Mind your language!

I recently listened to an interview of a woman who had for a long time run a popular Christian website and podcast, but who has since left the theological realm for politics. She has not left the faith, but simply moved from religious to political cultural engagement.

The interviewer asked her about some criticisms she had faced since changing her career path. One criticism was that she had begun to use decidedly coarser language. Admitting that there was truth to the accusation, she explained that part of the reason is that she now spends far more time with unbelievers than with believers. She is therefore exposed to far more coarse language than she had been before. She defended herself, in part, by stating that she “rarely drops the F-bomb,” but admitted that she often employs scatological terminology. (“Scatological” language refers to words that have reference to excrement.) She even warned the interviewer that he may have to have his “bleep button” handy during the interview.

Later, she defended her use of “spicy” language by claiming that she was being “authentic.” “With me, you’re not going to get a different person—here, or in person, or online, or face-to-face, it’s the same. And I think that unbelievers, or the world, resonates with authenticity, even if you might be a little rough around the edges. It’s more important to be a flawed real person than a perfect fake one.”

A couple of times during the course of the interview, she burst out laughing when she “almost said something inappropriate.” The interviewer chuckled and assured her that he had his “bleep button” ready should anything slip out.

While she did not, in the end, use any inappropriate language, it is clear that the interviewer would quickly have removed any of it from the released recording. And while he took it all in good spirits, I was personally agitated to hear how flippantly she joked about her coarse language, even while professing boldly her faith in Christ.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Using foul language—even “dropping the occasional F-bomb”—is not the unpardonable sin. But listening to the exchange highlighted what does seem to be an issue in some segments of Christianity today.

We live in an age in which some Christians seem to be comfortable with cursing. Part of the reason for this may lie in an increasing grasp that many seem to have on the grace of God. That is a good thing, of course, but there are those who seem, quite contrary to Paul’s argument in Romans 6, to misuse God’s grace as license to sin. How else do you explain a Christian using what she admits to be unsavoury language all in the name of being “authentic”?

Several years ago, a popular pastor was invited to speak at a church in Texas. He was known for employing course language in his preaching, and so the pastor of the Texan church told him that swearing would not go down well in Texas. He asked him to keep his language clean. The guest speaker responded by using the F-word in his opening sentence.1

It does seem to be true that some (particularly younger) Christians think that it is “cool” to swear—that it is almost a badge of honour. Anyone who objects is simply being “legalistic.”

So, is it wrong for a Christian to swear?

At grassroots level, “sin” can be defined as any word, thought or action that is contrary to God’s revealed will or law. We can sin by saying, thinking or doing things that he tells us not to say, do or think. Or we can sin by failing to say, think or do those things that he tells us we must say, do or think. The question before us is, does swearing in some way transgress what God has told us not to say?

This is, of course, a huge subject, but I want to just take some time here to address some of the more common excuses I’ve heard professing Christians give to justify their use of coarse language, and see how those reasons line up with the Bible.

An appeal to authenticity

Let’s begin with the reasoning with which we started: an appeal to authenticity. There are those who claim that using coarse language makes them more relatable to the world they are trying to reach. They might even appeal to 1 Corinthians 9:22: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

We must remember, however, that we are not called to be “authentic.” We are called, instead, to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), representing his standards to a watching world. An ambassador is not sent to “be himself” but to represent the one who sent him. Can we honestly claim that, when they hear Christians swearing, unbelievers are hearing Christ?

In the same vein, the woman cited above said, “With me, you’re not going to get a different person—here, or in person, or online, or face-to-face, it’s the same.” The (perhaps unspoken) line of reasoning here is that it may well be hypocritical to keep your language clean in front of people, because that’s not who you really are all the time. Some might go as far as to say that if you think certain words in your head, you might as well speak them with your mouth. Few Christians who think this would, I suspect, argue that they may as well commit adultery since they lust in their heart, or may as well murder since they are angry in their heart. The solution to hypocrisy is not saying what you’re thinking; it is instead a commitment to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).

An appeal to pressure

I have heard some appeal to the acceptability of cussing because they are under severe pressure. One blog commenter expressed his view this way: “My simple thought about cussing is that it can often be used to express deep human emotions…. Sometimes only a ‘bad’ word can express how we truly feel.”

That may be the reason that some people resort to coarse language, but it is no excuse. Our circumstances do not excuse our behaviour. Others may provoke us, but we are called to respond like Christ, who “when he was reviled … did not revile in return” and “when he suffered … did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:21–23).

An appeal to language

There is a sense in which words have no intrinsic value in and of themselves, but only the connotations that we ascribe to them. Many therefore object that it is arbitrary to ascribe sinful meaning to a particular string of letters and sounds. Still others point to words that have legitimate usages, but are still considered inappropriate or offensive by many.

There may be some limited truth to this appeal. If you are in a vet’s office or at a dog breeder, you may well hear the technical word for a female dog used in an unprofane manner. The older, stronger and more technical word for an illegitimate child may be used frequently in some settings. I can testify that children’s literature from the middle of the last century, particularly from England, often uses the older word for donkey in a way that might be considered awkward.

While it is true that words have context, and that context often defines a particular word’s usage, it is certainly not true, at least not from a theological perspective, that words are inherently neutral. Jesus said that our words reveal our hearts (Matthew 12:34). In the same context, he said, “I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (vv. 36–37). Clearly, God takes into account the words that we utter.

An appeal to relativism

Another appeal I have heard is that words have different connotations for different people and different cultures. This is very definitely true, but rather than excusing idle use of words, this should make Christians even more sensitive in the way they speak.

There are some who find the use of words like “hell” and “damn” terribly offensive outside of theological discussions, and others who do not give it a second thought. There are certain scatological terms that are terribly offensive in one culture while perfectly acceptable in another. That may at times make for some unintentional awkwardness, but surely it should drive Christians to labour for sensitivity. Paul urges, “Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Different cultures, and different people, might be offended by different things; the Christian responsibility is to cause no offence to anyone. When it comes to language, that may mean being overly sensitive in the way that we speak and the words we use.

An appeal to the Bible

Some argue that the biblical writers used very strong language and that we should be free to do the same. Preston Sprinkle goes so far as to suggest that “the Bible is full of obscene language” but that “modern translators edit out the vulgarity so that [it] can be read in church.”2 He contends that “the Gospel is offensive” and “grace is scandalous” and suggests “that’s the real point… 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.”

Ultimately, this smacks of just trying to find an excuse to use provocative language. James said a long time ago, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Commenting on this verse, Eric Pement writes, “Swearing does not show ‘realness’ or gutsy emotion. Rather, it betrays a flaw in our ability to communicate sensitively and tastefully…. As Christians, we must go ‘against the tide’ of the world in many instances, and if we do not want our testimony nullified by our own actions, we will pray this prayer with the Psalmist: ‘Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!’ (Psalm 141:3).”

  1. Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Front (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 48.
  2. Sprinkle argues, for example, that the word Paul uses in Philippians 3:8 translated (in the ESV) as “loss” is actually a rather “vulgar” word. There may be a modicum of truth to that—the KJV translates the word as “dung”—but according to Homer A. Kent, Jr., the word was not exclusively a coarse one: “The etymology … is uncertain, but in usage it was employed of excrement, of scraps or leavings after a meal, or of general refuse.” I would personally contend that the meaning of scraps of food brushed under the table during a meal fits Paul’s argument the best.

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