October 6, 2014

Bleep! Why Christians Shouldn’t Cuss

by Clint Archer

no cussing signIn 2005 the American Film Institute voted that the best movie line of all time was the one that Clarke Gable deftly delivered as the character Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. If you endured all four hours of melodrama you’ll certainly recall his parting dismissal of Scarlett O’Hara’s whiny interrogative, “Where shall I go, what shall I do?” Rhett rewardingly utters the words on the mind of every male viewer who is still awake, served with the cool and immortal preamble: “Frankly, my dear …”

The Motion Picture Association’s production code was fortuitously amended a mere month prior to the film’s release and for the first time it allowed the use of borderline curse words under this condition:

if it shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact …or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste.”

The determining standard of what is “intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste” has proven quite the moveable feast. Words that were respectable vernacular in the Elizabethan era would get a kid’s mouth washed out with soap today, and diction that would never escape the censor’s “intrinsically objectionable” razor as recently as 1939 are now heard on every silver screen in the Western world, and even occasionally on the news (at least in Anchorage).

While as Christians we acknowledge that God’s standards of holiness are immovable a thinking linguist must acknowledge that what different cultures and periods consider to be taboo is a perplexing field of study.

It’s hard to use examples without stepping into a cow paddy of intrinsic objections. But one instance I am confident no monolingual American would find offensive is the Afrikaans cuss words “bliksem” and “donder”. These are two words South African pastors are permitted to use neither in the pulpit nor in private. Both words “offend good taste” and commonly precipitate the taste of soap for a South African child. Exactly what Afrikaaners find offensive about the words is a brow-furrowing enigma.

Biksem and donder are the words for—I kid you not— lightning and thunder, respectively. When deployed in a meteorological context they are perfectly acceptable and often used with impunity on the nightly news.

But when either word is used as an expression of surprise (my bliksem), anger (“jou klein bliksem”—literally “you little lightning”), or threat (as in “Ek gaan jou donder”—literally “I’m going to thunder you”), the result is a disapproving tut-tut from polite society. If ladies are present during the thunderous outburst it is expected that the foul mouthed offender apologizes for the strong language.

I was asked recently “Where in the Bible does it say Christians shouldn’t cuss?”

Well, it doesn’t. There is no list of words Christians of all cultures and every epoch are required to memorize for the sake of exorcising from out collective vocabulary. But the Bible is replete with instructions to exercise restraint of our tongues.cussing badger

The truth is that a particular word has no inherent sinfulness beyond that which a culture or community assigns to it, nor can it be intrinsically objectionable,. Every short-term missionary has an anecdote of a faux pas where they used language that crossed a line only when it crossed the border. But connotations that contravene our sensibilities are real and require wisdom to discern.

This is why Christians don’t cuss: we cherish the purpose for which God gave words. 

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Colossians 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

We also appreciate words as a barometer of what lurks deep in a person’s heart.

James 3: 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?

Soap mouthChristians understand that an inability or unwillingness to take control of our language shows a paucity of self-control or lack of graciousness toward others. Swearing shows that you are unconcerned about that which Christians ought to be concerned: edification, grace, humility, patience, self-control, evangelistic witness, example to children, integrity, and many other virtues that we extol. These are undermined by the use of language that offends or lumps us in with others who offend.

Our words put us in cahoots with others who use those words indiscriminately. A guy at my gym swears like a sailor, as do his companions. But when he heard a pastor drop a curse word, he considered that solecism to be a justification for a slew of other infractions: “You see, when a Christian hits his thumb he cusses just like I do. He’s obviously harboring stuff inside that he doesn’t show unless his guard is down.”

In the end language is to be used for what glorifies God. A handy rule may be that if you aren’t prepared to use a particular word in your prayer to God then you shouldn’t be using it in your conversations with others.

So, what shall Christians do about swearing? Frankly, we need to give a…hoot.

Clint Archer

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Clint is the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church. He and his expanding troop of Archers live near Durban, South Africa (and pity anyone who doesn't). When he is off duty from CGate, his alter ego blogs at Café Seminoid, clintarcher.com
  • This is excellent, and it has helped me to think rationally about the topic. Thank you.

