A podcast listener named Sam writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I enjoyed your episode on cussing [which was episode #97 — a very popular episode]. It was an excellent biblical presentation. My question is how some Christians, even preachers, use what appear to be offensive words. My heart is broken when I hear words from the pulpit such as [and I’ll read them] shoot, crud, dang, crap, friggin’, and others. How should we as Christians react to these words, when we hear them in the pulpit?”
Yeah, and it is a lot worse than that. And I just came from a situation where I heard plenty of it in a Christian context for reasons I will try to address in a minute. But let’s begin by preempting a legitimate pushback. I am going to side with Sam. I don’t like this tendency. I think it is not good, not biblical, and has sinful roots. But there is a legitimate pushback, and let me address it.
No Cavalier Language
Paul used scatological or garbage language. For example, I am thinking of dung and refuse to refer to his former legalistic life in Philippians 3:8: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish” or refuse or as garbage or as dung. And I have heard some people try to justify using the “S word” here. I doubt that very much. We don’t have any knowledge that would help us know the nature between the “S word,” crap, dung, refuse. I mean they get increasingly grotesque, right? And so there is no way exegetically to say for sure which of those Paul nailed. And therefore to try to argue with confidence that you could be as offensive as possible here, because Paul was, I doubt it very much.
Paul did call his adversaries who advocated that dung-like way of life “dogs” (Philippians 3:2). And there were probably reasons for that. And in Galatians 5:12 he said, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate [or castrate] themselves.” And Jesus, of course, called the destructive teachers “broods of vipers,” and there are others (see Matthew 23:33 and the rest of that chapter). So there is a whole group of words and sentences in the New Testament where Christ and the apostles were very severe with adversaries of the Christian faith or people who purported to teach the Christian faith and who were false teachers.
So I will not say there is an absolute prohibition of using severe, cutting, aggravating, edgy language in some situations of conflict where huge and deadly things are at stake, and some Christians are just way too soft in their reaction to these. And we should rebuke them as well.
But there is a big difference between the kind of seriousness that Jesus and Paul had. When they spoke these things, there was nothing cavalier. There was nothing “jokey”. There was nothing trendy. There was no effort to be cool. The spirit in which Jesus and Paul used these words were radically different than what I think most pastors are trying to conjure up when they use them.
A Righteous Tongue
Now with that caution or preemptive strike against a criticism, let me go ahead and share Sam’s concern about pastors and church leaders who seem to go out of their way to flaunt course, rude, dirty, questionable language. Let’s just take one passage of the several we could go to and draw out two or three lessons from it. And I am thinking of Ephesians 5:3–5. And the thing we should watch for in these three verses is how verse 5 is the ground of verse 3 manifestly — you will see it. And then we need to ask: Why is verse 4 inserted in there? It just seems to break the flow.
So here is Ephesians 5:3: “Sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you as is proper among saints [or holy ones].” That is the end of verse 3. Now let me jump to verse 5: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is [and then he names those three again] sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of God.” So verse 5 is manifestly a repetition of the three sins of verse 3 and then given as a reason for why we should avoid them; namely, you won’t enter the kingdom of God if you follow them. Between those two verses is this: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (verse 4).
Now I paused long over this and thought, “This is interesting. I see the argument and the flow of thought perfectly from verse 3 to 5, and I wonder why Paul inserted verse 4 instead of going directly to verse 5. “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” And I would suggest that Paul is warning against not just the heart disposition like covetousness or outward behavior like sexual immorality, but also the verbal expression of these as well.
In other words, the mouth is brought into consideration between verses 3 and 5 so it would be clear that it is not just what you do with your groin or your heart, but with your tongue or your mouth as well. If it is wrong to do sexual things, he is saying, it is wrong to be cavalier and course in verbalizing those very things. There is a lot of things people are willing to take on their mouths that they would not take in their hands — and they wouldn’t take into their lives.
So recently I heard a young leader say — and pardon me here — to hundreds of Christians in a joking way about someone who had criticized him the day before: “Screw you.” And he laughed. I mean everybody laughed. Everybody laughed, almost everybody. I didn’t. And then realizing he had gotten a good laugh, he did it again with another person. He said the same thing again and got another, lesser laugh.
Now what is going on here? I think Paul would say that, if you don’t really believe someone should be screwed, you shouldn’t say that. Why do you let your mouth do what you would not allow at another physical level? What is the deal here? I think that is the point of putting verse 4 between verse 3 and verse 5. And I would apply the same principle to bathroom language that you would never take in your hand — or hell or damn, which you would never actually apply to anybody. You are taking them in a cavalier way. You are not taking seriously the very realities that you are speaking of. So the principle seems to be that a pure heart and pure hands should be accompanied by a pure tongue. I think that is the point of verse 4.
Weakness Propped Up
And here is the second thing to notice in that passage: the word “proper” and the words “out of place.” Some things are not proper. Some things are out of place. Now isn’t that interesting that Paul uses the category, not just of right and wrong, good and bad, but of proper and improper and out of place and in place. And that relates to the way he talks about love in 1 Corinthians 13:5 where he says, “Love is not [in the ESV it says] rude.” In the old King James it says, “Love does not behave itself unseemly.”
What that means is love does not consider the long-accepted, present cultural mores and practices, and then arrogantly offend against them. Love doesn’t do that. Why doesn’t love do that? Love is not stiff-necked and assertive. There is so much of a sense of, “I can do what I want to do. I can say what I want to say.” And there is behind it a kind of me assertion that “I can do this,” and there is a pride underneath a lot of this language. Sometimes there is a weakness that needs to be propped up by a little braggadocio or a little edginess.
Or most commonly, there is a desire to be thought worldly wise, which contradicts Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:20, “Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” What does it mean be a babe in evil? It means: Don’t have a lot of experience with that. Don’t get good at that. Don’t know much about that. And a lot of young guys think exactly the opposite. They think, “I don’t want to be a baby in evil.” Good grief. “I need to watch the movies. I need to listen to the shows. I need to use the language, so I don’t look like I am a baby in evil.” It is just the opposite of Paul’s command. They want to look savvy and experienced in evil. “Oh, I don’t do it, I just say it.”
I forget who originally used this phrase, but they are so afraid of “cool shaming” — being shamed for not being cool. You can look too prudish. You are going to look like goody two-shoes. You are going to look like you are afraid: “O God, please don’t let me be labeled as puritanical. Anything but puritanical, anything but legalistic, O God.” And so there is a lot of pride in this usage.
Love and Purity
But for these two reasons I would discourage pastors from common, ordinary, habitual use of questionable language:
Purity of mouth should be in step with the purity of the hands and the purity of the heart.
Love does not behave itself unseemly (1 Corinthians 13:5). It seeks to be proper and in place rather than out of place. It seeks to honor commonly accepted standards, because it is humble and not self-asserting.