What the @*&#…?
Evangelicals — By Joe Carter on November 28, 2005 at 2:36 am
A Christian Critique of Swearing
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh*t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
Although Campolo is overstating the point, he is right that evangelicals often take great offense to the use of such language and are surprised when it is used by Christians. I was reminded of this fact while reading a review of the film “To End All Wars” by my friend Tim Challies. Before delving into his critique, Tim offers a warning:
I was quite surprised at the volume of swearing in this film. Usually I would not be surprised to find bad language in a war movie, but was surprised at this one primarily because the people who recommended it to me made no mention of it. Thankfully, because of the subject matter, it was not a film we decided to watch with the children present.
In expressing his views on swearing in an earlier post, Tim wrote, “I believe the answer is quite clear that cussing, swearing, using vulgar speech does NOT please God in any way. It’s the way of the world, it’s the language of the former man, the spiritually dead man.” Later in the post he adds, “The only ‘proper context’ for using such language, is from the lips of a man at enmity with God, walking according to the lusts of the flesh, according to the ways of this world, defending his pride. It has no place coming from the mouth of a man or woman, professing to love Christ.”
Michael Spencer also noticed Tim’s review and in response highlights a “really cool article” by Eric Rigney on the ethics of “cussin.” Rigney says that “cussing is not necessarily a bad thing” and lists a number of “poor reasons” and “good reasons” not to use such language. Some of the “poor reasons” for refraining from swearing according to Rigney are because the Bible says it’s wrong (he doesn’t believe the Bible makes such a claim), because the words are inherently wrong, or because it is offensive to those around you.
While I am sympathetic to both points of view, I think they each go too far. Tim’s view tends toward excessive legalism while Rigney’s errs by invoking a naive view of “Christian freedom.” I think there is another way in which Christians can approach the issue of swearing.*
In a related post, Tim writes that he is “not opposed to movies” but finds nothing in the Bible that would convince him he can and even should watch movies in order to engage the culture. “How can I be an effective witness if I begin a conversation with an unbeliever by proudly proclaiming that I have just watched a movie that is filled with the very acts my faith tells me I must avoid”? he asks. “Will unbelievers not immediately note the inconsistency between what I do and what I claim to believe?”
The problem is that if we applied this standard consistently then Christians would need to avoid not only Shakespeare (which is full of archaic cuss words) and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales (which contain a sprinkling of mild profanity) but the Bible as well. For example, Paul writes in Philippians that the things he gives up for Christ are but kopria, a Greek word politely translated as “dungpile.” The New Testament scholar Robert Jewett also argues that Paul’s use of the words we translate as ‘circumcised’ and ‘uncircumcised,’ which come up during the circumcision debates in the early church, are the equivalent to the modern use of words like “d***head.” Jewett also notes that the Old Testament uses the equivalent of S.O.B such as when Saul calls his son Jonathan a “stupid son of a whore.” (NLT)
The broader issue, though, is the question of whether we should avoid all areas of the secular world where such profane language is used. This seems contrary to Gospel since, as film critic Steve Lansingh points out, “We preach that Jesus can transform the soul, but we expect people to reform themselves before they even approach us.” How can we witness to those in need of repentance if we are offended by even common vulgarities? Christians should neither be surprised nor particular taken aback when non-believers cuss and swear. And while our conscience should guide us in how we engage culture, we should avoid laying down arbitrary limits that might cut us off from those in need of the Gospel message.
But while Tim proffers an unnecessarily strict standard, Rigney provides an unduly libertine one. He argues that the Bible doesn’t specifically prohibit cussing though it does, he admits, say that we should refrain from “filthy language.” Rigney says that modern society cannot arbitrarily decide which specific words fit into the category that Paul is addressing. The Holy Spirit, he adds, should direct us as to the specifics about what is “filthy.”
Unfortunately, Rigney follows this insight with the ludicrous claim that words that specifically describe such acts as defecation and incest with one’s own mother are not inherently “filthy.” “[M]eaning is what we’re talking about here,” says Rigney, “and what we mean when we say a word is far more important than what the word itself is.” Ironically, his statement doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. A word’s “meaning” is comprised of both its denotation (the literal “dictionary” meaning) and connotation (the suggestive or implied meaning associated with a word). Rigney appears to be arguing that the connotation can be separated from the denotation in a way that completely transforms the word from “filthy” to acceptable.
If this were true, though, then there would be no need for him to claim, as he does later in his essay, that cussing should be avoided when around children, when angry, or when doing so would be rude. Either the denotation is relevant or it isn’t. Rigney justifies his claim not on evidence that the denotation is irrelevant in certain contexts but that it is merely acceptable to certain groups.
Earlier he says that the Holy Spirit should aid a Christian in determining what words are “filthy” and should be avoided. Later on, though, he says, “If I cuss when I am alone with my wife (who is generally not offended by cussing), am I doing wrong? Of course not “ no harm, no foul.” But what if the Spirit says that a word is unfit for use by Christians? Rigney’s seems to have abandoned that standard in favor of one based purely on audience.
Ultimately, the issue of swearing depends on how we apply Christian liberty. I don’t think Tim’s position gives a Christian enough credit for being able to be around those who sin without being tempted to sin. Watching a character takes the Lord’s name in vain does not make me want to imitate the action anymore than would watch them snort a line of cocaine. While I should carefully consider my motives for engaging with such cultural artifacts as movies and music, I don’t think we are warranted in avoiding them altogether.
I’m more troubled, though, by the immature view of liberty presented by Mr. Rigney. He appears to present a view of liberty that is common to children: liberty as freedom from something (i.e., the Law) rather than freedom to something. We were not freed in order that we might do as we please. We were freed so that we could finally be able to become like Christ.
Although the Law should never be replaced with a updated form of legalism, we should also not fall for its opposite error. Grace and conscience should not be used as covers with which we justify any sort of questionable behavior we don’t want to give up. When it comes to the issue of swearing we must be guided by the Word of God, our conscience, and the Spirit. But if you claim that the Holy Spirit is leading you in your “freedom” to use such language don’t be surprised when your fellow Christians respond by asking, “What the @*&#…?”
*Being from Texas I prefer to use the term “cussing” rather than “swearing.” But since I’m now in Chicago and have an audience of mostly non-Texans I’ve decided to use the more common (though less accurate) terminology.
[Note: During the decade and a half I spent in the Marines I had the opportunity to hear — and regrettably say — every filthy, disgusting, offensive cuss word that has ever been uttered. And while I prefer to avoid such language when in polite company, I’m not particularly prudish about hearing such language. I do find, though, that the further along I tread on the path to sanctification the less I feel the need to use such language myself. Other Christians who are more mature than me may differ so I will add that this is a Christian view and not necessarily the view that all Christians should take. ]
Related: Glenn Lucke points out an interesting article about a progressive church pastor who invited a new-ish member of his church to read a poem as part of leading worship. Because the poem used the F-word a number of times it raised issues of appropriateness in worship. The comment section is also worth reading.