What the #%@&: A look at Profanity and the Christian Life

I began this blog in order to discuss the proclamation of the Gospel, specifically evangelism. Since the way a Christian lives directly impacts the witness that he/she has in the world, though, I feel that adding other information to this blog only adds depth.  Our actions bring credibility to our words and therefore are needed in talking about evangelism.  I am not talking about servant evangelism here, or relation evangelism.  These are topics for future posts.   I am talking about the way we live our life, and project ourselves into the world.

Recently the discussion of how the Christian uses language has come up.  Specifically in regards to profanity.  I am sure all have seen, or heard Christians using this type of language.  Since I recently researched this area of the Christian life, I thought it might be beneficial to post what I found on this subject.

Below is my paper on Profanity:

Profanity:  A Christian Ethical Analysis

According to a 2006 USA today poll, the American culture has experienced a shift in how it views profane language over the past several years (Pope).  Two-thirds of the 1,001 people polled for this article believe that they swear more today than they did 20 years ago.   Of those polled between the ages of 18-34 years old 62% admitted to swearing at least a few times a week, and approximately a quarter of those polled admitted to using the ‘F-word’ on a weekly bases.  One man defended his language by stating that “It has just become part of the culture.”  The evangelical community has not gone untouched by this trend.  A 2003 Barna Research study found that 7% of evangelical Christians believe that using profanity is “morally acceptable.”  Is it possible that they are correct?  Does Scripture speak against the use of profane language and if so, what exactly counts as profane?  Is “cussing” a sin or is it simply poor social etiquette?

In order to answer these questions one must first reach an understanding as to what exactly is considered profane.  The word is most commonly used in regards to foul language, or “cussing”, but that is only a portion of the definition.  Webster’s Dictionary gives two possible definitions of the word profane which both build around the idea to “debase by a wrong, unworthy, or vulgar use.”  The only difference is that one definition is used in a worldly way and the other is used in regards to Holy things.  This definition allows for profanity to include more than simple language or single words.  It allows for actions, intentions and a host of other possible methods of vulgarity.

In the Old Testament (NKJV) the word profane is used 45 separate times in various forms.  It is first used in Lev. 18:21 in a section dealing with a command to not honor the false god Molech.  Doing so would “profane the name of your God.” According to Timothy M. Willis in his commentary on Leviticus the actions profane God’s name for one core reason; “just as the people maintain the distinctiveness of their family units through sexual relations, so they maintain their distinctive relationship with the Lord in other aspects of their lives” (164).  Committing the sexual perversions associated with the worship of this deity allows for the name of the Lord to be dishonored by His people.  John MacArthur also points out that this practice opens a window for foreigners to blaspheme the true God (180).

This word appears again a few verses later in verse 19:8 in regards to the eating of a peace offering on the third day or later.  Doing so would cause one to have “profaned the hallowed offering of the Lord.”  Four verses down this idea is seen again, “And you shall not swear by my name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God” (v19:12).  Each instance of this word throughout the Old (and New) Testament points to a specific action which would cause the name of the Lord, or something that was seen as Holy in His eyes, to be profaned.  The Hebrew word used in each of these verses, חָלַל (chậlal), literally means to stain or to pollute.  The actions associated with this word in Scripture cause the reputation and Holy name of the Lord to be polluted on Earth.

It can be argued that these are in fact actions that profane the Name of the Lord. Of the many times that chậlal is used it is never used in regards to language.  This point will be addressed shortly by looking towards the Greek used in the NT.  Before moving to the NT though Jeremiah 23:15 should be called to attention.  It is here that a different word for profane is used in the Hebrew, חָנֵף (chậnệph), which means to corrupt, defile, or soil in a moral sense.  The prophets of Judah are accused in verse 15 of allowing “profaneness to spread throughout the land.”  There are many examples of actions that can be associated with this profaneness in the prior verses but several sins of language may be seen as well: “they prophesied by Baal” (v.13), “and led my people Israel astray” (v.13) “they…walk in lies” (v.14).  Each of these examples shows how the language was a portion of the profaneness.  Much of this language would never make it on a modern day profane language list, but in God’s eyes it was (is) profane.  Another portion of language that caused this profaneness is the lack of language from the prophets of Jerusalem.  Not only had they turned their teachings away from God, but they had also turned from the job they were called to do.  The role of the prophets in Israel and Judah was to be corrective to the people.  They were to call them into a right relationship with God.  Instead they allowed an unchecked perversion against God to rein and brought punishment upon the people.  Is it possible that Christians can profane the name of God while ignoring current issues today such as abortion, homosexuality, gossip or divorce in the Church?  John M. Bracke offers his insight in his commentary on Jeremiah 1-29:

