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This article is not about “minced oaths” . . . words one notch short of common obscenity. Rather, we are concerned about the use of profanity among professing Christians and the damage this does to their character, to their relationship to the Holy Spirit who lives within them, and to their testimonies before the world.
My first exposure to “Christian swearing” occurred a few months before I became a Christian. A friend was witnessing to me, and I must have said something extremely foolish or annoying. Phil interrupted me and said, “Eric, I shouldn’t be saying this, so I’m going to ask forgiveness before I do it and after I do it, but I’ve got to say something.” Then he asked God to forgive him for what he was about to do, angrily said, “That’s bull****!” and then prayed again, apologizing for swearing.
I think most of us have sinned in one way or another through foul language. Whether it’s a curse word formed silently with our lips or a blast of profanity shouted in anger, cursing snares many people. Some stumble quietly and unobserved, while the fall of others is loud and obnoxious. The Bible says, “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man” (James 3:2; all citations NKJV unless otherwise noted). Yet there are very few perfect people among us, and perhaps this inability to “not stumble in word” reveals our need of grace most of all.
We’re not talking about swearing an oath or a promise. By swearing, we mean the use of profanity, obscenity, or coarse language. Not just taking God’s name in vain, but also using profane names for God, Christ, sexuality, excretory functions, or other people. To use biblical terms, swearing includes “corrupt words” (Eph. 4:29), “filthy language” (Col. 3:8, NIV), and “cursing” (James 3:10). You know what it is, whether you speak English, Russian, or another language. The prophet Isaiah, overwhelmed by the holy presence of the Lord of Glory, cried out in lament, “I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).
The canyons of language, culture, and time which separate us from Isaiah are bridged by a common affliction: we also know what it means to have “unclean lips” and to “dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” We live in a nation where rock stars and Oscar winners ridicule our faith, express contempt for holiness, and turn blasphemy into a job description. When the Bible says “fools make a mock at sin” (Prov. 14:9), I immediately think of Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. Bill Maher (Politically Incorrect) comes in third.
So why this article? It’s to draw attention to a problem among some Christians, namely, their justification of foul language. It is one thing to fall into sin unwillingly or to have a bad habit that is difficult to break. It is another thing entirely to embrace it as acceptable or permissible before the Lord.
Some Christians do not “stumble” into profanity against their better judgment (like my friend Phil), but use it freely and then give pseudo-spiritual excuses why it should be permissible. Some real instances that prompted this article:
Common to all of them is the same rap: the Bible’s commandments against filthy speech, cursing, and unwholesome language don’t apply to them, and they have good reasons for swearing. If you should run into this crowd, you should know how to counter these excuses. If you are part of this crowd, this article may be in your hands right now by divine appointment or through a concerned friend. Either way, don’t be taken in by Satan’s raps—printed appropriately in gaudy purple type:
(1) I swear so I can relate to the people on the street. Swearing shows them that I’m “real” or “authentic” and am not putting on any fronts. They feel more comfortable in relating to me.
We are called to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), representing His kingdom and standards. Ambassadors are not truly at liberty to represent themselves or their own “authenticity.” Nowhere in the Bible do we see Jesus Christ using foul language, and when we convey His message and character, we must take care not to degrade it by foul talk.
People expect non-Christians to represent themselves, to look out for their own interests, and to bend down if the pressure or the price is great enough. However, both the world and the Lord expect (and have a right to expect!) different behavior from Christians. The sheep of Jesus have been “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). They follow not just a Shepherd and Savior, but also a Lord and Master. When nonbelievers hear you swear, they are not hearing Christ, they are hearing compromise. “My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?” (James 3:10-11).
(2) I’m avoiding personal hypocrisy by swearing. Since I really think curse words in my mind, it would be hypocrisy for me not to say them with my mouth. If I spoke “religious” and didn’t swear, I would be a hypocrite, which is a sin according to the Bible.
Hypocrisy is indeed a sin, but so is cursing (Psa. 10:7, Rom. 3:13-15). Yes, hypocrisy is a species of deception, because though we appear clean on the outside (“whitewashed sepulchers”), inside we are full of corruption and sin. Since Christ calls us to be holy and pure both inside and outside, we are guilty of sin if we only do a halfway job. If you swear in order to avoid the sin of hypocrisy, you are not avoiding one sin but are actually committing a double sin, since you have trespassed in both thought and word together. And it’s worse than that: you have not only polluted your own mind and mouth, but polluted the mind of the listener as well. Open swearing does not help you avoid hypocrisy, it only multiplies your sin.
Bear in mind that temptation to sin is not the same as sinning. While one might be tempted to use profanity, even to the point where Satan suggests exactly what to say (and do), the thought itself is not a sin. You have not already sinned simply because evil came and presented itself to you in all its four-letter shamelessness. You sin when you embrace the temptation and choose to follow it into trespass.
