This is no doubt a “touchy” subject, and one I’m not drawing definite conclusions on. Nonetheless, here is a look at the Bible’s view on the subject – and it’s not as black-and-white as many seem to think. I’m NOT outright endorsing swearing – merely trying to take an honest look at it from the Bible’s perspective.
I don’t like to do this very often. However, as a Springboard for Your Spiritual Life, I would like to share with you the sermon I presented to the Franklin Church in Franklin, Tennessee yesterday. The topic was submitted to me as a question.
You can find the sermon in its original formatting and also hear the audio at this link on the congregation’s website.
***WARNING: I will warn you that in this lesson, I felt it necessary by way of illustration to state some of the words and phrases that are considered profanity. If that makes you uncomfortable, you may wish to listen to someone else’s lesson on this subject instead.
What Does the Bible Say about Foul Language?
With the change of our assembly schedule, we have been missing our 2nd Sunday Questions and Answers sermon. The elders have decided for now to make our 5th Sunday assemblies our new schedule for the Q & A lessons. Today’s question is “What does the Bible say about foul language?” I am going to make a confession as we begin. I have some fear about this lesson. First, because it is hard to speak on this subject clearly without crossing the very bounds of propriety I’m trying to preserve. Second, since what I will say is not going to coincide with the traditional lessons on this topic, I fear some of you will be upset with me. However, I am 100% convinced what I am going to tell you is the truth. As I have always said, I don’t believe I have all the answers but I do believe the Bible does. If, when I am done, you think I have missed the boat on something, I would be happy to learn from you what you believe the Bible teaches.
- What the Bible doesn’t say.
- In the 1980s, George Carlin became famous for his very vulgar skit about the 8 words not allowed on television. I wish this lesson were that simple. I wish I could turn you to a passage that gave us the list of bad words. But I can’t. There just isn’t one.
- We have often heard preachers go to Matthew 26:74 where it says Peter began to curse and swear to speak against bad words today. However, in the first place, this text is not talking about cussing in the sense of bad words as we usually mean it. Rather, it means he either cursed the people he was talking to or himself. That is, not that he used “curse words,” but that he uttered curses against them. And then he swore, that is, he called on the name of God to take an oath that he was not one of the apostles. But even if this was a passage that referred to bad words, it doesn’t tell us what they would be.
- The fact is, there is not one single verse that provides us any teaching that declares that any particular word is inherently bad. In fact strictly speaking, there is no biblical concept of bad words. Don’t misunderstand, the Bible does speak of corrupt speech, what we might call using words badly. However, there is no decree from God that lists even one single word as bad simply because the word is bad. We need to be honest, when we tell someone a certain word is bad, we are not doing so because God has defined that word as bad. We are doing so either because we have decided that word in our culture violates some principles of God’s word or because our society and culture has determined the word is bad.
- What the Bible does say.
- While the Bible does not give us a list of words to avoid, it does provide some principles to guide our speech. I will share those principles with you and let you be the judge of what words you should and should not say.
- Principle #1: No corrupting talk (Ephesians 4:29)—Instead of words that tear down, we are supposed to use words that build up. The building up here does not refer solely to spiritual edification. This doesn’t provide a list of words to remove from our speech. But it does point out that belittling speech, shaming speech, berating speech, name-calling and other forms of speech that tear people down rather than build them up is foul in the Christian’s mouth.
- Principle #2: No careless words (Matthew 12:36-37)—This statement is somewhat difficult to nail down. But the word here means idle or lazy. I think the ESV gets the heart of its meaning when it says “careless.” That is, no matter what we say if we are speaking lazily, that is without careful consideration and thought, we will be judged for it. We could say “thoughtless speech.” Have you ever been in an argument and had to back up and say, “I didn’t mean that, it just came out.” That is speaking without thinking, without care. Jesus tells us not to do it.
