Q&A — Minced Oaths

Another question came in using our “Ask a Pastor” button on the top of the sidebar. We are getting several questions coming in using that method, and we hope it helps other readers who may have similar questions. It’s also good for discussion. This one, for example, had many of our pastors stumped as to what they really felt about the question.

Could you address ‘minced’ oaths? (wikipedia)

What makes an exclamation a violation of taking God’s name in vain? Are ‘oh my goodness’, ‘gosh’, ‘darn’ things we ought not say?

 

The Second Commandment and “Minced Oaths.”

minced oath: a euphemistic expression formed by altering a profane or taboo term to reduce the original term’s objectionable characteristics. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minced_oath)

Before we discuss “minced oaths” we should understand that Christians live the 2nd commandment (not misusing God’s name) by praying the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer – hallowed be thy name. God’s name is kept holy “when the word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God also lead holy lives according to it.” Leading a holy life according to God’s Word necessarily entails both using God’s name to pray and ask him for what we need in body and soul, and to listen to what God says so that we may confess it in the face of temptation and false doctrine. The second commandment forbids false doctrine, since it is swearing falsely to say God said something, allowed something or forbids something he didn’t say, allow or forbid.

Trying to do just these things is going to involve a lot of sins. When I was a young warthog (let the viewer understand) my classmates would ask me whether this or that was a sin. They thought I had some special knowledge because my dad was a pastor. So I would bring their questions to my dad, who, after evading my questions with “I don’t know” or “Why did he ask you that?” finally exclaimed, “Don’t we have enough sins in the Ten Commandments to worry about? Do we really need to create more?”

This is a good principle to keep in mind. If I were to go down the line and say which minced oath you should avoid and which you are able to say, I think that I would soon become a real Pharisee who actually believes that you can fulfill God’s command by obeying many rules.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t swear. So let’s make a distinction between actual oaths (swearing) and vulgarity. The most obvious way of breaking the 2nd commandment is by committing perjury. That’s a sin. What is also wrong is to swear only for yourself, which is what Jesus explains in Matt.5:33-37. Once time my mom asked me if I had done something wrong, and it looked like she didn’t believe me, so I said, “No, Mom, I didn’t do it. I swear!” Then my mom slapped my mouth, and said, “Don’t you swear!” I had a good mom. I shouldn’t have done that. I should just let my yes be yes. Whether I said God’s name or not, I was using it. A person swears by something greater than himself, and everything belongs to God (see again Matt.5:33-37). It is God alone who knows the truth of a matter, who has ordained parents and other authorities to find the truth (see fourth and eighth commandments).

Cursing is when a person wishes harm on another person. Using vulgarities (naughty/four letter words) may be used in cursing, but could just be exclamations and foul language. This is a hard distinction for some people to make. They don’t make a distinction between someone wishing harm on another and someone harming himself and others by using filthy language.

So if I say, “I hope he rots.” That is cursing. Who would make him rot? God would, since he rules over everything. But I shouldn’t ask God to curse someone. I should bless and not curse my enemies, as Jesus and his apostles teach us. Love fulfills the law. If I say, “[email protected]#$ you!” That is cursing, whatever it means, because it is a simple desire that someone be punished and hurt, whatever word [email protected]#$ stands for. The worst curse a person can say is “I hate you,” or “Go to hell,” since this is murder (see fifth commandment, Matt. 5:22; 1 John 3:15)

Now, what most people call “swearing” or “cursing” isn’t technically swearing or cursing. It’s blasphemous, dirty, and/or disgusting language. We may divide this into profanity and vulgarity, since Aristotle taught us to use categories, and I kind of like the guy. Profanity is something which “profanes” what is holy and so should refer generally to saying things like “O God!” or “Jesus Christ!” or “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” merely out of excitement or emphasis. No Christian should ever use God’s name in vain like this. His name is precious to us; in it we have salvation and life. It is not something to be used trivially or as an exclamation. That is what heathen and pagans do, not Christians.

