Words Matter: Recovering Godly Speech in a Culture of Profanity

"The use of vulgar language is not only a serious problem in the post-christian culture of the UK, however. The problem faces us right here in America. Tristan Hopper, in a 2014 National Post online article on swearing, writes that 'cussing, it seems, has become very much main stream.'"

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Bert Perry's picture

While I agree that avoiding "Anglo-Saxon" verbiage can be a great idea, it's worth noting that it only became a big deal after the Battle of Hastings in 1066--French words became acceptable, Anglo-Saxon not so much.  Hence it's not the central point of what Ephesians 4& 5 are getting at, as far as I can tell.  Historically it simply happened too late.

As far as I can tell, the big things are personal attacks, lies, and the like--and our current culture's love of Anglo-Saxon is notably often in response to the frustration that these verbal techniques lead to.  So I'd view Anglo-Saxon verbiage as a symptom, but not the disease, for the most part.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dean Taylor's picture

I thought about this issue related to Christians when I was preaching through Colossians 3 a few years ago. Verse 8 instructs believers, who are "raised with Christ" (v. 1) and who should "set their minds on things above" (v. 2), to "put off . . . anger, wrath,  malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth" (v. 8). 

"Filthy language" (NKJV) is aischrologia, disgraceful speech. 

I came up with three categories related to profanity and vulgarity. I can't remember if I found these categories in a source, or if they're original, so if anyone recognizes them, I'm happy to give credit where it's due. For what it's worth and to advance discussion:

  • Sexual words - F bombs, associated body parts, and related words. 
  • Scatalogical words - referring to defecation and associated body parts
  • Sacred words - terms related to divine prerogatives. "Damn" and "hell" belong to the realm of the sacred. Only God has the right to condemn ('damn") someone. Using these terms in common language or to verbally attack someone makes them profane - the opposite of sacred. Profanity is using a sacred term in a common way. 

I think the last category is fairly clear. Sacred words are preserved in Scripture and do not change over time. In the other two categories, it seems that the offensiveness of some of the words, at least, changes with time and culture. For example, words in category two that are objectionable in some times and cultures (or to some of our Moms when we were growing up!) are not in others. (Why is it ok to say "bum" and "poo" but not . . . )

Two key factors in my mind, especially related to the first two categories:

  • Is the term considered offensive, vulgar, obscene by current society at large?  Not that Christians are guided by the world's standards, but one clear reflection of this criterion is movie/tv ratings and the codes used (L=language).
  • Is the term being used to attack someone? This relates to "blasphemy" in v. 8. 

There does seem to be a growing use and acceptance in society of vulgarity and profanity. I've been amazed at the topics and terms that have surfaced in presidential debates, news items, etc. in the past year. Our kids are being exposed to it in everyday life. I think it is good to address it in family and church settings and explain what "disgraceful speech" is and what a Christian's practice should be. 


josh p's picture

I am still surprised when I hear Christians swearing. Not the occasional word but using foul language in common conversation. The f-bomb still seems to be off the table but almost everything else seems to be fair game with some believers. I always wonder how they justify that.