- Principle #3: No irreverent or profane words (I Timothy 4:7; 6:20; II Timothy 2:16)—Where the ESV says “irreverent,” other translations say “profane.” In our day “profanity” has come to encompass all “bad words.” But profanity in the Biblical sense actually means to treat the holy in a low, base, light and irreverent manner. This includes taking the Lord’s name in vain. But it goes beyond that. Should we speak of the holy heaven in such a light manner as those do when they say, “For heaven’s sake” or “My heavens”? We should not treat lightly the holy teachings of Christ as some do when they joke about the Lord’s words.
- Principle #4: No cursing (Romans 12:14; James 3:9-10)—This is not about “cussing,” but rather calling curses down upon men. No doubt, we are allowed to warn of God’s curses on men, but it is not our job to curse men. When we say things like “damn you” or “go to hell” we are cursing men. That shouldn’t come from our mouths. However, this is not merely limited to those magic words that have been deemed curse words by our society. If we cursed a man saying “a pox upon you” as was popular in past centuries, we would be violating this principle.
- Principle #5: No filthy, foolish or crude speaking (Ephesians 5:4)—For the longest time, I tried to figure out the difference in the three terms used here. However, in the context of Ephesians 5:3, 5, 11-12, I am convinced Paul is not telling us about three different bad forms of speech but rather emphasizing one point by using parallelism. He is talking about the light and crude discussion of sinful activities, especially of sexual immorality. This is not simply talking about some words for sex our society deems base and vulgar. It also cautions us against speaking of immorality as if it is a joke or joking about it. It forbids what we would call dirty jokes as well.
- Principle #6: No malicious words (Ephesians 4:31)—We must not speak words that intend to harm either to someone’s face or behind their back. Let me make a point here. In our society, we are told the word for female dog is bad. And when using it as a derogatory attack on someone, it most definitely is. But for some reason, the word for female horse or female cow is okay. But is calling someone a nag or heifer any less malicious than the word we have declared bad?
- Principle #7: Speak honorably in the sight of men (II Corinthians 8:20-21)—This point is somewhat different than the others, but no less important. The passage we are reading is not talking about speech. It is talking about the use of money. However, please note the important principle that we want to do what is honorable not merely before God, but also before men. We do not want to leave ourselves open to accusations from men. We are not allowed to merely say that what others think is unimportant. If our society has declared that a word or phrase is bad, we should not use it because we leave ourselves open to an accusation from men. Rather, we need to speak in a way that will be deemed honorable among men.
III. A few comments about euphemisms.
- According to Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, a euphemism is “the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensively harsh or blunt.” Since I became a Christian, I have heard numerous things about euphemisms ranging from “Christians should never, ever use euphemisms because that is just as bad as really cussing” to “what’s the big deal about euphemisms, Christians don’t have to worry about those at all.” I think both extremes are mistaken. I will make three comments about euphemisms and, as before, allow you to make the applications you deem fit.
- We cannot make blanket statements against euphemisms. Sadly, the statements that sweep with too broad a brush, discarding “euphemisms” as wholly sinful simply demonstrate ignorance about what a euphemism is. The fact is the Bible uses euphemisms. For instance, in I Samuel 24:3 when the ESV says Saul went in to relieve himself and the KJV says “cover his feet,” the Bible used a euphemistic phrase to avoid saying that Saul was defecating. Further, even those who have made such blanket rebukes of “euphemisms” use them and would laud their use at times. Have you ever heard someone say, “he used a four-letter-word”? “Four-letter-word” is a euphemism so the person relating the story can avoid actually saying the word and we with sensitive ears appreciate that euphemism. Finally, if we are going to make a blanket statement against any and all words described as euphemisms, we are going to be in some real trouble. According to The Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com) the words “assemble” and “fellowship” were viewed for several centuries as euphemisms for sexual intercourse.
