Last December I wrote about Christians and profanity. Two months later it was shared by a larger page and sparked quite the conversation. Some of it was quite harsh, as Drew and I have been having fun with on the podcast recently. There was also some genuinely good criticism that I wish I had thought to incorporate in the post. The level of response fascinated me, and I thought it might be worth doing a follow up post addressing some of the criticisms. Let’s talk some more about profanity.

Preaching or Raising a Question?

Just to begin with a brief word in my own defense, I think many interpreted the post to be more aggressive than I intended it. This was not a “I have discovered the truth and am here to teach you” post. It was more a, “I’ve been thinking about this issue lately and there may be more to it than I previously thought” post. Typically, my goal is to be thought provoking and spark good conversation. I’m perfectly open to being wrong, but I’m glad to see it got people thinking.

What’s Wrong with Fences?

One other criticism, people seemed to take issue with me not picking a side. Call it wishy-washy if you like, but I’m not going to apologize for that. Too often people feel the need to have everything figured out. Sometimes an issue is not as simple as we have made it out to be, and the ability to carefully consider both sides without jumping firmly into one camp can be extremely helpful. What can I say? I like fences. Obviously, there are non-negotiable issues, but with something like this that’s more centered on Christian living and cultural practices, I would caution against jumping off the fence too quickly. I still find it somewhat amusing that of all the more serious topics I’ve written about, this is the one that sparked controversy.

What is Profanity?

I think the main area where I dropped the ball was usage of scripture. The Bible is pretty clear on not saying anything vulgar or profane. Verses like Ephesians 5:4 and Colossians 3:8 are some of the most explicit examples that I failed to mention in the original post. That leaves us with the question of what is profanity? There are three sources we would need to look at to answer that question.

1. The Bible

Obviously as Christians the Bible is our authority. From it, we would look at the crude and sexual actions God considers obscene. Our profanity tends to start with these concepts. We should avoid language that refers to filthy things in an obscene way. However, we’re dealing with language here, a fluid system of using words and symbols to represent something else. These verses are commands about how we ought to live and talk among each other, so what our intent and how it is perceived are very important.

2. Intent.

Words may change, but human nature doesn’t. Calling someone a long Shakespearian insult today may be more comical than insulting, but if our intent is to harm or be crass, we are not innocent. This would apply to euphemisms as well if the intent is the same. On the flipside, if one unintentionally says something obscene, that does not necessarily put them at fault. It may depend on the audience.

3. Perception

How our language is perceived is also very important, even if our intention is good. Much like Paul’s words on eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8, if our expression of freedom in our words is harming others, we should change our ways. I think that also very much applies to the Gospel, that if our word choices are keeping people from Jesus, we ought to change them.

What words are offensive will differ by generation. That does not mean that our ideas of what is profane should come from the culture or a new generation, but that the words representing them will. We need to know our audience. Is our language, intended for good, causing problems?  On the flipside, is it possible that language once meant for ill could be used for good? Slang terms tend to be overused and lose their meaning. What shocks us now will probably be in family TV shows somewhere down the road.

Two Warnings

Does that mean we ought to use “profanity” when preaching the Gospel? Not necessarily. But I would caution against two things here. First, don’t immediately reject something that could be a valuable tool in evangelism. This is largely hypothetical, but I think if we jump too quickly, we can end up needlessly limiting ourselves, doing a disservice to both God and fellow humans.

Second, I would very heavily advise against using profanity as a tool to measure people’s faith. I’ve done this myself. When I meet someone for the first time, one of the first things I will notice is how often they curse. That is entirely without context of where they are from, what they believe, or what kind of person they are. I’ve gotten it wrong before and found very wise Christians who also swear. Using profanity as a measure here gets into some dangerous legalistic territory that can ultimately do more harm than good. Be careful that your snap judgments don’t cause a brother to stumble more than any profanity ever could.

Hopefully this adds on to the conversation and clears up some of the misconceptions with the previous post. If you have any more thoughts or criticisms, let’s talk some more about profanity on on our Facebook Group here.