Jeremiah accuses Judah’s prophets of being voices in support of the status quo, persons who strengthen the hands of those whose practice of social and economic exploitation has led God’s people astray.  Are there faithful prophets among us in the church today who are our conscience and memory, calling us back into relationship with God and to act as agents for God’s justice for the poor? (188)

So how does this all relate to language?  How does one move from actions that profane the name of God into lists of words in 2013 America?  Even the words found in Jeremiah 23:15 had religious connections, and for the most part Christians realize that they shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain or prophesy in the name of another god.  Of course Christians slip but the third commandment is very clear; “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (KJV).  It really doesn’t get any clearer than this.  Don’t swear using God’s name as the swear word.  The question of whether Christians can use other words is where the disagreement arises.  This is the sort of argument that research fellow Jordan J. Ballor used in his article “Potty-Mouthed President”. In his article he states that not only are swear words not spoken against in the Scriptures, they are actually used in Scripture.

Mr. Ballor’s argument in this article centers on the words of Philippians 3:8; “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them dung, that I may gain Christ.”  The Greek word skubalon (skubalợn) in this case is literally translated as “dung” in the NKJV but Mr. Ballor believes that the most immediate and core sense of the word places it as a 4 letter word that begins with an s.  His argument is one of example.  If one can show Paul using profanity then the use of all profanity can be considered acceptable and useful.

John Reumann does not disagree in his commentary of Philippians about the word choice of Paul in v3.8.  John points out, though, that it’s not the word itself that is shocking (although it is shocking) but the thought itself.  It’s the thought of comparing our past life to excretion.  It is something that “once thrown away, is never touched again or even looked at” (492).  A translation handbook for Philippians also agrees with the term used by Paul to describe himself.  He was using a term to show his personal “utter worthlessness and disgust” (Loh; Nida, 100).  Mr. Ballor’s argument seems to be supported and shows that Paul does in fact use profane language in the Bible.  Through his use of the word skubalợn the Bible shows that the use of this profane word is acceptable when it is used against oneself while in comparison with the Holiness of God.  There is no indication in this passage that this can be used to make an argument for using all profane words or even this word in any other context.  Mr. Ballor can rightly compare himself with fecal matter with this verse in mind.

Do other texts allow for the use of foul language then?  Can a list be pieced together using instances such as this?  While keeping in mind the things that God finds profane from the previous study of Leviticus one may turn to other portions of Scripture that address this issue.  Ephesians 5:4 instructs Christians to “let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”  If one were to make a list of all words that are currently considered swear words in America the vast majority would fit into one of these categories.  These jokes or curse words make light of Biblical commands and many times God himself.  Many times the words and jokes laugh at, and bring humor to the very deeds that are said to profane God in Leviticus and other OT books.  In fact, for many people the allure of this shocking speech is what causes them to start using it in the first place.  These words, phrases and jokes are the same ones that Paul refers to as rotten or corrupt in v4.29.  “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that may impart grace to the hearers.”  In Ray Summers commentary on Ephesians he declares that using the foul words in this category is “so vile that they [profane words] are not even to be named as possible practices for believers” (106).  This language seems harsh but when looked at in light of the next two verses one can understand why.  Verse 5 warns that “no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God.”  Verse 6 goes on to say “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”   Dr. George Stoeckhardt points out that the admonition in v.5 speaks to the works of the flesh mention in v.3 and leaves out any possible notion that the unclean speech in v.4 is just being mentioned in passing.  The unclean speech directly links to the actions and to the punishment (228).

