Wayne Grudem on Offensive Language

Note: The following is an email from Wayne Grudem to John Piper, posted with permission. In it, Grudem responds to Piper's explanation of why he sometimes uses offensive language.

John,

I saw on Justin's blog a link to your comments on your use of "strong language" at Passion07. I'm glad you said that now you regret saying it and thankful that you were willing to say this.

I'm not sure if this will be helpful but I've thought of such language as a question of having a reputation for "cleanness" in our speech, as in the rest of life, out of concern for how that reflects on the gospel and on God whom we represent.

A number of different words can denote the same thing but have different connotations, some of them recognized as "unclean" or "offensive" by the culture.

Examples:

  • urination: taking a leak, pee, "p---"
  • defication: poop, "cr--", "sh--"
  • sexual intercourse: sleeping with someone, "f---"
  • rear end: backside, "a--"
Speaking of these things and using different words for them is not contrary to any biblical command (and so it is different from taking the Lord's name in vain, which is explicitly forbidden), but we are also commanded to maintain a reputation for cleanliness:
  • ESV Titus 2:10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.
  • ESV Ephesians 5:4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
  • ESV Ephesians 4:29 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.
  • ESV Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Using the words commonly thought to be offensive in the culture seems to me to be sort of the verbal equivalent of not wearing deodorant and having body odor, or of going around with spilled food on our shirts all the time. Someone might argue that not wearing deodorant or wearing dirty clothes are not morally wrong things in themselves, but my response is that they do give needless offense and cause others to think of us as somewhat impure or unclean. So, I think, does using words commonly thought to be "obscene" or "offensive" or "vulgar" in the culture generally. Plus it encourages others to act in the same way. So in that way it brings reproach on the church and the gospel.

I remember a long time ago you mentioned to me that when you were in jail for Operation Rescue you listened at night to the talk of prisoners in the cell block, and how their talk was just filled with vulgar bathroom language and sex language. It struck me at the time how a person's purity or impurity of speech is often an indicator of purity or impurity of heart. (ESV Matthew 12:34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.)

As for your comment about finding language "as offensive as that" in the Bible, I'm not sure. It's difficult for us to be sure about the connotations of words in an ancient culture. When I was in seminary I remember another student arguing that Paul's use of skubalon in Philippians 3:8 (For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ) was just like using "sh--" today. I thought that sounded right. But later I found that the word has a broader range of meaning and I'm not sure it had the offensive overtones that "sh--" does today in English. (BDAG: useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage [in var. senses, ‘excrement, manure, garbage, kitchen scraps’]). In translating the ESV we rendered that term in Phil. 3:8 as "rubbish," not as a more offensive word. I think that was a good decision.

All this is to say I think you were right to express regret for saying what you said.

Again, out of respect for your time, please don't feel that any response is necessary. I am so thankful for you and for your faithfulness to the Lord.

Wayne

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