A Biblical Approach to Swearing (Clean)

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D.

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., writes about theology, mental health, marketing, and fitness. Paul has been writing on PaulMaxwell.co for over a decade.

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The topic of swear words of in evangelicalism can be taboo — a clash of the momentum of tradition with the energetic seizures of social evolution. Many Christians have asked me via email — Is it possible to biblically defend a use of swear words? If we are to answer this question, we must first discover how it is possible in the first place for Scripture to prohibit certain words in a language its authors had never heard of. However, it is possible to relate the spirit of the ancient text with the letter of the modern taboo lexicon.

But before we di this, it’s important to note the several theological defenses of swearing I’ve seen so far have used the taboo words in question in every single case. In order for this content to have the broadest reach, I will initially state here that I will not use swear words in this piece. We all know what the words are. When I want to make reference to a particular word, I will call it “The F-Word,” for example. But I intend for this treatment to be entirely clean. 1

How Speech Can Be Wrong

Your speech can be a moral wrong in at least four ways. Each of these ways houses a different kind of speech, which might be appropriate in some circumstances and not others. Before we examine certain words, we must be aware of which moral categories could potentially classify such words.

  • Harshly—If you are inappropriately harsh in your tone
    • Yelling, condescending, belittling, etc.
    • Not vocab-specific, but rather content-specific—using certain ways of screaming or shouting to intimidate, demean, or tear down someone else.
  • Brashly—If you are intentionally harmful with your words toward an innocent person
    • You may occasionally need to utilize strong language when you are engaged in verbal combat (the Apostle Paul certainly does – Gal. 5:12), and so the use of this sort of sharp language toward an innocent party would be unjust.
    • This could be an elevation in the severity of one’s vocabulary, so instead of calling someone a jerk, you might call them an “F***** ******.” The disproportionate use of taboo language which hurts people who don’t deserve this sharpness could be immoral.
  • Falsely—intentionally deceptive (lying)
    • This is bearing false witness, a breaking of the 9th commandment.
    • Not vocab-specific, but rather content-specific. False accusations, stealing, cheating, etc.
  • Irreverently—you blaspheme the name of God.
    • This is a breaking of the 4th commandment, which is to use the Lord’s name for selfish gain.
    • Using the name of Jesus Christ as an expression of frustration, or calling God to damn an inanimate object are profane utilizations of the name of God which irreverently and vainly use his name.

There is a fifth category, which will get to more below, but it will be helpful for us to delineate it here:

  • Inflectively—you break neutral cultural taboos which scandalize traditional speakers
    • This is a vocab-specific category of language, which contains words that a particular culture has designated as taboo, even though the content of the words themselves don’t in their use designate anything improper.
    • In American English, this includes the A-word, the B-Word, the C-word, certain D-words, the F-word, and the S- and Sh-words. There are acceptable semantic equivalents for these words which are not considered taboo—which are jerk, mean woman, penis, sex, bad experience, and poop.

It’s important for us to keep these 5 categories in mind as we proceed, which are five ways in which language could be considered immoral—language used harshly, brashly, falsely, irreverently, and inflectively. We will be concerned here to theologically defend the proper use of inflective language. I am happy to accept that harsh, brash, false, and irreverent language is straightforwardly immoral and constitutes sinful action—it harms one’s neighbor and oneself. There are clear and defensible social realities which need to be protected through the unexceptional disallowance of this sort of language in common discourse.

But here, we will be concerned with defending the Christian use of inflective linguistic taboo.

An Initial Note on Monikers

We must also note that we don’t have the right language for the words we need to address. Inflective speech isn’t “swearing,” since in inflective speech no obligation is entailed, no claim is made, and no divine sanction is invoked. Likewise, these terms are not properly called “cursing,” since no harm is being wished, and no spiritual or demonic realities are conjured, beseeched, or supplicated. They’re also not “cussing,” which is merely an informal derivation of “cursing.”

These are merely culturally taboo words. The F-word. The Sh-word. These are words which have been arbitrarily designated as taboo, whether through etymology, morphology, or sociology—and therefore represent a unique category of morality which we ought to maintain is inappropriate in formal settings, and yet is allowable in settings in which it is appropriate to utilize amoral (not immoral) taboo words to inflect language.