- However, you need to consider your intent. While we cannot make the blanket statement that anything considered a euphemism is wrong, we shouldn’t take the opposite approach of saying God never said euphemisms were wrong so we don’t have to worry about them. Because of our magic “bad word” mentality, we sometimes think if we chose a word society doesn’t think is bad we are okay. But, we need to remember God is not as concerned with the actual words as what is intended by those words. For instance, I think each and every one of us would say I was violating the principle of “no cursing” found in Romans 12:14and James 3:9-10 if I said “God damn you” to someone. But, brothers and sisters, if instead I looked at that person and said, “Gosh darn you,” was my intent any less to curse them just because I didn’t use the words our society has defined as bad? Yes, we do need to take care. Using a euphemistic phrase does not change the intent of our heart and the motivation of our speech. If our motivation violates one of the principles, the words may not be considered bad, but the speech is corrupt.
- You need to consider the insinuation. Euphemisms are a kind of insinuation. That is, instead of directly saying something, we are indirectly saying something. For instance, when we say someone “passed away” we are using a euphemism that means they died. We are insinuating their death. When we use euphemisms that indirectly mean or sound like “bad words” we are often insinuating those words and if nothing else leading others to think those words. If you say, “Oh my gosh” what do you think you insinuated in the minds of those who heard you? The same could be asked about words like “dang,” “heck,” “geez,” and others. As Christians, we do need to give careful consideration to the words we use because of the insinuations we make in the minds of those who hear. I know that doesn’t give us a list of bad euphemisms, but it gives us a principle I believe we need to consider as we choose our words carefully.
Again, I wish this could have been as simple as here are the eight magic words you just aren’t allowed to use. But God didn’t give that to us. Rather, He gave us principles and we had better take care to consider them as we choose our words, phrases, jokes and other speech. We will be judged for every thoughtless, careless idle word we speak (Matthew 12:36-37), so we had better think before we speak. I hope this was helpful. As I said, I know it does not coincide with everything you have probably ever heard in the traditional lesson on these topics. If you believe I missed something or did not represent accurately how the Bible answers this question, I hope you will share that with me. May God bless us as we strive to surrender our speech to Him.
One of my favorite and most uncomfortable memories as a Bible professor was when I had Old Testament scholar, Tremper Longman, give a guest lecture on the Song of Songs. Tremper specializes in ancient near Eastern love poetry. No, he’s not some creepy old guy who gets off on ancient erotic fiction. He’s an authority on the Song of Songs, and he interprets the biblical Song in light of other ancient love poems—as it should be.
I’ll never forget feeling the tension in the classroom as he went into detail about the real meaning of the poem. “His body is polished ivory,” says the ESV, but according to Tremper, the Hebrew word for body refers to the man’s midsection and the image of ivory is intended to invoke the original form of ivory: an elephant’s tusk. Yes, that’s right. The wife in Song of Songs 5:14 is admiring her well-hung husband.
The reaction among the students was classic. Blushes, giggles, eye-brows raised to the ceiling. Apparently their Sunday school teachers never explained the connection between ivory tusks and penises. My own palms started to sweat as I thought about the slew of phone calls I was bound to get from angry parents demanding to know why their kids were discussing well-endowed men. But my nervousness turned to excitement as my students boiled with fundamentalist zeal: “If that’s what the Bible says, then why don’t our translations say what the Bible says?”
“Well,” Tremper searched as he looked to the ground. “Translations are filtered through a bit of political correctness.” We could tell Tremper didn’t agree with this. Still, silence and outrage hung in the air. As a professor, I spend a good deal of classroom time instilling in my students a passion to interpret and believe what the Bible actually says. Not what we want it to say, but what it really says in all its grit and occasional offensiveness. Cleaning up God’s word is like editing a love letter and sending it back for a re-write.
Editing the Bible
But religious people have been covering up obscene language in the Bible for years. Jewish scribes in the middle ages, who copied the Hebrew Old Testament used as the base for all English translations, edited out some vulgar words and replaced them with nicer ones. For instance, God originally prophesied through Zechariah that women in Israel would be raped by wicked, invading armies. The word God inspired is shagel, and according to Hebrew linguists, shagel is an obscene word that describes a sexual act. (No, it’s not where we get the British word “shag.”) But whenever God said shagel (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:30; Isaiah 13:16), the Masorites replaced it with the more tame shakev—“to lie with.” And all of our “literal” English translations agree that the word from the middle ages is better than the one spoken by our Creator.
