Contend Earnestly: Further Discussion on Coarse Language

Monday, September 22, 2008

Further Discussion on Coarse Language

This has really been a firestorm here. It is understandably controversial, but a controversy that needs to be discussed. I have always wondered what makes a word "good" or "bad" and felt that Dr. Paul Tripp gave some great insights into this. If you haven't seen the short video, check it out here. I have always wondered how words have played out and become curse words, or filthy words, over time and how they affect different cultures. I believe words are no different than many other aspects of our culture. We as Christians are to then take a look at when to go with culture and when to take a stand against it. We are all affected by culture, so we must discern what is acceptable and what is not. I have been having a discussion in this comment thread and found it to be odd what some would call "coarse" and what some would call "okay." This is why I believe that Tripp hits the heart of the matter in this discussion. Because it actually is about knowing who you are talking to, even if some don't believe this to be true. We see this in Christ with the Pharisees and the woman at the well, we see this with Paul when speaking to Jews vs. Gentiles vs. Legalists, we see this with John when using the term "logos" to refer to Christ, we see this in Peter's sermons, etc. We really see this all through Scripture. The people you are talking to is a major component of how you use language and what language you use. If you want some further insight to this, check out this post on contextualization.

When people hate on Driscoll I find it interesting because they really don't realize the difficulty found up here in Seattle. I recently spoke to the head of the (as I know him personally) at the Biblical Parenting Conference and he told me that when pastors from around the world came up here in February for the Resurgence Conference, most of them said, "I would never want to minister in Seattle." They could see the difference in just being here for a week. Yet, some don't want acknowledge this.

Beyond all this, Tim Lien has a great post on coarse language, and I thought I would share it here. We have been speaking over the past week on this subject and he directed me to his post and another post by well respected scholar, Peter Leithart. His post is entitled: On Vulgar Language.

As far as Tim Lien's post, here it is (if you want to see it in its original form, click here):

Taking the *Bleep* Out of *Bleep*
by Tim Lien

Leave it to a Presbyterian minister to take all the fun out of cursing. I realize that this discussion could possibly be quite volatile. But, again, leave it to a Presbyterian minister to coldly and systematically approach the subject.

Most importantly, as the Shorter Catechism (Q#2) reminds us, the Scriptures should be our only rule and appeal for the glorification and enjoyment of God. In other words, we should let Scripture guide our beliefs, not cultural mores or conventional sentiment. This is especially important when it comes to swearing and cursing—since it is not an issue where you find many moderates.

There are 5 basic groups [my personal arrangement only] of “swear/cuss” words that I will address. I have addressed them in the order of their severity (#1 being the worst offense).

1) Profanity There is actually only ONE form of true “profanity.” Profanity is to directly blaspheme or attack the Creator. Profanity is “to treat the sacred with abuse or irreverence.” Profanity demeans what is good, holy, and pure. This is done in many ways. For example: “Oh my G-d!” or “G-dd-mnit” or “Jesus Christ” (In a perjorative /exclamatory way) or “Jesus H. Christ.” And there are others. Many people do not realize that saying “Oh my God” is really much, much, worse than saying the “F-Bomb.” Profanity blatantly trivializes and dismisses our holy, powerful God as common and capable of defamation. In effect, profanity is “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” which is clearly laid out in the third of the 10 commandments. I have told many people that I would actually rather hear the “f-word,” than to hear the Lord’s name in vain. People do not understand the gravity of this sin. Instead of mocking or deriding the creation— they boldly and brazenly mock the Creator. Yet, you will hear this with greater frequency: “Oh my God!” And, yet, it does not carry the negative stigma across our social strata. The remaining categories are simply an intellectual discussion compared to this one. This one is non-negotiable. The ancient Hebrews referred to God as YHWH(Yahweh), and yet, in prayers, they referred to him as Adonai. With any other verbal reference to God they used “Jehovah,” (transposing the vowel pointings of Adonai over the vowel pointings YHWH) so that they would not even come close to violating the third commandment. Even in historical rabbinical literature and modern English, orthodox Jews will type “G-d” to show the greatest reverence for his name.

