In episode 97, we focused on cussing, and it was one of the most-played episodes of 2013 — over 30,000 plays to date. Cussing is a big issue in life and increasingly in the church. Recently Philip Yancey, a bestselling author, read several memoirs and non-fiction books written by authors he called “hipster Christians.” At the end of his experiment, he said the common “essential ingredient” in all of the books he read by these so-called Christian hipsters is the presence of cussing — words forbidden by the FCC from being broadcast on network television.
This is not new, of course. Back in 2009, Derek Webb released a song about the AIDS epidemic with the s-word in it. It was bait, to get Christians angry about the cuss word. The conversation can get spun around to ask, “Well, what makes Christians more angry: a four-letter word from a Christian artist or 50,000 people dying of AIDS every day?”
Now, AIDS obviously is a massive tragedy, but the language raises a legitimate question. Pastor John, as someone who aims to provoke people with strong language yourself, is it ever appropriate for a Christian to use cuss words in sermons, books, music albums, or online in order to provoke others toward what appears to be a noble and good end? Is this a new phenomenon in the church?
To Provoke, or Not to Provoke?
No, it is not a new technique to use crude or offensive language to upset an audience and then to spank them that they are more upset by the language than the injustice that was being lamented. Tony Compalo did this forty years ago. I remember it. I felt then, and I feel now, that it is manipulative. I don’t like it.
When talking with those who think it is a good idea, you could ask this: “Would you approve of addressing a crowd of liberal-leaning Christians by referring to the sinfulness of being a practicing fag or queer?” Then, when they get really furious over that language, which they should, you say, “See, you are much more worried about being politically correct than you are about the fact that this really is a sin that sends people to hell.”
In other words, you turn things around, and they realize, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t assume that provoking an audience with really inappropriate language is a good way forward.” I think, frankly, that the use of that language for those who struggle with homosexuality is utterly out of place and unnecessarily demeaning. I would say the same thing about the s-word and the f-word in trying to provoke conservatives, to see if they are more upset about language than some calamity that you happen to be talking about.
Back to the Book
Let me step back. I think it is going to be more helpful to just step back and see how the New Testament addresses the issue of offensive language, because it really does address it significantly. Here are four passages of Scripture, and what I am going to look for are some commonalities in these four texts that point us to principles of how to think about this.
“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.” (Ephesians 4:29)
“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:4)
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” (Colossians 3:8)
When Paul is talking about love, interestingly he says, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant” (1 Corinthians 13:4). The next verse, the old King James Version puts this way: “[Love does] not behave itself unseemly” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Now, here is what is interesting about those passages. In none of them is language condemned because it is against a particular law. Notice the categories: corrupting talk, filthiness, obscene talk, and rudeness or unseemly behavior. If you can read Greek, every one of those phrases, all four of them — corrupting talk, filthiness, obscene talk, rudeness — all are built on the same Greek stem: iscrates, iscrates, iscrolagean, iscromena.
“Does it build up in faith? Does it build a passion for Christ? Does it give grace to those who hear?”
This isc- root is a root that isn’t built on a list of acceptable words and unacceptable words. Paul isn’t saying, “Oh, the way we live our lives is that there are some God-approved, acceptable words and some God-approved, unacceptable words.” Well, there aren’t. I don’t think that is the case. I looked it up in the major Greek lexicon: “Behavior that flouts [disregards] social and moral standards; shamefulness; obscenity.”
So instead, the issue is, Are we transgressing or fighting against certain social norms as Christians? Then we ask, Is it good for upbuilding? Is it good in that it fits the occasion? Is it giving grace? This is the cultural norm that we should be striving for: upbuilding, giving grace to those who hear.
A huge part of Christian ethics, including language, is not derived from finding a list of God-approved words and God-unapproved words. There is no such list. Most of our behavior, including our language, revolves around this: Does it build up in faith? Does it build a passion for Christ? Does it give grace to those who hear? Our vocabulary is a testimony to this way of thinking about language.
Think of dozens of words that have been created and adapted to express what is fitting — not what is wrong, but what is fitting. Here is a list. I just thought of a few:
Disgraceful, dishonorable, indecent, indelicate, offensive, hurtful, unkind, dirty, salacious, scandalous, shameful, reprehensible, impolite, crude, lewd, licentious, unsuitable, improper.
Isn’t it amazing that the English language has words like that in it? What do those words mean? Those words don’t have anything to do with the question, “Oh, where is my list? You know, where is my list of actions or attitudes or words that I can say?” Those words aren’t about lists. Those words are about the creation of a culture, the maintenance of a culture, and Christians should be striving to create and maintain a Christ-permeated culture.
The question I would urge you to ask yourself is this: Have you let the texts — the ones that I referred to up there — sufficiently inform the kind of Christian culture that you would like to cultivate in your children, in the church, in the workplace? My guess is that the people that are playing fast and loose with what is offensive, in using obscene or offensive language, would do well to rethink their habits.