Can Christians Swear?

Christians using swear wordsIs 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.

Cursing people

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.

Swearing

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.

People can misinterpret swear words, so we should be careful
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:

Christians should reflect on that which is pure

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).

James 3:7–8

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).

So what do you think? Can Christians use swear words? Join the conversation on Christian Discourse.

Comments

  1. says

    The thing about swear words is that they can be hurtful, demeaning, and destructive. Not only to the person they may be directed at but even to the person who overhears them. However, the same can be said about sarcasm. As mentioned previously, how words are used is directly related to your attitude. Personally, if me swearing causes anyone to stumble in their walk, or their interest in salvation, than that is a sin. Therefore I refrain from swearing.

    What I find interesting is that people can use swear words in a different language, e.g. Spanish and they seem to be OK with the English speaking crowd. It makes me wonder whether foreign speaking people use English swear words in the same manner?

  2. says

    If you make it a "cultural" issue then what if a culture practices adultery? Does that become ok as well. Obviously that is plainly spoken against in scripture, but the principal applies. Practically, you don't win people by becoming like them (cursing and swearing etc.)

  3. says

    it seems to me that this is the logical conclusion when we try to “win” the world to Jesus. When we try to be “relevant” (whatever that means), we have these conversations. I don’t remember Jesus ever saying we need to win the world to Him. I do remember Him saying to the church that we are to make disciples of Jesus. But how can we make a nonbeliever a disciple? That work is reserved only for those who are already in the kingdom. We are to engage the world as a witness–to show the world what a life lived in the kingdom of God is like. We are called to proclaim the gospel–which includes a call to repentance and faith in Christ as the One who paid the price for our sins. How can we call the world to repentance when we are speaking, acting and possessing the same attitudes of the world? Indeed, the part and parcel of holiness is that we are different–set apart for God. I don’t see how speaking like the world in order to “relate” to them is in any way depicting being different from them.

    • Ryan Nelson says

      Thanks, Glenn. I agree with a lot of those thoughts. For me, it isn’t an issue of trying to “win” the world to Jesus. I was just talking to my freshmen guys last night about Mark 13, where Jesus says, “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” The world as a whole will never “like” Jesus or his followers, and that should never be our goal. But if we ask nonbelievers to give up things that they don’t have to and add to the clear moral imperatives in the Bible, it can distort what it actually means to follow Christ. I see how this post could sound like it’s advocating that we should become like the world to win them over, but that was not my intent. What I’d like to talk about is what does it actually mean to become like Christ, and are we asking people to become like Christ, or to become like us?

      I appreciate your insight, and would love to hear your thoughts on this.

      • says

        Ryan,
        Thank you for your reply. I might have been a little reactionary, so thanks for seeking to understand my position. I’ve seen a lot of what “passes” for outreach to the world so that people will understand that God loves them, and if they know that, then they will accept Jesus. What this has amounted to is getting someone outside the Kingdom of God to “pray the sinner’s prayer” and then pronouncing them saved, when in most cases, all they did was pray a prayer. In large measure this came about because the person outside the kingdom witnessed a Christian whose lifestyle was almost exactly like that of the non-Christian.

        I’m of the very strong opinion that the essence of God is not love, but holiness. He is distinct. Set apart. Different. And God has called His people to be the same to the world-as in holiness. But we have so often begun with declaring the essence of God to be love. And nothing else. And what is worse, allowing those outside the Kingdom of God to define “love” for us. And for them, love means to be accepting, tolerant of them. The way we so often think is that we need to engage in the same kinds of activities (like swearing) to show them love “in ways they understand it”. Consequently, the non-Christian does not see a distinction between the profane and the holy, but love “on their terms.” And they often respond to the “witness” of a Christian as that of receiving a false gospel, where a person knows nothing of repentance from sin and a leaving of the “old” life and entering into the new. For how can one know that God gives a new life if all they see is a “religious old life” demonstrated by the Christian?

        I also am of the very strong opinion that we need to be gripped by the love of God, and have the courage to engage them, but living out love as God defines it. And in the large majority of the time, I’ve found, is that this will run diametrically opposed to the way the world defines love. For example, the so-called pelvic issues of our day, particularly gay marriage. In order to proclaim God’s holiness on this issue–no matter how compassionate the proclamation (I’m not talking about the Westboro Baptist Church approach), the world rejects this out of hand because we are being intolerant. It takes courage, and being gripped by His love to not back down and still proclaim God’s truth on the issue.

