Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Case For (and Against) Christian Swearing

I'll just go right into this one: swear words are not condemned in a single Biblical verse or passage; there is no list of approved or unapproved phrases in Scripture, and the only word Jesus tells us not to use is an abusive one -'raca,' which is sort of like the racist term 'n****r' except that it could be applied to anybody- and Jesus actually uses that one Himself in the middle of commanding us not to use it (Matthew 5.22 ASV). Passage after passage has been used to show that swear words are bad, but those passages only seem to talk about abusive language like the word raca. So, for example, Scripture might disallow phrases like 'F*** you,' because that's abusive language, but 'This is f***ing serious' doesn't seem like the kind of phrase that the Bible would really disallow (except for, when used in the wrong crowd, it causes unnecessary offense - but we'll get to that). The use of swear words actually has some forcefulness to it, such that 'this is really serious' just doesn't have the same punch or meaning to it that its expletive-laced alternative does.

How Swearing Is Like Drinking

In John 2.1-12, St. John the Apostle wrote that Jesus' first miracle was to turn water into wine. That's fine, right? Well, here are some of the details that are less well-known: He made 180 gallons of wine (John 2.6-7). For whom? For a large group of people who were holding a celebration (this is what's called social drinking). Well, you might wonder, could Jesus have made non-alcoholic grape juice? Fat chance. Jesus made the best wine, the kind that people used to get drunk off of at feasts and parties before they started to bring out the cheap stuff (John 2.10). This during a time when, like our day, people sometimes went overboard and become drunks and drunkards (Titus 1.7). While the Bible does emphatically tell us not to get drunk (Ephesians 5.18) it obviously doesn't condemn alcohol in general and neither did Jesus. That said, at one time Christians did preach against the use of alcohol and condemned it as a social evil, and that's created a society where even among non-Christians drinking is seen as something that only irresponsible frat boys do. If a potential employer sees pictures of you on Facebook drinking alcohol, it could keep him from hiring you. My point is that swearing is a lot like drinking, a taboo we've passed onto society which was never part of the Bible's teaching in the first place. Now we've realized where we went wrong but society still expects us to stay away from alcohol and never swear and that creates a sticky situation for us in terms of expressing things.

Swearing and Unnecessary Offense

So keeping all of this in mind, we have to be careful about where and when we use swear words, not because they're wrong to use, but because among some non-Christians swearing will hurt your credibility, and with some it's just another way of talking. So you have to know your crowd. Unfortunately, even some Bible passages would be a little more clear if we could use swears to translate them (see here), but in some settings it's just better to say something along the lines of, 'and here in the Greek, the expression is a bit more forceful.' It's a bit frustrating that popular convention has taken away our ability to use the most forceful and descriptive English words when we really need them, but such is life. Some people will only hear abusive language or ignorance when they hear a swear word thrown about, and while that's partially our fault for giving society that impression in the first place, it's a reality that we have to live with (for now). Swearing might be a really helpful way to express what you mean in a small group with the right crowd, but out in public it could make you seem too crude or ignorant for people to want to hear you tell them about Jesus. We should totally offend people, but only on the necessary things.

Swearing and Necessary Offense

Of course, some people just need to be offended. I've heard popular preacher Mark Driscoll exclaim, from the front of the church, 'who the hell do you think you are?!' towards men who get harsh with their wives. That's not the only time, either. It's a big risk to say that sort of thing in public (which I've been pointing out over the last two sections) but if you know your crowd, the forcefulness of swear words lets everyone know that what you're talking about is no joke. It's f***ing serious. Ultimately, even my 70-year-old protestant female highschool English teacher would tell you that swear words are powerful and should be used for serious matters, though sparingly. These words draw attention to what they're being used for, and when we use them, everybody in the room knows that we are doing something more serious than delivering a few quaint devotional thoughts just so that everybody can go home. Those words are used for their forcefulness and are used to talk about significant things. If we do use swear words in public -despite what I said in the middle of this post- then we should use them for this kind of purpose. St. Paul did that when he described everything as scubalon, or 'a pile of s***' compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (Philippians 3.8, insufficiently translated 'rubbish' in the ESV). That word alone carried the force and the meaning that Paul needed to get across in his letter. And that letter just so happens to be part of our Bibles. The lesson? Use all the words you need to express yourself well - just don't create unnecessary offense in doing so.



P.S. I apologize for all the swearing. Though it's all censored, I know I've walked a pretty fine line with this post. If this is your first trip to The Voice, don't be put off - this isn't the kind of language that is normally used around here. Thanks for reading to the end though.


  1. By the way, what do the rest of you think about swearing?

  2. I think there are categories within this category as well though. For instance Paul did use a scatelogical reference, and a strong one at that, but you will be hard pressed to find him or Jesus (who should be notorious for his use of strong language) using words with sexual implications. Rather Paul says that there should be no hint of sexual impurity and that there should no "filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking" (Eph 5:4). So I think you need to distinguish between strong language and "filthy" language. I think to say "this is F**cking serious" is to use a sexually explicit and course word out of context. I can't see that as being honoring to God.
    I've only been preaching for a couple years, but I have never found a place where a 'swear' word would be any more helpful than plain clear language. I'm a straight forward guy, and I offend a lot of people that way. But I've never felt the use a curse word. A few other words usually suffice with just as much force, minus the unnecessary offense. Lets offend because we are clear on the gospel, not because we say words that even the pagans don't want their kids to say.

