Is swearing inherently sinful?
As I read Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, this question crossed my mind. Scattered throughout Boyle’s inspiring narrative of his more than 20 years of working with gangs in Los Angeles were numerous instances of explicit language. Some of these were quotes from current or former gang members, and others were from Father Boyle himself.
If the context of “swear words” serves to build up the church, are the words themselves “wrong”?
In Tattoos on the Heart, there were numerous instances where Father Boyle used profanity when revealing profound, personal truths about who people are, or when challenging them to see how ridiculous gang life is. Explicit language was used both to build people up, and to correct and redirect. Does it matter how the words are interpreted by the listener, or is explicit language disqualified from Christian vocabulary regardless of setting?
As a Young Life leader, I constantly find myself entering a foreign culture—high school. Most of these kids are not like me. They don’t think like me. They don’t believe what I believe. They don’t talk like me. If I’m not well versed in “kid-culture,” it creates a disconnect between us, and that disconnect can add to the conception that the gospel isn’t for them—they aren’t interested in being like me. Obviously there is a different dynamic in effect in this relationship (I’m an adult and they’re kids), but Christians spread a gospel that was written for the whole world—every culture, every person, every language (Mark 16:15, Matthew 24:14, Psalm 96:3, Revelation 14:6–7, Matthew 28:19–20). How do we reconcile that with what social science teaches about how vernacular, dialects, and cultural context shape our interpretation of language? Are swear words always inappropriate, “unwholesome,” “corrupting,” and therefore sinful (Ephesians 4:29)?
As we bring the gospel to youth, gangs, and other cultural contexts where swearing is not only acceptable, but a major component of the vocabulary, is it acceptable for Christians? Can “swear words” be part of a conversation that points someone to Jesus, or helps someone understand how much they are loved by God?
So what does the Bible say?
Both testaments of the Bible have numerous verses addressing the language we use—Ephesians 4:29, Ephesians 5:4, 1 Peter 3:10, James 3:9–12, James 5:12, Luke 6:45, Colossians 3:8, 2 Timothy 2:16, Matthew 5:37, Matthew 12:36–37, Exodus 20:7, Psalm 10:7, Proverbs 10:32.
A handful of other verses are often brought into the conversation as well, but if the central issue is whether or not particular words are inherently sinful, these appear to be the most applicable.
Frequently, when people say that the Bible clearly addresses swearing and cursing, we run into contextual issues. The verses that are “most clear” are actually least relevant to the conversation.
James 3:9–10 talks about “cursing people.” While swear words can definitely be used that way, they are used in other ways as well. In the same way, countless words we would consider innocent in themselves can be strung together into the worst of curses. How often does cursing someone start with “I wish [person’s name] . . .”? Probably more than we’d care to admit.
James 5:12 clearly says, “do not swear.” Here though, swearing is tied to promising, or establishing an oath. This verse is more relevant to a conversation about swearing on the Bible in court than one about the sinfulness of individual words. If anything, it’s more condemning of the phrase, “I swear on . . .”
Outbursts of anger
If you hit your thumb with a hammer, or someone cuts you off in traffic, how do you instinctively react? These are cliche situations where profanity may leave someone’s lips. Again though, are the words the issue? When a buildup of frustration prompts you to say something out of anger, I’m not sure it matters what those words are—your attitude makes it sinful. Psalm 37:8–9, Proverbs 25:28, Proverbs 19:11, Proverbs 15:18, Proverbs 14:17, Proverbs 16:32, Proverbs 22:24, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, James 1:19–20, James 4:11–12, Matthew 5:22, and numerous other verses address the danger and consequences of anger.
However, there are still plenty of verses which appear very relevant to the selection of words Christians use. To dig into these, I took my question to ChristianDiscourse.com.*
What do other Christians say?
Christian Discourse users were quick to jump into the conversation.
Alex brought up the point that our words can be misinterpreted. Someone’s perception of a word can easily affect how they understand your use of it. In Tattoos on the Heart, Father Boyle is speaking to teens and a community who perceive swear words very differently than the typical Christian or even the average middle class citizen might.
Not everyone shared the same perspective though:
Ellyn concluded that words we would consider explicit are not pure, beautiful, or good, and therefore have no place in our vocabulary. She also brought up a point which is related, but which I hadn’t addressed—taking the Lord’s name in vain. The Bible seems to be pretty clear about that (Exodus 20:7).
Another user asked, “Why would a Christian use swear words?” and suggested Christians should use Philippians 4:8 as a filter for our language.
Circling back to the perception of words, one person shared an anecdote to highlight that there are other words we don’t consider “swear words” that can still be offensive:
I remember a story about my daughter who was 5 years old at the time. When I was talking to my sister, her aunt, all of a sudden my daughter said, ‘Daddy curse!’ I instantly went to rehash mode trying to remember what I said. Did I use the ‘F-bomb’ or the ‘S- word’?! For the life of me I couldn’t remember what I said that my daughter would react the way she reacted. Then she said you used the ‘S-word’—now I’m really freaking out. I started to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and she said, ‘You used “stupid.” That is not nice.’ With relief I told her she is right and I said sorry to my sister. Both my sister and I laughed hard after she said ‘now give her a hug’ and she ran off to play.
Whatever you conclude about the sinfulness of specific words, it’s important to remember that not using swear words doesn’t excuse the way you use the rest of the English (or any other) language. Your words can still be considered “corrupting talk” (Ephesians 4:29); “filthiness”, “foolish talk” or “crude joking” (Ephesians 5:4); “evil” or “speaking deceit” (1 Peter 3:10); “cursing” (James 3:10, Psalm 10:7); “slander” or “obscene talk” (Colossians 3:8); “irreverent babble” (2 Timothy 2:16); “careless words” (Matthew 12:36); and yes, even “swearing” (James 5:12, Matthew 5:37).
When you have something to say, what you say, how you say it, when you say it, and where you say it can all shape how your words are received by the listener—and ultimately God (Matthew 12:36–37).
*This post originally appeared in June 2015. Since then, ChristianDiscourse.com has become unavailable.