        Lastly Jesus’ first words of His ministry were “repent.” He took up the mantle of John the Baptist who also said, “repent”. Indeed, the commission Jesus gave His disciples after His resurrection was “repentance and forgiveness of sins shall be proclaimed in My name to all nations.” What I so often see is the offer of forgiveness but without the prerequisite proclamation of the need for the sinner to repent. This seems that it would be insulting to the sinner. For in telling a naturally rebellious person that God forgives them “anyway” , they would rightly question why they need forgiveness. So, telling them to repent is actually beneficial to give them what Jesus came to give–forgiveness and a new life, lived unto God. Not to mention that God’s people are to be set apart for God’s purposes. But to declare the good news without the sinner first understanding their condition before holy God makes the good news to be “sort of” good news. And often this ends up with the sinner “sprinkling a little Jesus” over his life and he goes about his own business, only now he is inoculated against the gospel and his heart has become all the more hardened, because now, he thinks things are OK between him and holy God because he prayed the “sinner’s prayer”. And I fear that when this person dies he will stand before Jesus and this “inoculated sinner” will hear the terrifying words, “depart from Me for I never knew you,” (Matthew 7).

        So, to close this book, in my opinion, it really does matter that we be distinct from the world. We are called to be witnesses of Jesus to it, not necessarily to “win” it. As I read Scripture, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. He “wins” people into the kingdom, not us. Doubtless, He speaks the true gospel through His people and that’s why, by Christ compelling us, to give the gospel compassionately as a witness. Then after He wins them, we “pick up” where the “Holy Spirit leaves off”–but He causes the growth, too!–and we begin to obey the command of Jesus to make disciples of Him in all the nations.

        I hope this makes sense. Thanks for your patience in reading this tome. Lord bless.

        • Ryan Nelson says

          Thanks, Glenn. Those are great thoughts. I agree that there has to be a balance of the message of repentance and the message of love. Do you think the notion of “love in ways they understand” would be acceptable to you if it was balanced against a clear message of repentance?

          I agree that there tends to be an overemphasis on love, but I also understand where that comes from (and I strongly identify with it). God is literally defined as love in 1 John 4:8. Love is why we even have the opportunity to repent—but it does, without a doubt, call for repentance.

          I think for me, the thing I wish the church as a whole would do better is to share repentance in ways they understand. A non-believer has a completely different world view and perspective of their relationship to others, and that drastically affects their sense of right and wrong. Sometimes it really is just a matter of ignorance, but often times that “ignorance” is actually rooted in a culturally accepted world view that distorts their understanding of morality. Without addressing the flaws in their sense of self, their relationship to others, and their relationship to others, we’re going to have a hard time communicating the message of the gospel in a way that makes sense. I don’t see acknowledging those differences as making concessions or watering down the gospel—it’s working towards speaking the same language. The bluntness of repentance doesn’t make sense until you see wrong as wrong.

          In your example of gay marriage, Christians seem intolerant to the world because Christians call something wrong that the world believes is innocent. By deconstructing that worldview and pointing to repentance in ways that make sense from that perspective, we are not compromising our beliefs or withholding the Bible’s call to holiness, but we are “translating it” to mean something in their world.

          I know I didn’t address everything you brought up—I agree with a lot of it. But I think that while I see Platt’s argument, I also think that the more we understand how the way we communicate is shaped by context, the more the church needs to adapt the way it communicates those same truths these modern contexts. Adaptations aren’t the same as concessions—I see it more as updating the translation or applying it to the context.

          I think I’ve gone off topic a bit from your comment, but I think we need to dig into repentance the same way we dig into love. They are both needed. Paul and the early Christians very actively engaged with the secular worldviews that surrounded them—we have to break down those walls before we can show them the God they’ve hidden themselves from.

          Thanks for bringing 1 Corinthians 11:1 into the conversation as well. That’s what discipleship is all about.

          I hope some of this makes sense. God bless!

          • says

            Ryan, great comments. Let me clarify a bit. I’m of the strong opinion that we need to start with God and how He has revealed Himself, in the priority in which He has done that. For example, the issue of God being holy. The only attribute that is thrice given is His holiness (see Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4). Also, of all the things the Scriptures could have opened with, regarding God’s character and attributes, is that He is the Creator, which implies His ownership.

