Here’s a topic that is all around us, but is rarely given a serious thought. Like many parents, mine could be pretty strict with the language that came out of our mouths. Swear words were never really allowed to become a regular part of my vocabulary growing up. I would often be that kid who would point out and, only half-jokingly, criticize my Christian friends for using even relatively minor curses. I saw it as a pretty black and white moral issue. There are words you simply aren’t supposed to use if you want to be a good Christian. I thought this might be an interesting issue to discuss a little deeper. Bear in mind I’m not focusing on anything that could be considered taking God’s name in vain, as that is a bit more serious. Is it okay for me to use those nasty little four-letter words? Do Christians need to watch their language?

What Does the Bible Say?

First, it’s important to distinguish between two categories here. The first is when you swear by something, such as taking an oath. One of the more commonly quoted verses on this subject is James 5:12. 

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

James 5:12 ESV

This speaks more on swearing oaths and promises, rather than using swear words. I wouldn’t read too much about the specific words into this passage.

The second category, which we are more focused on here, could be generally thought of as foul or offensive language. The closest we get to teaching on this subject that I can find is 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.”

Ephesians 4:29. ESV

This provides a good general rule to follow. It instructs us to pay attention to what our intention is, as well as how it is perceived by the people listening. If our language is causing a brother to stumble, it’s probably time to clean it up.

A Time for Everything

With that general rule in mind, is there an appropriate time to let those words slip? Since all we have from scripture are fairly general guidelines, this will ultimately be a personal judgment call. In academic environments, some teachers and professors have found that occasionally slipping in a swear can actually be a very good thing. It not only gets the student’s attention, but also humanizes the professor, making them seem more human and relatable.

Like missionaries learning a foreign language to communicate the Gospel, we all need to adapt our language to our audience in order to best communicate the message. If you’re talking with someone who is used to swearing every other word, in a sense that has become their language. It may not always be appropriate to reciprocate, but I think if it’s a choice between effectively sharing Christ to someone we may otherwise avoid, and using a few colorful metaphors, the choice is obvious. Don’t be stupid and use it in a sermon or a job interview of course, but like Solomon, remember the time and a place for everything. After all, it’s not the words that are evil. It’s only what we do with them, and how it impacts those around us that makes them good or bad.

Cultural Observations

I have been observing recently how this plays out with Christian groups and college students. The reality is that this kind of profanity is all around us. Our friends, fellow students, even the professors in my experience, speak like this all the time. It’s not at all surprising that students who happen to be Christians would speak the same way. Yet as soon as we are in a “Christian group,” everyone goes on high alert to not let anything slip. Everything either needs to be prefaced, said in a hushed voice, or apologized for afterwards.

It can be endearing when someone accidentally says one, much like the teachers, because it shows that we’ve let our mask slip. I don’t want to immediately jump to this being a sign of Christian hypocrisy, or having a holier than thou mentality. I’m also not sure it’s something I can entirely rule out. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we don’t have an edge. You can still love Jesus and have a bit of a twisted sense of humor. Lord knows I do.

Quality Over Quantity

Do Christians need to watch their language?As a final thought, more from a communication standpoint than a Christian one, my biggest concern is that I would speak without thinking. Words and language are one of God’s greatest gifts. So many people I know aren’t swearing for dramatic emphasis or comedic timing. It’s just the words they speak out of habit, with no real thought. Quite frankly, there are better words to use, and if we use the same ones over and over again, clean or dirty, they lose any real weight or meaning. On the one hand, it’s just words, so why should we care? On the other hand, words are powerful, and it seems a shame to waste a gift from God with needless profanity and repetition.

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