another. It is persistent, purposeful character assassination.

Railing may involve some degree of truth (John 9:28; 1Tim. 5:14), but is directed in a derisive, destructive way. In Acts 23, Paul understands that when the Scriptures forbid speaking evil of a ruler (v. 5), this includes railing (or reviling, v. 4). Therefore, although evil speaking may not be railing, all railing is evil speaking. The use of this family of words (railer, railing, revile) in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) adds another element to its meaning. The uses include hatred (Gen. 49:23), striving or chiding – expressing disapproval (Ex. 21:18; 17:2, 7; Num. 20:3, 13; Deu. 33:8), slander (Pro. 10:18), brawling (25:24), and contention (26:21; 27:15). This seems to add the thought of contentiousness to the meaning of railing.

Contrasting with most of the other sins in the passage (1 Cor. 5:11), railing requires a subjective judgement (made by spiritual leaders) as to when its continued practice constitutes the offender a railer.

D. Oliver

Who can be the object of railing?

Railing is derisive speech intended to destroy an individual’s reputation or undermine his will. Therefore, railing may be directed to the individual (1 Pet. 2:23) or spoken to another person regarding that individual (1 Tim. 5:14). Railing against divinely appointed authority has a special seriousness (Acts 23:4; Psa. 105:15; 1 Chron. 16:22). God has protected assembly elders against gratuitous accusations (1 Tim. 5:19). However, it is sadly true that a believer can rail against any believer (illustrated in the OT passages above). Railing could be directed toward unbelievers (1 Pet. 3:9).

The question of whether a spouse or child could be the object of a believer’s railing is more difficult. In many ways, abusive language destroys the will of a child and belittles him. The environment is contentious, but is the intent to vilify the child to others? Is it really “character assassination”? It is almost unbelievable that a parent would do this consciously and intentionally. As to a spouse, all abusive language is sinful, but not all is railing. Where the persistent intent is to “break” the marriage partner, and that is very difficult to judge, it could be railing. Where one spouse establishes a trend of defaming or vilifying his spouse to others, this also may be railing.

D. Oliver

What is the relationship between railing and physical abuse?

Railing is verbal, therefore it is not physical abuse. Railing, which is verbal abuse, can be as harmful as physical abuse. It may incite a violent response or it may precede physical abuse. The Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:21, 22 shows the relationship of derogatory language to murder. Railing and murder have the same mother: hatred in the heart. In the Lord’s eyes, they are of the same kind. The degree of punishment differs for each, but they both are alike condemned as deserving hell fire.

D. Oliver

Can a person be put away for “domestic railing”?

It seems highly unlikely that railing against a child would require excommunication. Spousal railing that requires excommunication would be an extreme, but possible case. If all else fails, it may be necessary, but “the more excellent way” would be to deal with the problem at its roots. As frustrating as godly teachers and guides may find it, their spiritual intervention is a first responsibility. The grace that brought salvation to all men taught Cretans to live above their native culture (Titus 2:11, 12). Hours of opening the Scriptures in the home, applying the lessons of grace, and being physically present will have a preventative affect on patterns of verbal and physical abuse. Better than that, as this promotes a believer’s ever-so-gradual growth in grace, the transforming power of the indwelling Spirit changes hearts and homes. The behavior patterns that come from being abused or from abusive models and years of captivity to sin don’t all vanish at conversion or in the first year after. The Lord has brought the “half-dead” to the assembly to receive care (Luke 10:34, 35; 1 Tim. 3:5). How much better when healthful words (Titus 2:1) nurse them to abundant life within the assembly, rather than having to carry their sick bed back out to the side of the road where they (and we) once were!

D. Oliver