The problem of hypocrisy isn’t solved by allowing your thoughts (which, as we said, are just temptations at the first stage) to be expressed in filthy speech. Rather, we solve the problem by coming to Christ to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). The Lord knows this will not be easy for some people, and we must daily seek Him for transformation and renewal.
(3) I swear in order to break a “religious spirit” of pretense. People have been indoctrinated into the “externals” of Christianity by an outward show, and swearing disrupts their stereotype of a Christian “image.” I want to show that Christians don’t have to fit a particular mold.
This is a variation on #1, above. The solution to pretense is purity. Truly, Christianity is not merely externals or an outward show of righteousness. It starts with an inward rebirth by which our mind is made new and our heart purified, but it continues in the process of sanctification. After the renewing of our minds, we can subsequently demonstrate (prove, exhibit, display) the perfect will of God before a sinful world (Rom. 12:2).
It is true that swearing disrupts the stereotype of a Christian image. Every act of open sin or faithlessness disrupts what people have come to expect of Christians. Our goal as Christians should be to be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29), and thus Christians do have to match a certain picture if they are to be Christlike. In some cases, our attempt to break the Christian “image” is actually counter to God’s design that we conform to the image of His Son.
(4) It’s okay for me to swear because I’ve been under special pressure, suffering, or persecution.
This is one of the excuses used by Gene Scott, a false teacher now notorious for television broadcasts which showed him seated in a barber chair in a feathered fedora, smoking cigars, using vulgar language and spouting strange doctrines while demanding that his listeners send him money. Scott once said that he never used to swear until he began his legal battles with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which wanted to inquire into his financial status. (Scott also told audiences that when they donated to his ministry, it was not their concern if he took the money and dumped it into the ocean. If they were “really” giving as unto the Lord, he claimed they shouldn’t look back to see how he was spending it. I can just hear the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live saying, “How conve-e-enient.”)
Though Scott is an extreme case, he illustrates a common excuse: “If I am under pressure from my work/school/family/government/etc., I have a valid reason to swear to express my frustration and pain.” This misses the point. One’s suffering, from whatever the cause, may indeed be the true reason someone began using profanity (or began using it more often). However, an explanation is not an excuse, and identifying the cause of someone’s outbursts does not imply sanction or consent for their behavior. In other words, knowing the cause of an action doesn’t mean the action is lawful.
When the apostle Peter was caught in the temple courtyard after the arrest of Jesus, “he began to curse and swear” (Mark 14:71) in a lame attempt to deny that he was one of Jesus’ followers. In fear for his life, Peter would curse, lie, and deny his best friend. But no amount of pressure really made his actions legitimate.
Many people say, “I wouldn’t swear if you didn’t provoke me to do it,” as if other people were to blame for their loss of temper. This doesn’t mean that other people don’t make life difficult for us sometimes. The book of Proverbs vividly describes the contentious wife, the noisy friend, and the perpetual tease who incite trouble. Though others may provoke us, we are responsible not to react in sinful ways, regardless of how they may provoke or terrify us.
(5) These words aren’t really bad anyway. Words don’t mean anything in themselves except what we think they mean. All words are neutral sounds which mean different things depending on the language and culture of the listener. If I curse in Japanese, you won’t be offended if you don’t understand the language. I’m not letting society tell me which words are “good” and “bad,” and I don’t think these words are “bad.”
This pseudointellectual argument might appeal to some people, but its major fallacy is that it leaves God out of the equation.
First, words do mean something to God. Jesus said that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34), which clearly implies that our speech will display our heart condition. If that wasn’t enough, Christ reinforces it more strongly: “Every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37).
Our words can convey truth or falsehood, love or hatred, blessing or cursing. Even on the natural level, people are held accountable for perjury, false advertising, or failure to fulfill verbal agreements. The phone-sex business wouldn’t be a multimillion dollar industry if words didn’t really convey anything meaningful.
Second, we can grant that terms can convey different meanings depending on the culture, and that meanings can change over time. For instance, zounds is considered an archaic interjection of surprise and no longer conveys its origin as a contraction of “God’s wounds” (referring to the blood of Christ). However, most profanity of four hundred years ago remains profanity today, and the fact that some youth or ethnic subcultures use the N-word or the F-word without shame doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning of these words has now changed. You’ll find those very same subcultures refraining from those terms or apologizing for them around priests or obvious members of the clergy. They know the difference between “golly” and “[expletive deleted]”, even if some people don’t admit there is one.
Third, the fact that I’m not offended by a curse word in another language has no bearing on the matter. For example, some people will replace an English obscenity with a German or European obscenity that means the same thing. Since Americans aren’t sensitive to foreign swear words, they think it’s no real problem.
However, God knows every language that has ever existed, and someone’s ability to conceal an insult from me in no way justifies his action before God, who sees and knows every hidden sin and thought. “I know the things that come into your mind, every one of them,” says the Lord (Ezek. 11:5 KJV). Whether I understand obscenities spoken in another language is beside the point. The point is, both the speaker and the Lord understand what is said, however cleverly it might be disguised from me; and we are accountable for all our words.