2) Cursing The biblical definition/and record of cursing is very clear: Cursing is the act of wishing ill fortune to come to the hearer. Job cursed the day he was born, and he also cursed the life of the person who told his parents that he had been born. (Job 3) Almost every single prophet was used by God to pronounce cursings on the people of Israel and also the alien outsiders/foreigners/invaders (eg. like Babylon, etc…) The biblical definition of cursing does not include swearing. Cursing is wholly limited to the calling out for bad things to descend upon the one being cursed. Also check out Prov. 26:2 “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, so a curse without cause does not alight.” In other words, there are times when cursing is fully godly and appropriate— if there is just cause. However, curses are meaningless if there is no real reason for you to utter them. Are we to believe that we must be holier than Job— the “most righteous man on earth?” Must we be cleaner than the bible itself and all of the prophets. That is being a Pharisee. (Making stronger rules to prevent from breaking the real ones.) Another word that must be inserted in this category is “d-mit.” Most likely, in its etymology there almost certainly is an implied “(‘God’)d-mit.” I would agree that frequent/undiscerning/loose use of this word is not advisable nor godly. However, there are times that the human soul finds proper expression of the longing and ache for the heavenly kingdom by this very utterance. What do I mean? Affected by the Fall, man AND creation are constantly falling apart. The works of man are always frustrated by imperfection and sin. Nothing will be perfect until Christ comes back again. And anything that is not perfect will not find a place within the future kingdom. One of my professors gave this example: If a chair that was poorly designed to accomplish what it should do (hold a person up), and then, the chair breaks, a possible response to that occurrence would be to say “d-nit!” Why? We are expressing that all bad things— even badly designed things should be dismissed from the heavenly kingdom. That badly designed chair has no place in the kingdom of God. However, due to ignorance and our own times of when our anger becomes sinful, the proper usage of this seems to be very rare. An additional caveat: God alone has the right to damn or to redeem, so it is imperative that we “damn” the things that God himself damns.

3) Swearing/Oaths This is probably the most misunderstood of all the biblical references to “swearing.” The biblical intent and definition of “swearing” is the act of taking an oath based on the validity and power of the one sworn by/to. We are commanded not to “swear” in God’s name. In other words, this is never appropriate: “I swear to God.” Why? Because you are making God culpable and responsible for the act that we are swearing to. This is not good. The bible also places “oaths” in this category. Unless vows/oaths/swearing are taking place within the context of accountability, then they are improper. In fact, our Book of Church Order views “oaths/vows” as one of the elements of worship. It happens every time we accept new members, perform a baptism, or ordain a new minister.

4) Perversion and Degradation This category is somewhat difficult to exhaustively explain, since there is an endless supply of sexual euphemisms available to the human language. However, this category represents all words that demean, belittle, pervert, or soil the created order, creation, and the beautiful acts of creation. Most often, it is a reference to sexual activity. Since this is an ordained and beautiful creation of God— it would be wise to not to treat these words lightly. I would include “hell” in this category, as well. An often ignored word is also in this category: “fool.” The Proverbs warn about the gravity of calling someone a “fool.” Sometimes, it is biblically warranted— but it shouldn’t be thrown around loosely, either. One other item might be mentioned here: it doesn’t take a “cuss word” for us to communicate hate or perversion. The most innocuous word could be used in a context of rage and perversion.