            When we begin there, things seem to fall into place much more easily than if we begin with God being love. For example, if the “most important” quality of God is His love, then humans would have every right to question Him when incredible pain happens. Of course, I’m referring to the age-old argument “How can a loving God _______”? However, if we begin with God’s sovereignty, and His holiness, then we would have answers. For example, God in His holiness WILL take care of all evil. And include in the mix His sovereignty and we can say, “But on His timetable, not ours.” It is a much more satisfactory answer than trying to convince a hurting person that God really does care, when the only thing they can see is their pain.

            In response to your question about love in ways they can understand, I still say that we must stay with God’s definition, then figure out ways where His definition and their understanding would intersect, rather than the other way around. If a person simply cannot accept that his/her lifestyle (pick one) is unacceptable to God, regardless of how compassionate the Christian tries to explain it, then that person must live with his/her conclusion of God being (a hater, not caring, etc). Of course, this takes wisdom, tact and much prayer and sensitivity. With a backbone of titanium. Willing to take the heat.

            In this regard as I prepared to preach a message on John 17 this past Sunday, I found something that blew me away. As Jesus spoke to the Father about His apostles, of all the things He pointed out regarding their readiness to take up His mantle and carry on His work was the fact that they closely identified with Jesus. And of all the things that Jesus cited as how the world treated them precisely because they closely identified with Jesus (i.e., that He gave them the word of the Father), was that the world hated them. In other places, Jesus’ assessment of how the world viewed Him was that the world hated Him. So, the tell-tale sign that the apostles were ready to carry on Jesus’ work was that the world hated them. Of course, the apostles loved the people. But the people’s assessment of the apostle’s message was that the apostles hated them; hence the reason for all the martyrdom. And as, we know, the word translated as witness is the word that we get “martyr” from. Not that it started out that way, but because there were so many martyrs, that’s what a witness was prepared to do back then–and even today. It’s my understanding that around the world there are more martyrs today than at any other time in history of the world.

            God tells us that our unregenerate heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it? And I think that it’s easy to succumb to the temptation that a non-Christian is a sincere seeker after God-and he/she just needs a little help. If we show them enough love then they will find Him. Not so! Romans 3 tells us that none of us seek Him. It takes the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to convict and awaken him/her. We need to live consistent, godly lives to let them know that Kingdom living is indeed, different. And as they respond positively to the Holy Spirit, as He grants them repentance, then they will see our witness and desire the life we live, as we authentically follow Jesus. that’s why it’s imperative that we live different (read holy) lives, regardless of whether they accept us or not.

          • says

            Ryan, I keep getting these comments in my mind! Regarding your observation about translating the idea of repentance into something that makes sense, is that even possible? For example, when someone’s life is tied up in a given lifestyle (compulsive gambling, for example), for anybody to try to get that person to repent of that, even though they KNOW gambling is ruining their family, they just can’t (so they say). But is it they can’t or they won’t? I think we know the answer. No one is forcing them to gamble away their paycheck and they can rationalize all they want–we’re all geniuses when we try to cling to our pet sin! The truth is, and we know it–repentance will not make sense to that person–except when the Holy Spirit invades his life or when he himself comes to his senses, and that usually means when he is spiritually on his back–and then the only way he can look is up–and that’s when we can give them the gospel in a way they can understand. But if we are living the same kind of life as they are, then they can’t see a difference and therefore they will have no hope for a change.

          • Ryan Nelson says

            Thanks, Glenn. Once again, I agree. I think you and I might see “love in ways they understand” a little differently. I think it often tends to look like catering to the individual, but what I mean by it is essentially what you said about starting with God’s definition of love. Different people understand and feel love differently, but that doesn’t mean you have to redefine it or alter it to show it to them. I think The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman is pretty relevant to the conversation. Each of those manifestations of love is consistent with God’s definition, but different people have stronger responses to one or two of those ways we communicate love. Of course, this is more oriented around the individual, and it doesn’t talk much about how culture, demographics, worldviews, etc. impact the ways we feel loved.

            I totally agree though, love cannot be the only aspect of God’s character that we share with people, and it often is. For some, this may actually come down to a fear of confrontation, telling people they’re wrong, or having to wrestle with the tough questions in the midst of pain. God’s holiness and sovereignty don’t change the fact that he is love and that those who don’t know love don’t know God, but it certainly complicates what that love looks like.

