Using Foul Language in a Fair Way
My mother is one of those sweet, saintly women who is regarded as such by everyone she meets. You know the kind. Growing up she seemed to have eternal patience and rarely spoke an unkind word. She is truly a wonderful woman. So wonderful, in fact, that she has given me permission to tell the following story. I say that she rarely spoke an unkind word, because I remember an instance when she did. As patient as she was, no one on earth could test her patience the way my sister could. Riding in the car one day, my teenage sister was complaining about something, and my mother, having reached her limit, stopped the car, turned around, and shouted “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to slap the crap out of you!” My jaw dropped. I was in shock — not really because of my mother’s anger, but because she used the word “crap”. I had never heard my mom use the word before (and, as it has turned out, I’ve never heard her use it since). That word was simply never used in our house. My nine-year-old ears could not believe what they heard. After I decided that I heard her correctly, I began to feel ashamed of my mother (even though she only said it in front of my other siblings), and I was seriously worried that God was going to punish her for it. Even into adulthood, in some back-of-the-mind sort of way, I think I carried with me the notion that the word “crap” is a word that has no place in a proper Christian’s vocabulary (though I eased up on the idea that God would severely punish you for using it). I think I can even say that I considered any use of foul language to be a sin. Now, I don’t exactly remember when I changed my view, but I remember when it was solidified.
Probably ten years ago now, I watched a documentary on the making of the movie, Shawshank Redemption. The documentary revealed that the movie was filmed in the then-and-now-defunct Ohio State Reformatory, a prison which has the reputation of being one of the harshest in American history. One of the former prisoners from the prison was interviewed, and he was asked to sum up what it was like living there. He paused for a moment, put his head down, and then looked up at the camera with pain in his eyes, and said, “You were f***ed.” Right then, it occurred to me that that one simple phrase captured the entirety of his experience in a way that another phrase could not. That phrase has so many connotations, and he clearly meant every one of them. It wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if he said, “It was awful. The prisoners would rape you and the guards would beat you.” That one phrase said it all at once and said it better.
I’d like to look at four arguments that I have heard over the years for why people should never use foul language and then debunk each of them. I think that the last one I’ll discuss has the most merit but still misses the mark. There are certainly sinful uses of foul language, but I don’t think any and every use of it is. In fact, in some cases, using foul language can even be mildly virtuous. Also, I want to make it clear that what I’m addressing here is vulgarity/base language/foul language, and not cursing or swearing, properly understood. Unfortunately, the terms ‘cursing’ and ‘swearing’ are often used to describe vulgarity, but it’s important — whatever terms we use — to at least keep the concepts distinct. Cursing involves invoking a divine curse on a person, expressing your true desire that they suffer divine punishment. Swearing involves promising or declaring something on the greatness of the divine name — even if it is only implied. Distinguishing between vulgarity and swearing/cursing is a difficult thing for some, but they are truly different things. Cursing necessarily involves harm, which is not necessary in the case of foul language. I mean to address the latter and not the former. For a helpful discussion on swearing and cursing, see Pr. Mark Preus’ post on “Minced Oaths“.
The Bible Tells Me So
The first argument goes, rather simply, that the Bible says that we shouldn’t use foul language. What counts as foul language? Here the argument depends upon the notion that there is an agreed-upon list of bad words. Of course, the list isn’t as agreed upon as many would like to think. For example, “crap” made the list in our house, but it didn’t make conservative Evangelical preacher, Chuck Swindoll’s. The verse that’s usually pointed trumped out is Ephesians 4:29, which in the KJV reads: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth but that which is good to the use of edifying that it may minister grace to the hearers”.