    • You’re most welcome.

      • Tony Jiang

        but didnt Paul swear in one of his letters in the bible were he was instructing his other christians?

      • Tony Jiang

        Paul, for example, uses the Greek word skubalon in Philippians 3:8 to tell his readers that he counts all things not as “rubbish”, as most translations sanitize it, or even as “dung”, but acutally the word is supposed to be the Greek equivient to a four letter word that starts with s

        • This is false, a myth perpetuated by those who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

          Phil Johnson’s words on this matter are helpful:

          The word is more like the English term excrement. In fact, it had a broader range of semantic meanings, more akin to the English term “waste.” It’s fairly common in secular Greek literature, and while it describes the worst kind of filth from the sewer, there’s no stigma of inappropriateness attached to the use of the word itself–just like the English expression “filth from the sewer” avoids the cultural stigma of the s-word and some of its borderline variants.

          Since Paul expressly forbade the use of language that was deemed taboo, to insist that he himself did so in Philippians 3 is exegetically irresponsible.

          This is an important point. In Ephesians 5, likely just weeks or months after Paul wrote Philippians, he wrote this:

          Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.

          Those “empty words” are those which would seek to persuade Christians that Paul was using foul language while at the same time forbidding it strongly.

          In reality, the etymology for skuablon comes from the Greek phrase to tois kusi ballomenon, which means, “that which is thrown to the dogs” (i.e., refuse) (see the entry in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). This makes good sense contextually, in light of the fact that Paul has just called the Judaizers “dogs” in verse 2, playing on their hatred of Gentiles — often calling them dogs — and showing them that they are as unclean as they suppose the Gentiles to be.

          So no, Paul did not use foul language in Scripture. Let’s stop perpetuating that myth.

          • threegirldad

            Also in that regard, see here.

          • brad

            This is a tough one for me. In my context (on mission to the poor and disadvantaged), we don’t ever use the words “excrement” or “waste” or “filth from the sewer” or “that which is thrown to the dogs.” We use different words, that would be a “cultural stigma” or “borderline variant” in other contexts. So, I think context is key here.

          • It doesn’t need to be tough, Brad. The point is, dirty words were available to Paul in his context as well — just as they are available to all of us in all of our contexts. And he chose not to use a word that was “filthy,” “coarse,” or “foolish” (cf. Eph 5:3-4), but rather a strong word that conveyed severity without breaching the bounds of propriety and wholesomeness.

            Your emphasis on “context” overestimates the barriers that exist between subcultures which nevertheless share a common culture.

            “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”

          • brad

            Do you really think that understanding and interpreting the Bible and communicating the meaning of the Scriptures to modern day hearers isn’t tough?

          • Did you just change the subject? We were talking about not using foul language, you jumped in and said doing that is tough in your context. As if there’s something about your context that would change the boundaries of propriety in speech that Scripture lays out for us.

            I’m saying: No, understanding, interpreting, and communicating the meaning of the Scriptures without using foul language is not an impossible task — no matter what context you’re in. Do you really think that understanding and interpreting the Bible and communicating the meaning of the Scriptures to modern-day hearers without using profanity is an insuperable task?

            Scripture is clear. God has revealed His Word in a manner that is sufficiently clear for those reading with a submissive heart to understand it. To quote from Kevin DeYoung’s excellent new book on Scripture, “…ordinary people using ordinary means can accurately understand enough of what must be known, believed, and observed for them to be faithful Christians. … Is God wise enough to make himself known? Is he good enough to make himself accessible? Is he gracious enough to communicate in ways that are understandable to the meek and lowly?” (59, 69). Of course He is. And so He has. He doesn’t need us to violate the commands of Scripture to make Scripture clear.

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  • Keith

    Years ago a tender hearted pastor of mine overheard me mumble a Christian euphemism for a swear word(s), something like “dog gone it” or “God bless America”…

    What he said really stuck with me: “Like Jesus said, it isn’t the keeping of the law, it’s the intention in your heart. You may not be saying the words but you mean them.”