            Also, if all we bring to the conversation is God’s holiness and sovereignty, I think the question/doubt still stands, “How could God let this happen? Why is there evil?” He is sovereign and holy, why did he create a world with the possibility of evil? For me, love plays a key role in answering that question. Without love, I see little motivation for God to give his creation the free will to choose or reject him. The ripples of free will (and thereby love) is (at least partially) why evil even exists. God’s holiness is why that evil cannot persist, and his sovereignty is why his plan for creation is so elaborate and final. At least, that’s the way I understand the relationship between the three.

            I think part of the reason passages like John 17 and Mark 13 are hard for me to wrestle with is because one of my deepest fears is being misunderstood. It’s easy for me to think that people I care about who don’t believe just don’t really understand God, and that if they truly understood him, they would desire to be with him. That may be true for some, maybe even for many, but it is not true for all. I really appreciate Young Life because the mission was founded on the premise that, “Every child deserves to hear the gospel in a way they understand,” so that they can ultimately make an informed decision about whether or not to follow him. That doesn’t mean “understand” in the sense that it is acceptable to them, but “understand” in the sense that they can engage with it. Young Life is right in the crux of this issue of how do we explain the truth of the gospel in the language of unchurched kids.

            As for translating repentance, I fully agree with you, and I think I may have misspoke previously. What I intended to say is that we should explain the NEED to repent in a way that makes sense. It still ultimately comes down to a choice, and someone who is consumed by their sin will always choose sin until they are consumed by God. When you say “when he is spiritually on his back” is that the same as “hitting rock bottom”? We recognize these as moments when people are most likely to recognize their fault and turn to God, but isn’t a huge part of why it takes that “rock bottom” because people struggle to see the error of their ways until that point? The reasons to choose evil continue to overpower the reasons to choose good. At the very least, explaining the need for repentance in a way that makes sense (which to the unbeliever takes more than the all-too-common “because God says so”) can bring someone closer to that moment where they finally recognize wrong as wrong. I’m not sure if that all makes sense, but that’s more what I meant.

            Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts.

      • says

        Ryan, in reading you post again, I have another thought. I don’t think we can discount our own lifestyle, as in trying to draw a line between compelling a non-Christian to follow Jesus vs. following us. Didn’t Paul say (to Christians obviously), “Follow me as I follow Christ?” Also, as I implied in my other post, it’s impossible for a non-Christian to be a disciple anyway. As we know, Scripture tells us that a non-Christian is an object of God’s wrath, and also of God’s love. What a non-Christian needs is not to be treated as some sort of “pre-Christian” who is “far from God.” We need to reach out to this one as one who is dead in their sins and tresspasses, who is deaf, dumb and blind to the things of God and show them, by the way we live our lives, what life in the Kingdom of God is like. I think we have to stop being so concerned with “turning off” a non-Christian. David Platt so astutely said during a “Secret Church” meeting a couple of years ago: “How can we turn off a non-Christian? Dead people can’t be turned off any more than what they already are.”

        This gives me hope, and great freedom. For, try as I might, I’m always messing up. I seldom get it right. To hear that I can’t turn off a non-Christian helps me. Please don’t mishear, though. I desperately want to faithfully represent the Lord and see people come into the Kingdom. But my loyalties lie with God first. And if He happens to use me lead someone to a decision point and I’m “on hand as He births a person into His kingdom”, then I gratefully rejoice. But I can’t compromise just because someone “appears to be turned off” by my witness. Again, “follow me as I follow Christ.”

      • says

        Ryan,
        one other thought. My motto is, when I see non-Christians act like non-Christians: “they are acting normal.” They can’t possibly clean up their lives on their own–just like we can’t. That’s why we need to get close enough to them to be Jesus’ witness and never be shocked at what they do or say. And when the situation warrants it, to point out our vulnerabilities and struggles with sin, and all the while pointing them to the cross of Christ and the new life which is found in repentance from sin and belief in His gospel–which is what we all need.

  4. says

    Thanks Darrell. That sounds a lot like 1 Corinthians 8:4–13, and 1 Corinthians 10:23.

    Your comment about different languages brings up an interesting point. Some people would never be comfortable using the English equivalent, but in our cultural context, some people perceive swear words in different languages as less explicit. If the way we use them is the same though, what’s the difference?