James 1:26 challenges Christians to bridle their tongues, 2 Timothy 2:16 commands them to shun profane and vain babblings, 1 Corinthians 15:33 shows that evil communications corrupt good manners.  These verses are not blatant commandments to not use certain language.  They do not give lists of what a Christian can or cannot say.  They do allow the reader to see a picture of what types of language should not be used and how the Christian should conduct themselves in this area.  When looked at together in the context of Scripture all of these verses show one how they should handle their speech in all areas of life.  Too often people search for a verse to directly speak against what they want to do.  When they do not find it they consider it their ‘Christian Liberty’ to do what they want.  In many cases the Bible simply isn’t silent on the subject at hand.  God has not been vague in what he wants done, but he also hasn’t given it in direct list form.   Christians are required to read and apply the principles taught to their lives.  When one does so profane language has no place.

When one takes the time to study Scripture on a subject like this they find out that God has standards that are far greater than anything they can possibly stand up to.  This comes as no surprise to Christians.  Jesus made this all too clear in his teachings in other areas.  The book of Matthew records the Sermon on the Mount which gives several instances such as this.  Jesus tells the people that not only should they not murder, but they also should not hate because God sees that as murder v5.21-22.  He shows the same standards in marriage when he points out that not only should one not commit adultery, but he also shouldn’t look with lust, which is adultery of the heart v5.27-28.    Scripture shows that language is judged in the same way by the Lord.  When this subject comes up many people simply would like a list and to be left alone.  The truth is that it’s not as simple as just having a list.  Christians are to give an account before God for every word they speak (Matt 12:36).  Every word that diminishes the name of God will be judged.  This includes more than the big hitters such as GD and JC.  Every word that diminishes the perfect Law will be judged.  This includes sexual slurs and other items.  Every word that diminishes the creation of God, causes animosity, harms marriages, corrupts children, or laughs at Scriptural truths will be judged.

Most Christians understand that their hope in Christ is secure.  When they are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit, nothing can separate them from His hands.  They can “cuss” and curse and swear without ceasing and never fear the loss of their Salvation.  Would a saved person directed by the Holy Spirit do so though?  Could someone live for Christ and openly enjoy his sin?  One can never know another heart, but Biblical teachings would give reason for concern.

With all of this under consideration the Christian must also consider those around him.  Romans 14:13 teaches “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”  C.E.B. Cranfield describes this situation as one where the strong’s actions may cause the weak to follow along and fall into sin in the process (344).  This is something that should be avoided at almost all costs.  When a Christian swears others around them hear this.  They may fall into sin because of this, or, they may not understand the glory of God because of our stains.  A Christian’s sole purpose is to reach the world for Christ and profane language only hinders that cause.  Christians ought not to speak in this manner.  When profane language is used the image of God is profaned.

Works Cited

Ballor, Jordan J. “Potty-Mouthed President.” Action Institute Power Blog.  25 July 2006. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

The Barna Group. “Morality Continues to Decay” The Barna Group. 3 Nov. 2003 Web 5 Nov. 2013.

Bracke, John M. Jeremiah 1-29. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press,    2000. Print.

Cranfield, C.E.B. Romans: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 1985.

Loh, I-Jin and Eugene A. Nida, A Translators Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. London, New York: United Bible Societies, 1983. Print.

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1997. Print.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10th edition.  “Profane”. Print.

Pope, Steve. “Americans living in Age of Profantiy?”, USA Today, 28 March 2006. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Reumann, John. Philippians. London, England: Yale University, 2008. Print.

Stoeckhardt, Dr. George. Kommentar über den Brief Pauli an die Epheser. St. Louis, Missouri: Concodria Publishing House, 1910. trans. Martin S. Sommer, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1952. Print.

Summers, Ray. Ephesians: Pattern for Christian Living. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1960. Print.

Willis, Timothy M. Leviticus. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, 2009. Print.


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