(6) The Bible doesn’t really prohibit “bad” words—it only speaks against slander, blaspheming God, or unbelief. The commandment not to take God’s name in vain only means not to make false vows.
The Bible’s teaching about the misuse of the tongue is actually much broader than just slander and blasphemy. Certainly, the Bible warns against these sins. Yet it also provides general principles for us to follow.
Our goal should be to let the Bible inform our speech and conversation. In other words, Christians should read the Bible to determine first how it addresses the use of the tongue, and in what manner we should converse with one another, and then seek to follow its model. We should not ask how we can find biblical verses to justify what we’re already doing.
On the one hand, we are given negative examples to avoid. Christians are to lay aside “evil speaking” because “he who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Peter 2:1, 3:10, quoting Ps. 34:12-16). We are to shun “profane” and vain babblings (2 Tim. 2:16).
On the other hand, there are positive examples of the mark for Christians to reach. Timothy was to “set an example for the believers in speech, in life . . . and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12 NIV). Church leaders are to be “sober-minded, just, holy, and temperate.” Christians must “speak evil of no one,” but be “gentle, showing all humility to all men,” displaying “sound speech that cannot be condemned, [so] that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of us” (Titus 1:8, 3:2, 2:8). Furthermore, we are told, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29-30).
I think the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain (Ex. 20:7, Deut. 5:11) encompasses not just false oaths and the blaspemous “God” curses among worldly people, but also the “Christ” curses. Years ago Christian artist Barry McGuire pointed out that Satan seeks to degrade the name of Jesus, dragging it into the mud, and so has turned Jesus’ name into a worldwide term of cursing. Even in India when people swear they curse by the name of Jesus—our God, not theirs. Hindus don’t say “Oh, Krishna” or “Oh, Buddha” when they swear: they curse using the name of Jesus Christ. Barry saw it as an ironic testimony to the truth of Christianity and the reality of the spiritual conflict it represents. If Jesus was just another religious prophet, why would other countries and even other religions use His name in their words of profanity?
(7) I can use certain words if they’re listed in the Bible. Are you saying the Holy Bible is wrong to use words like piss, whore, and bastard? Besides, if I’m calling her a whore, it’s because she really is, and aren’t we supposed to tell the truth?
This excuse sinks pretty low, and if I hadn’t heard it said by unspiritual people, I wouldn’t bother to recite it. Yes, those words do appear in the King James Version of the Bible. However, I don’t believe it’s proper to use such language under most circumstances. We did note earlier (see objection #5) that words can change their meaning or connotation over time, and this is one of those instances. In the nearly four hundred years since the publication of the KJV, some words used then have become vulgar in our time and thus should be avoided.
Here, the connotation has changed. For example, bastard and illegitimate both denote one born out of wedlock. While the denotation is the same, we need to recognize that the former term is more crass than the second.
“Telling the truth” or “telling it like it is” should not become a rationale for rudeness. No doubt, Christians should have the candor to call a spade a spade, but they should not choose terms which also convey intolerance, bigotry, or reactionary hatred—which is why “whore” is unacceptable today, regardless of its usage in the A.D. 1611 version of the King James Bible.
Can the same be said for hell and damn? It hardly needs to be argued that these words are used far more as curse words than in theological discourse. Taken outside their biblical setting, they are “curses” in the literal sense, whether spoken with emotion or with carelessness monotony. In either case, I submit that Christians should avoid using these words except in a biblical context.
What about pseudo-swearing?
This occurs when Christians take a well-known obscene phrase and remove the bad word but keep the phrase, so the listener will be able to bring to mind the original obscenity. An example would be “when the yogurt hits the fan”; probably no American has to be told that the original word was not “yogurt.”
Let me be frank: I have friends who talk this way, and some members of my own church talk this way. I think this is skating on thin ice, and it’s not becoming of Christian commitment. If your purpose is to bring an obscene phrase to the mind of the listener, while technically saying nothing obscene yourself, you need to check your motives with the Holy Spirit. Twice. Ugly language grieves Him (Eph. 4:29-31).
Christians are not immune from stumbling themselves or others by loose habits of speaking. It may occur with vulgar words or in other ways. I know of a much-loved minister who cannot resist making sexual or scatalogical innuendos in private conversation, even though “technically” he has never said anything obscene. At some point, he needs to be reminded that “coarse joking” is out of place in the life of the believer (Eph. 5:4, NIV). Not knowing what he’s doing, he loses more esteem by his off-color remarks than he gains from having a new joke to tell.
Our point was summarized long ago in James 1:26: “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.” Swearing does not show “realness” or gutsy emotion. Rather, it betrays a flaw in our ability to communicate sensitively and tastefully, not unlike the woman who dumps four spoonsful of sugar in her coffee and imagines she really likes coffee. She likes the buzz, not the coffee. 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).