  5. says

    I had trouble working through that paragraph for that exact reason, Steve :)

    The point I'd like to draw out is that there are many clear behavioral guidelines throughout Scripture which make up a sort of "Christian culture", but there are also plenty of things that are not clearly defined, and which very from culture to culture regardless of whether or not one is a Christian.

    Generally speaking, what a Christian "acts like" on the east coast is a little different than what a Christian acts like on the west coast. Canadian Christians are a little different than Christians in the United States. Not all of these differences are rooted in Scripture, but they are often rooted in how different regions, cultures, demographics, etc. reflect their interpretation and internalization of Scripture.

    This post is ultimately asking, are "swear words" (which vary in intensity from culture to culture) part of an overarching Christian culture, or something that varies from culture to culture regardless of faith?

    And yes, you do not get people to become like Jesus by becoming like them—but people also don’t have to become exactly like us in order to become like Jesus, if that makes sense?

    Thanks for your comment.

  6. says

    What about the idea that we are to be separate from the world? While we have to be in the world we are not to be 'of' the world. Swearing among other behaviour is considered to be an activity which identifies people regarding who or what they are living for. Many swear words used are sexual connotations among other things. If we believe truly that the power of life and death are in the tongue than we ought to watch how we use that language. This is about Christians having a 'higher standard' and living an honourable life for Christ. I know there are some words used which are only slang, and some are very debatable. I just think we owe it to the Lord as those who live by Kingdom principle to walk worthy of our calling in every way.

  7. says

    I spent the last 10 years in an intentionally missional mode of ministry. I both saw and experimented with different approaches to swearing, among other things. In my experience, the swearing made unbelievers less cautious of Christians but for the same reason it made Christians less compelling.

    If we're talking about the motives of our heart, I think the motives that count most toward contextualization are sincere love and humble confidence in Jesus and His Good News. No one ever came to Christ through me swearing (but a few may have been repelled). I can say that sincere love has had a big impact, though.

    On a related note, not being offended or judgmental about an unbeliever's swearing can be impactful though or being free to quote someone else's swearing (or some other special situation) on a rare occasion may help to show we aren't judgmental while not participating in the attitude of swearing. (It's really hard for me to think of a swear word used that isn't attached to a dismissive, cursing or, at very least, irreverent attitude. Irreverence is an antonym for holiness.)

    That's generally my experience, but I by no means am the absolute authority on the subject. Though, I think examples in context where it has been genuinely helpful would probably be the only thing that would carry weight for me at this point.

  8. says

    words mean stuff.
    they mean stuff different to different people.
    even when people use the same word, they may not be communicating, because of their assumed definitions that do not correlate.

    the attitude in which words are used (colloquially, especially – vs academically) or voiced says more about their meaning than various definitions. in today's neopostmodernistic world of new and individual truths – this is a challenge, so there can not be a checklist of what words are "bad" and what words are "good". words, in and of themselves are neither.

  9. says

    Great point. Not being offended and continuing to listen to what someone is actually saying could have far greater impact than addressing the morality of the language they choose to express themselves.

    If a non-Christian friend posts something on Facebook that uses profanity but expresses a message that you agree with overall, do you like it? Or does "validating their post" (which may deeply express who they are, what they care about, or their worldview) also validate all of the language they used therein?

  10. says

    I follow most of what you're saying here, Liberty, but could you clarify what you mean by "swearing among other behavior is considered to be an activity which identifies people regarding who or what they are living for"?

  11. says

    That's a great question. I have come across and wrestled with that very thing. In most cases I haven't because, in my experience, there is often an attitude the words are paired with that I don't want to affirm or participate with often to as much of a degree I agree with their overall point.

    But it's not beyond the realm of possibility for me. Like if I strongly agreed with what they were getting at and especially if the swear word was used as a filler rather than an expression. Say, if someone I was leading toward Jesus was prone to swear unconsciously in most of their statements and said something about how good God is. I want to support that every time.

    If they were swearing in more of an expressive way and talking about a political issue I didn't care about a great deal, then I would be more likely to not like it.

  12. says

    Ryan Nelson
    After posting that I realized it was probably a bit confusing. I will try to clarify…Even among my unsaved friends, they recognize that there is a difference in how Christians 'present' themselves. When I have entered into circles of conversation among my unsaved friends they would often apologize for use of words which were considered swearing. Whether we want to admit it or not, Christians are regarded as being people who live by a different standard. That doesn't make us better than others; we just demonstrate by our lifestyle, that we operate from a Kingdom mindset.