Vulgarity is words that are considered by the speakers of a language to be crude. So there are vulgar words for feces, copulation and flatulence (have you noticed how Latin words make these things more acceptable to say? – that’s my plug for Latin; moving on…). Sometimes my students get annoyed when I correct their grammar, asking whether it really matters. Yes, it does matter. Bad grammar generally stems from laziness (unless it’s a part of the dialect). Is bad grammar a sin? Probably not, but laziness is, and laziness is where most vulgarity comes from.

Vulgarity can be potty language or offensive language. One time I was walking by a coffee shop in Lawrence, KS with my wife and four children. There was a man sitting in front of the shop who was using filthy language, even though he saw a young family walking by. This man was contemptible. He had no respect for the dignity of language that we should uphold when we’re teaching our children. He had no respect for his neighbor; nor did he show respect for the beauty of God’s creation. That’s wrong. Christians should respect their neighbors and thank God for his creation. And compared to other vices, it is comparatively easy for a Christian to give up saying a bad word for the sake of his brothers and for beauty and truth.

Vulgarity is especially offensive when it is associated with breaking the first and sixth commandments. Paul says in Ephesians 5:3-5:

“But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

So what about “minced oaths”? First, let’s point out that what people think of as minced oaths usually aren’t oaths. They’re usually vulgarity or profanity “cleaned up,” so that a person can express frustration or excitement without actually saying the word that is offensive or blasphemous (e.g. “Gosh” for “God”). Does God give a law about this? No, I don’t think he does. But he does give us parents and other authorities who do make rules about this, as they should. Parents teach us what is proper, and other authorities remind us of what is decent and good. Most “minced oaths” wouldn’t be acceptable in a church or court of law, although nowadays even some judges might use them, so it isn’t advisable that we should use them.

Growing up I wasn’t allowed to say several words that my friends were allowed to say. It taught me to think about what I’m saying and to separate myself from common people (which is where the word “vulgar” comes from) by honoring my father and my mother, who forbade saying these words. This isn’t to say that I was taught to be snooty or uppity, but that I should be more careful with my speech than the world. Christians value their reputations (A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, Prov. 22:1a) and so should watch what they say, so that their name, together with God’s name that they have from their baptism, might not be held in contempt. You could add to this all sorts of admonitions and examples from the Scriptures on how important it is to watch what we say, and how our words matter.

So what can we conclude about all these things? First, we should listen to God’s pure Word. Not going to Church is more blasphemous than using vulgarity. Not praying is worse than using “minced oaths.” We should swear only for the benefit of our neighbor. We shouldn’t wish harm on anybody or use words that convey insults or harm to that person. We shouldn’t use vulgarity and especially not profanity. In other words, we should love God and our neighbor. It also behooves Christian fathers and mothers to avoid using language around their children that would minimize the importance of speaking cleanly. We should be patient with those who use profanity and vulgarity, and lead by example.

Finally, when we see that we have sinned against God’s Law, we recognize our need for the name that we have misused. And what does a sinner do then? We go to where God’s name is proclaimed. “Our help is the name of the Lord.” “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” “There is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved.” “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,” so let us bow at this name now. It means “the Lord saves,” and he does, with his blood and innocence. He was called every bad name in the book, maligned and insulted in our place, murdered as a criminal, so that our shame might be taken away, so that God might give us his own name and make us his sons, heirs of eternal life. And it is this that opens our lips to declare his praise.

Pr. Mark A. Preus

About Pastor Mark Preus

Mark Preus is pastor of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Campus Center in Laramie, WY. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne with an M.Div. in 2008 and then obtained an M.A. in Classics at the University of KS in 2010. He was ordained at Faith Lutheran Church, Wylie, TX in August of 2010. He has been married to Becky since 2005. God has graciously given them two daughters and five sons. Pr. Preus loves to read and write poetry, especially Lutheran hymns, and talk theology with anybody who has an ear to listen. He also likes coffee too much and tobacco too much, as well as microbrew beer. He can also prove with reasonable certainty that Paul Gerhardt wrote most of his hymns while smoking and drinking beer.

You can find more of Pr. Preus's writings at his blog.

Comments

Q&A — Minced Oaths — 5 Comments

  1. Thanks for including the conversation re “potty” and “vulgar” language – so common among young and old today.

  2. Is saying “gosh, “golly,” or “gee” the same as substituting “Adonai” for the Tetragrammaton?

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