The Bible is full of obscene language. Ezekiel would have been grounded for several months if he was raised in my house. He talks about huge penises, female genital fluid produced at sexual arousal, and large quantities of semen being “poured out” on Israel—God’s wayward whore (Ezekiel 16:26, 36, 37; 23:20-21). Instead of grounding the prophet, modern translators edit out the vulgarity so that Ezekiel can be read in church. The apostle Paul was so enrapture by the scandalous grace of God that he came dangerously close to cussing: “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as skubala, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). The Greek word skubala is more vulgar than crap, but not quite as harsh as s**t. Either way, most translations dim it down by using words like “rubbish,” which means trash, not excrement, or “dung” which is more accurate but far less offensive.
In some ways, it’s understandable that we don’t want to be using this type of language in church. But, on the other hand, the Gospel is offensive. Grace is scandalous. And that’s the real point. The biblical prophets sometimes use offensive language, but not to produce shock for its own sake. Edginess was never the goal, and neither was some vague notion of Christian “freedom.” God’s messengers used vulgar images to shock their religious audience out of complacency. Because sometimes the goodness of God becomes lost in the fog of Christianese rhetoric and religious routine, and the only way to wake us up is to use provocative language.
So how do we reconcile Ezekiel’s filthy tongue with 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.” Does this outlaw all forms of vulgarity? Not exactly. The word for “corrupting” (sapros) literally means “rotten, decaying, unwholesome.” The whole point is not to forbid certain words that are labeled “cuss words” by its culture, but all speech that does not “build up.”
Reflecting on Motives
Paul’s warning here does include using obscene or vulgar language that tears someone down, reflects worldly motives, or in any other way that’s unfit for a redeemed way of life. But “corrupting” primarily refers to slander, gossip or any other speech that tears someone down. Paul refers to the dangerous power of words, all words, when used to dehumanize another human being. Gossiping about a fellow church member, dropping a belittling comment on a blog or Facebook post … are all good examples of “corrupting” talk.
So, in other words, if modern day preachers and Christians cuss or use vulgar terms only to get a rise out of conservatives, they aren’t prophetic, they’re simply immature. Similarly, if you call someone a piece of skubula or blurt out shagel! after stubbing your toe, you’re not being prophetic or biblical, just immature and undisciplined.
But if your Gospel presentation is putting your moralistic crowd to sleep, or if a pharisaic friend is more concerned about proper speech than an addiction to grace, then you may need to tell him that his Christ-less church attendance is nothing more than a bloody tampon until he clings to the Cross, as Isaiah did (Isaiah 64:6).
OK, slightly amusing. Here’s a word study on Paul’s “shit”:
A Brief Word Study on Σκύβαλον
(neuter noun, used once in the New Testament [Phil 3:8])
This essay is a basic diachronic word study on a rare term, found only once in the New Testament, in Phil 3:8. The NET Bible renders this verse as follows: “More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!–that I may gain Christ…”
Most other modern English versions have ‘rubbish’ (ESV, NRSV, NKJV, NIV, NAB, REB) or ‘garbage’ (TEV, NJB, TNIV) for the term. At issue is more than whether slang is used in the NT; the sense of Paul’s view of is former life—his life apart from Christ—is involved. If mere ‘rubbish’ is the force, then a sense of worthlessness is in view; if ‘dung’ is the force, then both worthlessness and revulsion is in view.
Rather than be fully explicit, this study will address the meaning in more genteel terms and use asterisks where the more sophisticated (or perhaps less sophisticated!) can supply the appropriate letters.
Range of Meaning
This word is used primarily for excrement, especially human excrement; secondarily for rubbish, dirt, leavings, etc. It is a NT hapax legomenon (Phil 3:8).