  13. Peter V says

    Our language and culture marks out certain words as taboo, while accepting other words that have the same meaning. Often the choice of which words are taboo is historically rooted in some class or racial prejudice, where the word used by lower-status people became a taboo word and the synonym used by higher-status people remained acceptable.

    There’s nothing inherently sinful about saying “shit” when saying “poop” would be OK.

    Still, it’s wise to consider how your words will be understood by those who hear: will your words benefit those who listen?

  14. says

    It seems to me that there are two issues here. First of all, perhaps environment should be taken into consideration. If one is in a group of people who might be offended by certain words and phrases, then one should refrain from using them out of respect. Secondly using language to deliberately offend seems to me to be wrong. If one is engaged in an argument I think that profanity simply muddles the discussion. For example, using expletives to deliberately anger an opponent may shock him/her and cause them to lose a train of thought, but that does not win the argument and it muddles what ought to remain clear for the sake of the truth. If I "win" an argument by attacking my opponent personally, or using language that for him/her would be emotionally disturbing, then I haven't really "won" the argument. I have only derailed it by burying it under shocking language (assuming that my opponent is shocked by it)

    Words, verbal or written are just symbols that have no inherent meaning. Meaning exists only when two or more persons agree on their meaning. Using "curse words" against someone who does not speak the language is equivalent to cursing at a rock that has gotten in the way.

    To summarize, it seems to me that intent is the real issue here. If language is intended to cause distress, embarrassment or insult, then it is indeed wrong, both culturally and before God. If someone inadvertently blurts out a string of profanity upon smashing his thumb with a hammer, it seems to me that all he has done is blow of some emotional steam caused by the pain. I may prefer that my three-year old not hear such language, but it seems to me that the profanity, in such cases, really has no meaning beyond an expression of pain.

    In the final analysis, I believe a Christian has a responsibility to be very careful of his/her language simply because the world is watching and looking for us to make just such a slip. The language itself is really meaningless for the most part. The impact it may have on a non-believer's view of Christians and thus Christianity has great meaning.

  15. David Benjamin says

    We are in the world but not of the world.

    The more we are like the world the less we are like Him.

    We are to be like Him to draw the unsaved to Him, for there is no other Name…

    I have been in situations where other people used inappropriate language and I didn’t. Because I didn’t some people stopped while others didn’t. We can’t see other peoples hearts but we know His heart and what He wants from us, uncompromising faith in His ability to use us for His glory.

  16. says

    The environment we grew up in has its own words the convey a corrupt tongue and we all know what they are. Like where I live there are four letter words that a used to convey vile things and in no uncertain terms can they be miss interpreted by the one whom they are addressed to. They are not accepted by society as a whole or the Church. We call them cuss words. I believe this is what James is referring to. They have no use but to cut down or insult another person.

  17. Chris McLeod says

    I think it comes down to whether it hurts or helps the kingdom of God and whether you could have found a different way to make your point just as strongly. One thing I joke with friends about is that my instructors in basic training taught me how tell someone where to “shove it” while still being professional and leaving no chance that someone could argue otherwise. I apply this to many areas of my life also remembering to abstain from appearances of evil. As someone else mentioned, the person you are speaking to may not be offended but what about someone else who happens to overhear you? Your words always have to be weighed very carefully. Think of it like a chess game and be as many moves ahead of your mouth as possible.

  18. says

    It is more important to make one's speech edifying than to attempt to avoid using particular words. If one makes it a practice to use positive speech rather than negative, it will crowd out corrupt speech.

  19. says

    To make a long story short. I became a Christian shortly after being incarcerated, and I mean wholeheartedly, not just a "prison convert.(those who use it to ease their time)" About 8 months later, while witnessing to an inmate, I found myself searching for words. Those words I was looking for, weren't those I'd used for 40 years(a sailor's mouth), but those acceptable by most all people. This wasn't my own doing, but the LORD had effected my language to an extent I personally couldn't believe. I for one, with strong backing, would have to say forgo any wording others may find offensive, in any way !!! :{)))

  20. says

    One thing that wasn’t specifically addressed in this conversation, although alluded to at least once, is the use of God’s name in vain. This is something that has grown out of control, even among believers. “Oh, my God!” Oh, God!” To me, this is a cheap reference to the King of kings and Lord of lords. My question is this … why are we, again as believers, more sensitive to this? While we don’t know the exact pronunciation of YHVH, that doesn’t dismiss us from careful reference to God in conversation?