The KJV contains an unfortunate translation of this verse. The way it is translated implies that there is something inherently corrupt about the words used. But Paul is quite clearly not talking about words which are themselves inherently corrupt but instead words which do the corrupting of others. Many versions translate it the same as the KJV (NIV, NRSV, RSV, NASB to name a few). Quite ironically, however, they don’t translate the second half of the verse in the same way. They all say – in effect – “that which is good for edifying”. Now if they were consistent with the first part of the translation they would translate it as “edifying words” or something similar, which would imply that there are words that are inherently edifying instead of words which have to be used in edifying ways. No one is edified simply by saying lots of Christian-associated words like “grace” “God” or “Jesus” (Perhaps you’ve seen those green and white bumper stickers which simply say “JESUS”. I always think, ‘Yeah, what about him?’ It makes him look like he’s running for office or something). None of these words are not inherently edifying, they have to be used that way. We seem to understand this when it comes to encouraging someone, but somehow we don’t think the same about discouraging or “bad” words. Here, we have a list. And the mere mention of a word from that list at any time, according to many Christians, is tantamount to corruption. Why? Well, they’re just bad words and your not supposed to say them. Is there any biblical support for this? Of course! Ephesians 4:29. And so the circle continues…
Thankfully, the ESV gets it right. Rather than “corrupt talk”, the translation reads: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” This translation discourages the reading that there are words which are inherently corrupt. The words are not spoken of as being corrupt in themselves, rather to qualify they have to corrupt somebody. Paul’s point is: Don’t use words to harm others, not: Don’t use “harm” words (i.e. words from the naughty list). The difference (again) is between using words which are already corrupt vs. using words for the purpose of corrupting. How we decide what words these are depends on the effect they have on the listener not whether or not they are on an arbitrary, predecided list of words.
Understanding Ephesians 4:29 this way doesn’t support the idea of the list. It means that vulgar words like any other words can be used for harm or for edification. Suppose I am caught in a real bout of spiritual despair and am not putting faith in Christ but dwelling on my failures (a form of self-righteousness in its own right) and a fellow believer sees me in this state and says, “Damn it, John, quit trusting in yourself and look to Christ. What the hell can overcome the new life you have in Christ?” Are these not words which edify? Perhaps I have been shaken by the seriousness of his/her plea through the use of strong language in a way that I might not have without these words. Since I was not corrupted by what was said, but was encouraged to flee in faith to Christ, then what was said (vulgarity and all) qualifies as “words which are useful for edifying” and not “corrupting talk”.
Children Set the Standard
Another argument I hear from time to time against using foul language goes like this: “If you wouldn’t want your children saying those words, then you shouldn’t use them either.” This objection is more easily dealt with. There are a lot of things I do that I don’t want my kids to do, and this is not a double standard. I don’t want my ten-month-old daughter behind the wheel of a car; I don’t want her using a razor blade; I don’t want her crossing the street. The reason is not because I think there is something inherently wrong with these things, but because I don’t think she’s mature enough to know how to handle these situations. The same goes for vulgarity. Children lack good judgment on when and how to use those words, and until they possess the proper judgment, I don’t want them using them at all. This is precisely what I tell my daughter. While I don’t use much foul language around her, it is only because I don’t want her to naturally absorb that vocabulary and then use it without discretion, not because I think that there is something wrong or hypocritical with doing something that I don’t want her to do.
A Weak Vocabulary
The last argument that I’ll address is one that doesn’t really raise the issue of morality as much as it does tastefulness. Numerous times people have said that using foul language is a substitute for a poor vocabulary and is an indication of an ignorant person. The idea is that if someone was clever enough they wouldn’t need to use those words. I’m sure this is true in some cases. The person who seems not to know any other adjective besides “f-ing” could probably benefit from receiving dictionary.com‘s Word of the Day in their email. But in the case of people who use them occasionally, the opposite can be said as well. These words can enhance your vocabulary. They can be effective means of communication at times when no other words seem to quite capture the idea (such as in the case of the prisoner I referenced above). Sure, the claim can still be made that a really clever person could find a way to convey the same idea without using these words, but, of course, we could say the same about any word. Does someone really need to use the word “gregarious”? Couldn’t a really clever person find a way to convey his same idea without using the word “gregarious”? Sure. But why be handicapped if you don’t have to? Why insist on fewer vocabulary choices over more. Vocabulary choice is part of what makes language so rich and so powerful. Besides, I don’t think a clever person would find a way to say things without using foul language. He/she would find a clever way to use foul language.
A Hindrance to Evangelism
The final argument goes like this: Using foul language is a poor example to unbelievers, and as such, it can keep them from the gospel. I have heard this argument more than any other. I actually think this is the strongest objection. For one, it doesn’t insist that there is actually anything wrong with these words. And it doesn’t suggest that Scripture is necessarily against their use altogether. It says that if you use them then unbelievers won’t take your Christianity very seriously. There’s some truth to this.