    Convicted.

    • Right. I guess thinking the expletive reveals what’s in your heart to you,and saying it reveals to others. But biting your tongue shows self-control.

    • Guest

      “God bless America” is a euphemism for a swear word???
      Did I miss something? lol

  • Hi Clint, you might find this interesting:
    http://kaybruner.com/blog/2013/06/03/to-cuss-or-not-to-cuss

    • Thanks, I’ll check it out.

    • Robert Sakovich

      I read it and can’t help but think that the author may be bordering on licentiousness instead of holiness. I think some of the best questions to ask about exercising our liberty are the following: 1) Will this glorify God to the fullest? 2) Is this edifying? 3) Will this disqualify me? There are several others to consider, but these are really important and I think that she could be served well by considering them.

      • By disqualify do you mean lose your salvation? That’s what it sounds like but maybe you mean something else?

        • Robert Sakovich

          I mean for ministry…both pastoral and lay ministry. How does this help us to look any different from the world around us? The Bible does say not to partake in coarse jesting, and I would say much of what she is describing falls into this category. I don’t think she understands what she is doing in what she has written here, but she is basically trying to justify using unwholesome language, which is addressed in Ephesians 4:29. I’m not trying to just bash her, as I think she is trying to work through the issue, but I think she needs to look at it more from God’s perspective on things instead of Him overlooking our blemishes because of Jesus’ work. We should not be looking to sin so that grace may abound and I think this post is worthy of thought on this matter. As Paul says, all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. I think cussing is not profitable and only works against us.

          • I think you may be missing her point. She’s not saying she goes around in public dropping the F bomb just for kicks. She is simply saying that with a few close friends she now feels the freedom to call something that she feels horrible about by an appropriate name. And sometimes that appropriate term may be a word that some people feel is a cuss word (e.g crap) but other people think is totally not a cuss word.

  • Stonewallmike

    Maybe we all should use fewer words in general. It might make us choose the ones we do use more carefully.

    • True, but you can’t go around saying “bleep” all day long either.

  • Jason

    I love it! Culture defines holiness when it comes to speech!!! So, if I’m a soldier, overseas, in the middle of battle, and “cuss” words are perfectly acceptable, then the Christian is actually allowed to cuss because the culture of the moment says it is sufficient! But remember, “I love you” in an argument between a married couple can be the same as a cuss word. . . . I’d probably say you missed a HUGE component of this discussion. What is your heart motive for ANY word you use. Normal words can be sin too. 🙂

    • right. But a blogpost on cussing gets more Facebook likes than one on words! J/k.

    • Sean McDonald

      I was a Soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everyone that knew me well, knew that I didn’t curse. Our battalion chaplain (on my second deployment) tried to be “all things to all men,” and used vulgar language around the Soldiers. All he got was their disdain. They knew, however common such language was with them (sometimes every other sentence), that it was still wrong; and that chaplains ought to be men of God, who don’t sink to that kind of level.

  • Dave

    Very good article. Can I push the discussion a bit further? I would agree with the idea of not swearing in your everyday language. But there were times when stronger language seems more appropriate. For example, my father never swore in normal conversations (or even if he were to hurt himself), but I remember him swearing one time in reprimanding me. I had done something incredibly stupid and when he talked to me about it he used a “mild” swear to describe my behavior. When he said that I woke up and realized how bad what I did really was.

    There seem to be several passages in Scripture where Christ or the prophets use swear-level language to describe a situation. I haven’t done a heavy study in the Greek/Hebrew on those passages, but from what inunderstood the original hearers would have thought the language extreme as well. Am I wrong about this?

    • That’s kind of the point of my wife’s blog that I shared above.

    • You’d have to ask John Piper or Mark Driscoll that.

      • vimy100

        I understand your reference to Mark Driscoll but not John Piper. I have read a fair bit of Piper’s work and I don’t recall him ever using coarse language or contending for its use. Why would on ask John Piper?

    • Jeff Schlottmann

      Since salvation, I’ve never found a time where It was necessary to swear.