    Some will say it’s just a cultural response and has no direct tie to God Himself, but from an outsider looking in, it would seem that a believer using God’s name as an expletive would undermine his/her testimony. It brings the name of God down to a level with common words, lacking any honor for Him, His nature, His holiness and His right to be highly exalted.

    To me, when we use the phrase “Oh, my God” we (believers) should be calling upon His name at a time when we need His divine intervention rather than a thoughtless expression with no thought of Him at all.

    One last comment I want to make regarding swearing/expletives … my husband and I are older. But, one thing we’ve noticed throughout the years is that when we meet people or find ourselves in situations with those we’ve never previously known, it isn’t long until they recognize us as believers — not because we walk around with a Bible or quote scripture all day, but because our speech is seasoned with grace and we don’t allow offensive words to cross our lips. I cannot tell you how many times even fellow-believers have suddenly apologized for their use of unsavory words or telling “borderline” stories within earshot. We’re not the kind who live holier-than-thou lifestyles but our conversation and careful choice of words allows the Holy Spirit to bring conviction while we simply exercise disciplines we feel reflect the uniqueness and greatness of our God.

    Just my thoughts …

  21. says

    Ryan Nelson, Why do something to offend some one just to get your point across when you can just as well say it without offending. If what you say is to be non judgmental then James could have said, ""try not to be offended when some one uses corrupt communication, just try to hear their message instead judging the way they said it." I think not.

  22. says

    DrOscar Williams Jr. I think your first comment was in response to my question about affirming what a non-Christian says?

    I think you make a great point, and it really is unfortunate how often Christians expect non-Christians to live up to the same moral values. However, the issue here is not that we are judging them for what they say. Unfortunately, this is a very real situation where Christians working with non-Christians can be judged by Christians for affirming the viewpoints, perspectives, and statements of non-Christians (even if those posts ultimately point to biblical truths) simply because the non-Christian used foul language.

    The question was not "is it okay for those people to use those words", but rather, is it okay for Christians to affirm statements that contain those words.

  23. says

    Your second comment seems to contradict your first, but I think you're talking about James in the context of Christians interacting with Christians?

    I don't think anyone should offend someone to get their point across, and I hope that if you read the post, that was not what you took away from it. The point is that in different contexts, different words are offensive, or not offensive. The question the post asks is, "Are certain words inherently sinful". Your response is based on the premise that yes, some words are inherently wrong. If that's the case, and certain words are wrong for Christians to use regardless of context, then there is no situation where it would be appropriate for a Christian to use them.

    Any situation where your choice of words hurts someone else is inappropriate for a Christian, regardless of the words you use to hurt them.

    The passage in James does not define specific words we cannot use. If anything, James seems to indicate that the fruit of your speech is what determines its appropriateness (James 3:10–11).

  24. Philip says

    This topic sometimes really gets under my skin. I work in the transport industry which can have a lot of swearing much the same as industries like building, construction, plumbing and many other trades.

    I agree with one of the post in regards to it being cultural and does that mean if adultery is part of the culture does that then make adultery right? I don’t think so!! If being homosexual is a cultural thing does that then mean homosexuality becomes okay aswell? Certainly not!!

    I am a person who does swear, not as often as i used to and I’ve always tried to avoid it around other people or older generations who might find it offensive.
    My understanding, of all the verses most people will pull out to say the use of swear words or filthy communication etc etc is clearly not allowed in the bible, is that it is not the word or words you use that makes it wrong or right but the way in which you use it.
    When using it in a derogatory way, a way that puts someone down or belittles them, thats when it is wrong. As mentioned by someone else there are many words that aren’t considered swear words but could be used in a derogatory or deformating way. I am sure there were no F or S words back in the jesus’s day but there would have been other words used to put someone down or belittle them or blow there self worth or confidence away and make them suicidle.
    To hit your thumb with a hammer and say something that expresses your feelings i believe is okay but to hit someone elses thumb and use the same words i don’t think would be right.