Arguments like this are also offered against drinking alcohol, smoking cigars, driving expensive cars, living in expensive homes, even voting Republican or Democrat. Do these things and people won’t take your Christianity seriously, or they’ll think you’ve done something a Christian shouldn’t do and this will keep them from the gospel. Sometimes unbelievers might find it unfitting for a Christian to do things that they are under obligation to do. Probably the most common criticism of Christian behavior that unbelievers make involves the claim that Christians shouldn’t ever pass judgment on sin because, after all, the Bible says: “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Christians who call certain actions “sin” are considered to be hypocritical and doing something a Christian shouldn’t do.
But this accusation is based on a misreading of Scripture. So what do we do about that? Should we cater to those who think it’s wrong to say that a sinful behavior is sinful? Should we play within their rules and not do as God has commanded because they think we are being a poor Christian example? Of course, not. We can’t let that misunderstanding control our actions. We have to show them that they are misunderstanding what Christian behavior looks like. In the same way, I can’t let my language be controlled by a misunderstanding that someone has about whether a Christian is permitted to use strong language or whether a Christian is a poor witness for Christ if they vote Republican, etc. We must kindly and gently correct the misunderstanding rather than act within the false parameters that it sets.
I have had unbelievers comment that I shouldn’t drink because I’m a Christian. When I ask them where they got that idea, they reply that that’s what other Christians have said. But Christ doesn’t call me to act according to what other Christians say is the right way for a Christian to act. Rather, I am to act according to what his word says. Likewise, it is misinformed Christians who are behind the idea that Christians should never use a word from the “list”. Unbelievers accept the idea without examining it in light of Scripture, and just take it on the word of Christians who say that we should never use this kind of strong language.
If an unbeliever tells me that I’m no different than he/she is because I use vulgarity just like he/she does, my response is: no, I don’t use vulgarity just like you do. I seek to use these words in a way that conforms to God’s word. Yes, there are wrong and sinful uses of these words, but just as many in Scripture used strong language, sometimes it is appropriate for me to use it. No where does the Bible say that we should never use these words. It teaches that we are to use words carefully whatever they may be. The accusation gives me the opportunity to briefly share what Scripture actually does say. I find this far more fruitful than reinforcing the misunderstanding that the unbeliever has by simply catering to it. Catering to the unbeliever’s misunderstanding only reinforces that the misunderstanding is accurate.
Furthermore, I think it is probably true that for every unbeliever who is put off by a Christian using vulgarity, there is at least one who begins to see that Christianity isn’t so restrictive after all. There is freedom in this area, and I think it is positive for Christianity to communicate this to unbelievers.
How We Should Use Foul Language
The primary point I wish to make is that vulgarity is simply one part of strong language in general (phrases such as “shut up”, “I hate you”, “I love you”, “will you marry me?”, etc.). Words that are called ‘foul language’ should really be thought of as powerful words, not forbidden words. This means we should exercise care in how and when we use these words, just as we should use care in how we use all strong language (and to a lesser degree, words in general). There are sinful ways to use these words, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that any use of them is sinful.
I haven’t gotten into the issue of the motives of one’s heart. Motivation is really a separate issue which can make anything you do wrong — from eating a sandwich to preaching a sermon. But with regard to the question of whether using foul language is inherently wrong, I cannot find a reason to think so. In fact, it may be in certain contexts entirely virtuous.
Martin Luther was known to use foul language when he spoke of sin and the Devil. This is entirely appropriate. What other words should we use to describe the foulest things than the foulest words we have available? If ever there was a purpose for using foul language, speaking to the Devil is it (as you probably know, some of our curse words — and also the very word “curse” — originated as religious pronouncements such as “damn”and “hell”). Perhaps you may be treating the Devil a little too politely. He deserves to hear foul language, and because of Christ you deserve to say it to him. Here’s a bit of a primer from Luther to get you started: “But if [the merit of Christ] is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite’ (Luther quoted in Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil , p. 107).
I would like to address the matter of what Luther says about improper language and cursing in the Small Catechism, but we’ll have to save that for the comments.