Like many conversations, there are certain subjects which rise to the surface from time-to-time, often (and hopefully) becoming clearer over time. One such subject that probably bears another go is that of the language we use – words and sentences.
Setting the Stage
As part of the baseline for this discussion, I would like to borrow and briefly touch on some concepts from this article last fall. Specifically, there are three ways of classifying behavioral beliefs:
Absolutes – those things which are cross-cultural truths, which are demanded or forbidden. To do (or not do) such things is sinful, regardless of the cultural context.
Convictions – those things which are personally convicting, actions which a person believes they should (or should not) do. To do (or not do) such things would be sinning against one’s conscience, and therefore would be sinful. However, convictions are limited to the person or faith community (as with binding and loosing) and cannot be demanded cross-culturally.
Preferences – those things which are personally preferred, based on traditions or likes and dislikes.
Legalism occurs when Preferences or Convictions are raised to the level of Absolutes. This is the sin of the Pharisees. Relativism occurs when Absolutes are lowered to Convictions or Preferences. This is the sin of the Pagans and Hedonists.
Both are to be avoided.
The Words We Use
The Bible has a number of things to say about the words we use. Just a few relevant examples:
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. [...] but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
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, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
As we examine the Scriptures which deal with the subject of our speech, an absolute principle becomes clear – it is the content of our speech which is important. Specifically, if the content of our speech denies the deity of God, it is sinful and blasphemous. If the content of our speech denies the humanity of our neighbor, objectifying or proclaiming a curse upon them, it is a statement about an image-bearer of God and it is sinful and disrespectful of their maker.
The concept of ‘dirty words’ is a rather new concept, in the grand scheme of things. While taking the Lord’s name in vain (which was more about ascribing God’s opinions as our own, apart from Scripture, not the simple speaking the name of the Lord, as some Pharisees interpreted it) is clearly a sin, the concept of certain words as ontologically ‘evil’ or ‘unholy’ did not arise until after the Reformation, primarily arising as a practice within Puritanism. Additionally, the concept of ‘vulgarity’ was one of class status (using the common-language terms for things rather than the Latin or upper-class vernacular. Both of these concepts have been conflated and traditionalized into what (at least in English-speaking culture) we sometimes call ‘obscenities’.
The Bible does not define specific words as ‘coarse’ or ‘obscene’ or ‘vulgar’. Rather, each society defines what words (if any) would be classified as such. Therefore, simply by definition, we cannot consider the use of specific words to be absolutely, cross-culturally, ontologically sinful. So, for some, the use of certain words may well be a conviction – which they should not act against! For others, it may simply be a matter of preference.
HOWEVER, there is caution to be had.
Content of Speech
As Scripture shows us, the content of speech is what is important. When language is used in a way that mocks God, ascribes actions to Him apart from scripture, or brings Him dishonor, it is sinful speech. When language is used in a way that says that a person is an object or to demonize a person, it is clearly a violation of the instructions on our speech and actions in Scripture – it attacks someone made in the image of God. Many of the ‘dirty words’ tagged in the English language are easy to abuse in this manner -
When one uses the word damn in a way that suggests that you are cursing them, or that you are ascribing God’s curses to them, it is sinful speech – not because the word ‘damn’ was used, but because it was used to convey a sinful message.
When one uses the word hell in a way that suggest another person ought to reside there, it is sinful speech – not because ‘hell’ was said, but because the sinful message which was conveyed.
If one suggests that another person should go have sexual relations with themself, it is sinful speech – not because a specific word (or gesture) was used, but because the message was debasing of someone made in God’s image.
To sum it up – no word or gesture is ontologically (in and of itself) evil – it is the message conveyed by those words or gestures which can be evil.
Freedom in Christ
While one has the freedom in Christ to avoid the legalism of tagging certain words as ’sinful’ to be religiously avoided, a great deal of wisdom is required, as well. Particularly in two cases:
1) If one is in a place where non-Christians are likely to identify you as a Christian, it behooves you to act in a manner which would not bring dishonor to Christ. If the cultural beliefs are such that certain words/phrases/actions would denote hypocrisy in the eyes of an unbeliever, prudence would suggest that to use that language might bring dishonor to Christ by driving away lost sheep.
2) If you are in a place where a weaker brother, without the understanding of freedom in Christ, might emulate your actions and sin against their convictions as a result, then you should not use your speech in a way that would bring dishonor to God by leading them to sin.
Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
With both of these cases in mind, it requires a great deal of wisdom to determine when it is appropriate to use such language, so as to avoid both of these pitfalls. There are legitimate places in which certain words could be used (a clinical discussion of the words, themselves; in legal/civil testimony; some illustrative usage; etc.), but great care is required.
As a Christian and a parent, I have found that my best personal policy is this:
I retain the right to use any and every word (or gesture) necessary as pertains to a situation, within the bounds of God-given wisdom and self-control, but I almost never exercise that right.
Who is to Judge?
There is a situation apart from the two listed above – using such language for a non-sinful message within a group of mature Christians. Such a group would not see your usage of a word as damaging their image of Christ, nor would they be tempted to sin against their conscience. There are some examples of this in Paul’s writing -
As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Within such a group, there will be typically one of three responses -
1) A Pharisaical response which condemns someone else for their choice of words apart from message content. The use of certain words doesn’t change their own image of Christ or tempt them to violate their conscience, but rather instills a sense of legalistic pride that they don’t use certain words.
2) A Hedonistic response which revels in using such words just for the sake of using them, often leading to careless usage
3) A brotherly response which accepts the use of such words in a way that does not violate their own conscience.
But who is to judge such matters of Conviction?
Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. [...] When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
I have been guilty many times of using language in a way that was sinful – as have other writers on CRN.Info. As we have seen them, we have tried to repent and apologize. Additionally, we have called one another to account when we’ve seen each other losing control over our language (the content conveyed). In the end analysis, it’s not the words used, but the message conveyed that is at issue.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
More often than not, those who seem to care a great deal about which particular words, phrases or gestures are used are the very same people who use ‘clean’ language to express the most vile, dehumanizing and demonizing messages. Jesus’ words are perfectly illustrative of that concept.
As such, perhaps a focus on the messages conveyed instead of a legalistic policing of the words used is the best – and most Christian – policy.