  25. Steven Randleas says

    I try to use Colossians 4:6 and James 3:17 as my guide for the words I chose, the effect they may have, and the purpose I intend for all my communications. Whether cuss/sware words are a sin or not when I use the criteria of those 2 scriptures they just never find there way into my conversations… (certainly NOT the case before I met Jesus)

  26. Jeremy says

    Would I cuss? Sure I would. Why not? They are just words. Words are just sounds we make until they are given meaning based on whatever society you live in. It’s society who decides the meaning generally. And in true Jewish thought it’s not the word that’s important but the function or meaning behind it. (remember, the authors were jewish and in their thinking function was central to their mindset)So it isn’t the word that’s bad…it’s the meaning behind it. If I say I F’ing hate that person. Then I’ve sinned. Not because I used the F word but because I had hate for my brother/sister. Wouldn’t matter what words I used, it’s the heart behind it.If I was to say I F’ing love this movie. That is not a sin. Because the function of the word has shifted. It’s no longer seen as unwholesome. (or in the original text the word would be used to describe something that tears down another)

    These words we believe are wrong are only wrong because society picked a few words to say are worse than other words. What happens when society changes? Or if you are in another society that doesn’t believe those words are offensive? Words also change with time. At one point scumbag was worse than the F-word now it’s nothing by today’s beliefs. Words themselves mean nothing…without the function or meaning behind them.That’s what matters. That’s what gives words power. The HEART of the meaning.I would welcome anyone to challenge these statements.

    I know some like to use Col. 3:8 to justify all cussing is bad but actually in the original greek “unwholesome” means Abusive language. Once again it comes down to the jewish mindset of function and meaning.

  27. says

    Liberty Conduit I understand what you are trying to say but we have to understand the context of what it means being "in the world but not of it" That verse is really talking about what's in our heart. What's in the heart is the root of everything we do outwardly. Cussing isn't an issue. It's the context of our words. I can say "I f*cking love you" and the context is true and good. But if I say "I hate you darn it!!" It's just as bad as saying it with a word you may deem more offensive. It isn't the word, it's the context. So, just because you are cussing while talking with non-christian friends that doesn't mean you are "in" the world. It's where your heart is, which kingdom you claim that defines if you are in this world or in God's world.

  28. says

    Christina Morris Words are not good or bad because words need a context. So by creating a sentence you have in fact created context for the words. That's how language works.

  29. says

    My own personal opinion, based on what I know of scripture, is that Christians should try very hard to avoid the use of foul or obscene language. We are trying to reach the lost in a dying world. If we show that we are no different from them by using the same course language that they use, then what is different about us. The person we are witnessing to is likely to conclude that they don't need Jesus because we are already the same. Being Christians we should be different from the non-Christian world. We should stand out as being different. We want people to see what we have that they don't and earnestly desire the greater things of God.

  30. Tony says

    Interesting article. Couple points:

    1) The very title of the article–“Can Christians Swear?”–seems to answer itself. Of course Christians can swear. Anyone with the vocabulary in their toolbox possesses the capacity to swear. Shouldn’t the more appropriate question be, “Should Christians swear?”

    2) You mention that “[m]ost 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.” How do you know? How can you qualify with any degree of empiricism that “these kids” don’t cry when they see something sad, temper their language around certain individuals out of some modicum of respect, or even reach out to stop an injustice when they see it? If you cannot qualify with such authority, then why posit this assumption at all, except as a means of using your religion to further distance yourself from what you perceive to be a foreign culture?

    3) In very general terms, you mentioned reconciling the Gospel with “the social sciences.” It is, indeed, a Herculean feat, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t see you come anywhere near an honest examination of it. Instead of a balanced look at both aspects, you seemed to prefer using “social sciences” (perhaps ethnolinguistics would be a better term here) as a sort of tack board, against which you tried to find a suitable place to pin your own belief system. While useful insofar as establishing where Christianity (or your particular flavor thereof) may fit in the far more nebulous world of language and culture you selected as your backdrop, it doesn’t do the potential for a larger and more enlightening discussion any favors.

    4) The very nature of emotions and language handicaps some of your assertions from the start. It’s all subjective, from how one defines anger to whether or not a given word constitutes as foul language. What one person considers vulgar, another may successfully argue is quite the opposite. The key takeaway is that your assertions in this blog are almost entirely based on a certain set of dictates (i.e., the Bible) which, themselves, are subjective. Or am I mistaken in concluding that there are literally thousands of denominations that subscribe to thousands of varying interpretations?

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