      From my humble understanding, strong language from Jesus, Paul, etc was just descriptive words. I imagine I gave the hearers a picture that they could understand. our cuss words are meant to be rude, crude, belittling, disrespectful, and inappropriate. And as stated above, i think swearing oftens shows the state of one’s heart.

      I don’t think any of that describes what Jesus was trying to get across.

    • Robert Sakovich

      When did Jesus have to use such language? Peter? Paul? Or even God the Father? Surely He had more reason to express anger or how foolish we have been. Shouldn’t Scripture give us enough guidance? Jesus issued a scathing rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, but did not use one cuss word. Paul sarcastically wrote that he wished the Judaizers would emasculate themselves in Galatians. Peter called false teachers dogs. I think we tend to justify those who we are close with while forgetting that we have proper examples laid out for us throughout Scripture.

  • tovlogos

    Right, Clint — The absurdity of it all is in James 3:11, as you mentioned. It really shocks people when they hear a pastor slip like that; and he wishes he could reel his blunder back in.

    • Occupational hazard of the preaching ministry: When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. Proverbs 10:19

  • r

    Col 4:6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

    I fail to see how cussing would “be gracious, seasoned with salt”, nor how it would help us “answer each person”.

  • pearlbaker

    It’s not a cleaned-up mouth that proves righteousness, it’s a cleaned-up heart. “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.” Matt 15:18. We can bite our tongues and stand on our heads to try and stop a behavior that displeases the Lord, but no matter how earnestly we try, eventually we will be betrayed by the evil in our hearts, when “good habits” are overcome by wicked thoughts. We need the Lord for this kind of cleaning “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139:23-24.”Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10. Soap in the mouth may instill the fear of punishment, and may temporarily modify behavior, but submitting our hearts and minds to the Lord for a good washing can cure the problem forever. If we sincerely desire to be free of cursing or any other sin “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” 1 John 1:9, then we will no longer be slaves to the sin which besets us “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36.

    • Yup. What pearlbaker said.

    • r

      We can also say that one of the evidences of a cleaned-up heart would be a cleaned-up mouth. Seems to me to be what Jesus was indicating in Matt. 15:18, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.”

    • Robert Sakovich

      Awesome. Yes, we need to be worried about our hearts because that is the real battlefield for each of us individually. Only when we are fighting that battle in the power of the Holy Spirit will we be properly equipped to assist each other in the overall battle against the powers and principalities that we strive against.

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  • Barbara Laurie

    Oh, my desire to never use a swear word again seems impossible at times. My dad never swore in front us kids, but Mom made it a regular habit. I find it ugly and it scares me when in a frustrating moment, I hear my mouth and cringe. I’m sure refraining to speak before I think, prayerfully think, helps, and being washed in the Word, but I admit I still struggle with this, thank you for the encouraging words. Pressing on..

    • You’re not alone in that struggle. As long as it stays a struggle and not a surrender, you’re on the right track.

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  • Lots of interesting comments here. I don’t have any to add 🙂 but found it incredibly interesting, all of the different thoughts and opinions. I stand with Clint.

  • Captain Porter

    I agree with those verses and are often reminder of them; however in the same reason Paul gave instructions about short and long hair – to a degree I think it’s either upbringing and/or cultural, at least in some places.

    When I was a child, we were never allowed to say words that you now regularly hear on the news each night.

    Though in Australia, some “harsher” swear words are reasonably common place and often used in a flattering or humourous way. I won’t give you examples though…

    • Robert Sakovich

      I honestly think that this is the fruit of compromise which is echoed in the culture shifts. And personally I believe that we need to be working to hold the line instead of following the compromise. We should desire to look more like Christ, not more like the world.

      • Jenny Taylor

        I live in Australia but was brought up very strictly in England. Never heard a swear word until we arrived here, then heard most of them within a week or two. Aussies loathe seeing pride in anyone, and in a misplaced effort to show others that they are not proud, they use gutter language a lot. It makes you “one of the boys”. Very hard in this culture for Christian men.

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