5) Linguistic inelegance/Rough language This final category can hardly be in the same discussion with the first 4 categories. But because of misunderstandings, I will include it. Dorothy Sayers(fellow Inkling with CS Lewis) writes that these words are “at worst, inelegance— no more.” This would include words like “-ss,” “sh-t,” “b-tch,” “b-stard,” and others….These words have been simply ascribed severity by their social context. There are other acceptable words that mean exactly the same thing. We MUST pay attention to what words mean— NOT what they sound like! Would you find it cute if I said “arse” or “butt” or “gluteus maximus” or “heiney” or “backside?” They all mean “-ss.” Someone once wrote this response to this assertion: “When used in a way that is meant to bring down people, or even to interject strong feeling, it is morally and biblically wrong.” I could not dissagree more with this sentence! Our friend has said that these words are morally and biblically wrong! Evidently she does not know her own Bible! Paul uses the word “scubelo” or “sh-t” in Philippians 3. But the NT is a kindergarten classroom compared to the OT. All of the major translators (RSV,NIV,NAS) have chosen to render “explicit” words with more amenable word choices. Are we cleaner than God’s holy word? NO. A thousand times no! These strong words were used for a reason! Are we to change them so they suit are social context? I know that this is merely an introduction, however, the serious OT scholar would want to investigate the scribal transmission of text (especially concentrating on the use of “Kethibh” and “Qere”(the actual text and the marginal notations of explicit material) Kethibh is the term used for the original uncorrected text which would remain in all copies of the Scriptures. Qere would be any marginal notation that would actually be the words used in public reading (to preserve decorum, we presume.)

The final thought: We reserve our mouths at times— not because the specific speech is intrinsically or spiritually “bad,” but, rather, through our propriety we are showing deference and respect to all of our weaker brothers and sisters. Similarly, we are preserving the witness of Christ to an unbelieving world who may misunderstand and associate these words with “anti-Christian” beliefs. It is my wish that we 1) regain awesome reverence for God’s name 2) respect those around us 3) and not attach improper moralistic restraints to words that are not truly profane, curses, or perverse.

Commence the firestorm.


Anonymous said...


having been to Seattle just in the last month on two occasions and probably a hundred or so times since I came into this world, and having been in San Francisco in just the last month several times and probably two or three hundred times since I came into this world, I wouldn't want to preach in either even though my ministry has had Church plants in both cites! :)

Now to the issue of words.

I have had to give myself to more concern with regard to speaking words seeing I am a Preacher and Teacher representing the God who created these heavens and earth and all things with His Words. I wanted to paste three Scripture portions that, in my opinion, are necessary in situations like this one here.

The first is here:

Pro 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.

The second, here:

Mat 17:24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the tax?"
Mat 17:25 He said, "Yes." And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?"
Mat 17:26 And when he said, "From others," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free.
Mat 17:27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself."

The third one here:

1Co 10:31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
1Co 10:32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,
1Co 10:33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

The common thread in these verses is whether or not our words and actions offend others.

It seems to me you would be foolish to use a word or two in a crowd of well refined women that they would take exception too.

Jesus, when facing the tax issue and giving offense by their actions said a most interesting thing to Peter. I wonder if Jesus was sending two kinds of signals to Peter and the gang knowing that they would eventually be put in a similar situation as He presently was then? He, afterall, was the only one who knew He would rise from the dead and send the Holy Ghost to these guys to carry on the very "non"offensive work of offending the world with their words preaching this Gospel of the Kingdom in their day?

And finally, apparently Paul had a similar kind of wisdom in encouraging those believers to be careful what they eat and where they eat it so as to not be offensive in eating foods or drinking or "whatever" they were going to do now that they were dead to self and alive onto God through Jesus Christ Our Lord!

SB said...

good post

Anonymous said...

This topic has caused me to think about the words I use and the words I have heard others use. I wonder if it might be more acceptable if we provided some sort of disclaimer when we are talking within the company of folks who use rough language, to those who might be offended by such language. But on the other hand it seems kind of ridiculous because some might be offended by replacement words such as crap, or freaking. Interesting post.

jen said...

When people hate on Driscoll...

Who hates Driscoll?

Seth McBee said...


"hate on" is does mean that you hate someone, but means that you are talking against what they are doing.

jen said...

Ok. I've heard of 'loving on' someone, which implies that you do indeed love that someone. I just took it to be the same concept in reverse.

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