1. Dung, (Human) Excrement
(especially in the plural, as in Phil 3:8); or with a stronger emotive connotation (and the concomitant shock value), crap, s**t. NT: Phil 3:8* (debatable; may belong under definition 2); Other: Plu. 2.352d; Alex. Aphr. Pr. 1.18; Aret. SD 1.15; Artemid. Onirocr. 1.67; 2.14; Str. 14.1.37; J. BJ 5.571; 5.13.7; PFay. 119.7 (i/ii AD).
Josephus’ description of the conditions within the walls of Jerusalem during the final siege of the Romans in the Jewish War (66-73 CE) is intended to evoke the strongest reaction by his readers (Josephus, Jewish War 5.571):
. . . the corpses of the lower classes thrown out through the gates amounted in all to 600,000; of the rest it was impossible to discover the number. They added that, when strength failed them to carry out the poor, they piled the bodies in the largest mansions and shut them up; also that a measure of corn had been sold for a talent, and that later when it was no longer possible to gather herbs, the city being all walled in, some were reduced to such straits that they searched the sewers and for old cow dung and ate the offal therefrom, and what once would have disgusted them to look at had now become food.
In Strabo’s description of the rebuilt Smyrna, he lauds the plans and efforts of Antigonus, Lysimachus, and the citizens, noting however one glaring flaw (Strabo, Geography 14.1.37):
But there is one error, not a small one, in the work of the engineers, that when they paved the streets they did not give them underground drainage; instead, excrement covers the surface, and particularly during rains, when the cast-off filth is discharged upon the streets.
Proportionately, the word seems to have occurred in the papyri and other non-literary documents far more frequently than in the literature. A good illustration is found in Papyrus Fayum 119.7 (c. 100 CE) in which Gemellus informs his son that the donkey driver has bought “a little bundle and rotten hay, the whole of which is decayed so that it is like crap.”
2. Rubbish, Dirt, Scraps, Leavings
NT: Phil 3:8* (debatable; may belong under definition 1); Other: Jul. Or. 5.179c; PCairZen 494.16 (iii BC); PSI 3.184.7 (plural, AD 292); Sirach 27.4; PRyl 2.149.22 (AD 39-40).
In Sirach 27:4 the word bears emotive force, though it is not as dramatic as a vulgar rendering would suggest: “As when one sifts with a sieve, the refuse remains; so also the filth of man in his speech.”
But even in the first century CE the word was used occasionally with no shock value connotations. For example, in the collection of the Rylands Papyri 2.149.22 (39-40 CE) the writer speaks of animals grazing “on the gleanings of my vegetable-seed crop.” Thus “gleanings” or “table scraps” is a legitimate (though admittedly rare) nuance in use during the time of Paul.1
By the fourth century CE, the shock value of the term seems to have worn off, so much so that it is even seen as a proper name—cf. P. Oxy. 1.43, verso iii.25 (295 CE). Nevertheless, Chrysostom can refer to σκύβαλον as bearing the meaning of “manure” in Phil 3:8, but he seems unaware of its emotive force—even arguing that there is some value in manure! (Cf. Chrysostom’s commentary on Philippians, MPG 62:263-265, where he mentions the word twelve times).
As well, in the fourth century CE, the emperor Julian can use the term to describe the earth, though with intent to evoke some sense of disgust by way of contrast (Julian, Orations 179C):
But is not this Logos Attis, who not long ago was out of his senses, but now through his castration is called wise? Yes, he was out of his senses because he preferred matter and presides over generation, but he is wise because he adorned and transformed this refuse [our earth] with such beauty as no human art or cunning could imitate.
There’s several interesting discussions (for those who can stomach the language) at https://www.quora.com/Who-decides-what-words-are-bad-words. And again, I’m not endorsing any specific language/swear words. But, judging people for using them isn’t necessarily right, either (especially since, for example, Paul used them). It’s an interesting study, anyway.