The Practical Need for Inflective Language

Two examples illustrate two practical uses every culture has for this linguistic category. First, it would be right to forbid the use of these words in the company of children, because they need many arbitrary taboos when they are children in order to cultivate their ability to navigate real morally complex situations when they are adults.

Second, amoral taboo inflective language allows us to see which people aren’t tracking with proper socialization—if someone overuses these terms, we use that overuse as license to assume that they probably don’t respect real moral taboo. Someone who is indiscriminately crass shows a disdain for the social order that likely reflects a deeper and more harmful moral disturbance.  

Therefore, we can call these words “swear words,” but we must recognize that what we mean by “swear words” are not harsh, brash, false, or irreverent language, but rather inflective language. We would do well to highlight one more practical reason that we ought to have a legitimate place for inflective language, which is amoral but still taboo: This linguistic category will always exist as part of every language, whether we want it to exist or not. In other words, let’s say we are able to make the definitive case that every use of the F-word is an objective moral wrong. That’s fine. Then, it is no longer in the category of inflective language, but some other of the four categories we mentioned. Some other word will take its place—whether it’s freaking, or fracking, or gosh-darn. And one might argue that this replacement is good since the F-word has certain meanings entailed by its etymological or morphological origins which make it specifically heinous.

There are two problems with this argument. First, when people use the F-word today, they don’t think of the etymological, morphological, referential, semantic, semiotic, or associative denotations or connotations of the word. They’re trying to express an emotion. They’re utilizing a communicative tool that has nothing to do with what it at one time in one place denoted verbally. It doesn’t denote that anymore. Therefore, it doesn’t mean that anymore. Its origins are irrelevant if they’re not in the mind of the speaker or the listener. Moreover, one could delineate the equally disturbing origins of replacement words such as freaking or gosh darn. Therefore, the only person who is reasonably scandalized by the F-word is the one person who continues to insist that it means something that it used to mean that nobody who uses it today means—in other words, the only person who is reasonably scandalized by the F-word is the very unreasonable person.

Second, replacement words such as freaking and gosh-darn don’t actually serve the purpose of inflective language, because we know that they are merely dulled down versions of the word we intend to use. Linguistic inflection must cross a commonly established taboo. It must scandalize to have an effect. And no reasonable person is scandalized by freaking or gosh-darn, meaning that the category of inflective language remains an empty category and people will still resort to these words in the cover of shadow. But we ought to make use of them with reverence for their scandalizing effect, and with a sober awareness of the fact that overuse could indicate a deeper insensitivity to real moral lines which exist to protect social wellbeing.

An Exegetical Defense Against Prohibiting Inflective Language

We should note first of all that the Apostle Paul does not use inflective language in Philippians 3:8. When he says, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish ( σκύβαλα), in order that I may gain Christ,” he is using a very common term to refer to waste—he is not saying the Greek equivalent of the Sh-word. The term is used commonly in medical textbooks to refer to disease, refuse, and puss. It is commonly used to refer to human feces. But it is used in high-society texts to refer to leftovers from a meal, and the Sibylline Oracles refer to refugees of war are referred to as “the σκύβαλα of war.” 2It certainly wasn’t a deep, philosophical, technical term, but it also wasn’t inflective language—or, what we might call a “swear word.”

With that said, the fact that Paul didn’t swear in a formal epistle that would be publicly read in a community gathering where there were children present is hardly proof that he didn’t swear in his personal life, and neither is it proof that when he forbids ungodly speech, he intends to proscribe the Christian use of inflective language. Having established this, it is necessary to engage Paul’s command in Ephesians 5:3-4. Paul says:

“Do not let any unwholesome (λογος σαπρὸς) talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29); “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity (αἰσχρότης), foolish talk (μωρολογία) (essentially, “moron speech”), or coarse joking (εὐτραπελία), which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:3, 4).

What exactly is Paul forbidding here? It will be helpful to take it one word at a time.