  3. I would second what Jon says above regarding the need to distinguish between strong and 'filthy' language.

    Plus you don't necessarily need to swear to get a point across strongly - you can easily do that through tone and the choice of words (not just swear words)

    It's a false dichotomy to compare this to drinking

    In regards to 'scubalon' there is a lot of debate towards the actual meaning of this word. There are better Biblical scholars than Mark Driscoll who say translating it 'pile of sh**' is incorrect.

    If fact, Sean, I think Mark Driscoll is too much of an idol of yours. What works for Mark doesn't mean you should emulate it in ministry (e.g. different contexts and the majority of Canada is nothing like Seattle).

    Even guys like Chandler and Piper agree that MD pushes the boundaries too much.

    If we as Christians swear - how are we any different to that of the culture around us? Be careful not to give believers the licence to sin... even though your intentions are good in trying to reach the culture around us.

    Love you Sean as a brother, enjoy reading your blog (even though I don't comment much)

  4. That is probably correct. The only reason I won't drink alcohol when I am out is if I KNOW someone will be offended. You should not be wearing any outward signs of your faith, but be known by your demeanor, so who would judge you? As for foul language, it isn't forbidden, but is it profitable? It's a bad habit and hard to break without the Holy Spirit.

  5. Hey, everyone. Thanks for the concerns and pushback; I'm just in the middle of something right now but I'll post a couple quick replies here before I go back out the door:


    I think that you and I agree where you said, "Lets offend because we are clear on the gospel, not because we say words that even the pagans don't want their kids to say." I said something similar in the original post. But that's a good point and we need to constantly bring that up - there's no excuse for creating unnecessary offense.

    Also, I get where you're coming from on the use of the F bomb, as opposed to a more scatological term like 'pile of s***', but in popular usage the F bomb is pretty well removed from its original sexually explicit meaning. Shouldn't that be considered?


    Is that you, Nate? Or Sean D? Thanks for the gentleness in your tone man. Still, it's difficult to know exactly how to respond. (1) I agree that we don't normally find situations where swearing is the only option available, or I would swear a lot, which I don't; (2)How is swearing and drinking a false dichotomy? It's important if it's true, but something more than a bare statement would be helpful here; (3) And, there are also better scholars than Mark Driscoll who do think that 's***' is the best translation for scubalon - I wasn't even aware that MD had made that argument before; (4) I'll let your concern stand, even though I've been pretty vocal about some problems I have with Mark Driscoll's ministry; (5) I get the idea of cultural context, and I acknowledged that in the main post: 'you have to know your crowd.'; (6) there are lots of ways for us to be different without being Victorian about it. You won't (hopefully) find an Evangelical Christian casually smoking pot, sleeping with someone they're not married to, dating someone of the same sex, getting wasted and fighting at the bar, or physically intimidating their wives (all of which are normal in at least some non-Christian cultures). If the issue is being different then we already have plenty of things which make us stand out. We don't need to abstain from alcohol, outlaw certain words, homeschool, wear robes, or refrain from dancing in order to make ourselves known. Am I missing what you're trying to say?

  6. You and I have had certain conversations years and years ago about this very same thing. I especially like your comparison between swearing and alcohol consumption. It's a... misconception... to say that we are not allowed to drink. There is nothing in the Word that says that we can't get together at the bar, knock back a couple of cold ones, and go about our business, but rather, the Word is against drunkenness and the abuse of the Spirits... And I can see where you are coming from in saying that the Bible doesn't say, "No, swearing is forbidden," and I do agree that a swear word a form of strong language, with more "Umph!" behind it then a normal word or phrase. For example, when simply saying "No" doesn't seem to get your point across, you may qualify it with "Hell no," and if you are upset or in a bad mood about something, and "upset" simply doesn't define what you are feeling, you may say, "I am pissed (off)!" It gets more of a point across when using that word, and it makes you necessarily offensive...

    As for the F bomb... You are right, it has come a long way from a Sexual connotation. This is one of the most commonly used swears, and still one of the most strongest ones out there. People always turn their heads and look at you funny if you use it... (I know, I have gotten a few stares for using it a while back when I hurt myself kinda badly...) But back to the point, it can stand for utter disgust, anguish, contempt, or any number of things nowadays... Now I am not saying "hey kids, to create some necessary offensiveness today, go drop an F-Bomb!" *insert corny Barney voice here* but simply in a time where we are deafened to non-verbal undertones and subtly hidden hints, more stronger, and necessary offensiveness is needed to reach out... just don't be like Charlie Sheen and go on a swear filled tirade just to get the point across that you are a good *insert profession here.*

    Peace, and Long Life!

  7. Wow, after reading this back, it sounds like I don't know where I am coming from at all... But I hope Sean understand my logic enough to know that I AM actually coming from somewhere, and not way out from Left Field! *FS done messed up!!*

  8. Sure, I guess the F Bomb may be removed from its original connotation in some usages but I can think of many ways that it is still used with its original meaning. I don't think its ever void of sexual connotations.
    But even if it is I think that argument falls flat. because then it is no longer useful to communicate. Sh** might be useful because its a strong word meaning dung, or waste and it gets the point of disgust across strongly. What point does the Fbomb bet across strongly? No point, it merely ads shock factor to what you are saying; and shock that would most likely distract and detract from your point.

  9. 'But even if it is I think that argument falls flat. because then it is no longer useful to communicate.'

    Not necessarily; it could be used, and is used, as an expression of strong reaction to something. I'd say that's the main use actually. By the way, thanks for jumping into this discussion. I know I'm sort of coming back in a 'but what about this' way, but you've made some really good points and I think they deserve to be considered. I'm enjoying the discussion.


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