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
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
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#5: No filthy, foolish or crude speaking
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.
#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?
#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.
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.
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.
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
12:14 and 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.
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
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.
to God in the church by Christ Jesus
Church of Christ