Paul contrasts λογος σαπρὸς (unwholesome talk) with speech which is “helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Paul is here explicitly proscribing harsh language—language which intentionally or negligently causes personal and psychological harm to others, which includes yelling, belittling, berating, demeaning, and threatening. Since it’s possible to use inflective language to build people up, and it’s possible to tear people down without using inflective language, we are warranted to assume that Paul does not have in mind here inflective language.

When Paul prohibits obscenity (αἰσχρότης) here, he contrasts it with “thanksgiving.” A derivative lexeme of this term occurs in Colossians 3:8, when Paul commands believers to “put … away; anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk (αἰσχρολογίαν) from your mouth.” Aristotle uses this term to refer to language which glorifies shameful behavior, and says it is not part of the ideal state. 3This is a prohibition of what we have categorized as brash language, which includes crudity and vulgarity, which is the tasteless humoring in sinful actions. We know this because Aristotle argues that αἰσχρολογίαν should be allowed in cultic discourse, since there were “aischrologic” acts that were performed by women in cultic worship. Both John Chrysostom and Clement of Alexandria take αἰσχρολογίαν to be that which is “a minister to wantonness,” or ὄχημα πορνείας. 4In other words, αἰσχρολογίαν is the explicit linguistic reveling in heinous misconduct, which does not include linguistic inflection.

When Paul forbids, foolish talk (μωρολογία), he forbids just that—thoughtless speech. St. Ambrose calls it a lubricum verbi, a slipping of words; or a slipping of the tongue. Plutarch uses ἀδολεσχία, “random talk,” as a synonym for μωρολογία. To push these prohibitions too far would be to constrain Christians to only ever speak literally and seriously about everything. Likely, what Paul is doing here is setting an ideal mode of speech about the gospel—speech which is crude, glories in sin, or is thoughtless leads to religious acts which debase human dignity, and therefore speech about the gospel ought to be exceptional in its content and character.

Lastly, Paul forbids εὐτραπελία, which simply means “joking.” It doesn’t mean “course joking.” Translators insert “course” because Paul is prohibiting something here. Jeremy Hultin has an excellent footnote on this in his Brill book The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment, noting that there is no record of this term being used to refer to especially risqué jokes, and is in fact “almost always used positively.” 5Plato said that older people used εὐτραπελία to ingratiate themselves with younger people. A Hippocratic text advises medical doctors to use εὐτραπελία to help their patients to keep a lighthearted perspective. Hultin comments that the Apostle Paul takes a “curiously negative stance” toward εὐτραπελία.6

Again, we must be very careful not to push these prohibitions too far. Paul is setting an ideal for believers’ speech which ought to be utilized as a cultural standard that respects the heinousness of sexual sin and the worthiness of the gospel. If these prohibitions are taken as rigid boundaries for all speech everywhere, again, one might say that the prohibition of μωρολογία means believers should never “talk out loud,” and the prohibition of εὐτραπελία means that believers should never joke. This certainly isn’t the case. Those who use this text as an absolute prohibition of linguistic inflection can’t practically apply that same hermeneutic to every word in this passage, and likewise can’t concretely tie linguistic inflections such as the F-word to any of these prohibitions.

The question then becomes: If Paul wanted to prohibit profanity, could he have done so? The answer is yes. The Greek term for profanity was βωμολοχία — literally coming from the words βωμός, meaning “altar,” and λόχος, meaning “ambush.” It was used to refer to the disregard of the sacred, but not in a blasphemic sense—but rather as a breaking of taboo. This is the category of inflective language, and yet it is not proscribed.

A Brief Note on Ephesians 5:12

Isn’t it shameful to speak of sexual, filthy things? Paul says a few verses later in Ephesians 5:12, “For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.” There are four problems with using Ephesians 5:12 to prohibit swearing.

First, the most common use of swear words does not entail a referent—exclamatory utilizations of the F-word and Sh-word merely express an emotion, so there is nothing shameful “to speak of” behind those words.

Second, when these swear words do have referents—for example, when the F-word is used as a verb or the Sh-word is used as a literal noun—there are non-offensive analogues to these words which have the same referent, such as “have sex” and “poop.” So, if the words are wrong by virtue of what they speak about, by making appeal to Ephesians 5:12, then so also are their non-offensive analogues.

Third, Paul isn’t talking about speech about sex or excrement—he’s talking about what he calls “unfruitful works of darkness,” which are cultic, demonic, perverted acts.

Fourth, Paul does not say it is sinful to speak of these things—rather, it is “shameful” (αἰσχρόν), which means dishonoring, ugly, unfitting, inappropriate. And it is inappropriate, yet Paul is willing to explicitly name the sin among the Corinthians which is very base and sinful, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 5:1: “A man is sleeping with his father’s wife!” So clearly, Paul is comfortable with speaking about sexual sin.

Conclusion: We shouldn’t swear, which is why we should.

Linguistic inflection is a class of words which serve as a morally neutral way to signal to an intimate social group that you are breaking rules—either to draw attention to a certain point or to add forcefulness to a statement or comment.

These words, such as the F-word and Sh-word should be taboo, and we should also occasionally break the taboo which we respect. We must maintain a morally neutral taboo that we are allowed to break, but ought not to break. We should tell children not to swear, and we should also transgress our own rule when children are not present. Linguistic inflection—or, swearing—which is not harsh, brash, false, or blasphemic, is an arbitrary way of drawing moral boundaries which we are allowed to cross for the sake of effect. Swear words are arbitrary, neutral taboos that we put in place in order to acceptably inflect our speech.

If we made the F-word and Sh-word strictly forbidden, other words would take their place to serve the same function for us.

I’d like to close by making two points.

First, any argument that makes certain lexemes de facto immoral, works simultaneously as an argument for politically correct speech policing. Both presuppose a structuralist view of language, which is the only framework in which one could maintain that certain lexical entities are so metaphysically corrupt that there exists a universal moral duty among men not to speak them. Both leftist politically correct speech-policing and scandalized traditionalistic conceptions of so-called “swear words” utilize the exact same linguistic argument to make certain words arbitrarily immoral through etymological and morphological argumentation, which of course is a linguistic fallacy—etymology and morphology never necessarily entail the semantic content of a lexeme.

Second, the value of swear words is cheapened when people don’t use them reverently. Sometimes people swear because they’re just agnostic Neanderthals whose irreverent cursing is a sign of a deeper moral rot. This is especially true among progressive, left-leaning Christians who don’t swear like adults—they swear like teenagers who are learning the words for the first time, and it’s embarrassing to watch.

I remember a preacher who, in his sermon, would swear by saying that Jesus was “calling b***s***” on the Pharisees’ legalism. This is an irreverent and cheap grab at humor. This is the sort of swearing that progressives use just to stick it to conservatives—and in that regard, these progressive Christians who publicly and classlessly use swear words just to snicker at them are essentially thinking and writing at an 8th grade level. It’s embarrassing, and they should be embarrassed.

You can accomplish much evil with your language without swearing, and you can accomplish much good with your language through the use of swear words. The Bible doesn’t prohibit the use of swear words, conceived in the fifth category we have circumscribed, which is merely linguistic inflection. If swear words are used in order to be harsh, brash, false, or blasphemic, then it is a sinful use of language which would have been sinful even if the swear words weren’t used. If they are used just to scandalize and hurt someone innocent, that is a sinful use of swear words.

But if they are used for verbal inflection, swear words are a beautiful and irrevocably linguistic category which ought to be considered taboo, and that taboo ought to be crossed—though perhaps sparingly in order to retain the potency of the effect.


Footnotes

  1. Not many are, and I believe it is in service of the audience not to assume the conclusion of the argument we’re making.
  2. See Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). See also Gary T. Manning’s helpful summary: “Did the Apostle Paul Use Profanity?” at The Good Book Blog. https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2015/did-the-apostle-paul-use-profanity. Accessed January 1st, 2019.
  3. Politics 1336b3—6. He says: ὅλως μὲν ουν αἰσψρολογίαν ἐκ τῆς πόλεως.
  4. See his Poedagogus, chapter titled περὶ αἰσχρολογία.
  5. Jeremy F. Hultin, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment (Brill, 2008), 192.
  6. Ibid., 198.

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