Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Why can’t Christians swear, dammit?

In which I answer a question from an older Christian lady.

In a recent Facebook update I used the word “dammit” while bemoaning my wife’s poor car-maneuvering skills. One older woman put the question to me:

If you are a Christian why do you swear?

Here is my response, which comes in three parts:

1. Words don’t have intrinsic meaning

Rather, they take on the denotations and connotations we assign them; and those differ across groups of people. An older demographic may take “dammit” to be a swear word. But it would be odd to assume that because they take it that way, therefore that is how I intended to use it. I don’t consider “dammit” to be a swear word; it is simply an expression of annoyance or exasperation. There’s nothing inherently unchristian about those emotions.

2. Similarly, word usage is linked to social expectation

Older people often consider politeness to be socially important, and impoliteness to be a faux pas. They have intricate rules of behavior, often intertwined with class expectations that have passed away in younger demographics. But those are not biblical rules and expectation; they are simply the way older people may prefer to interact. The fact that impoliteness is socially wrong for them doesn’t mean that it is ethically wrong for everyone. Indeed, in my demographic, the use of colorful expressions is a key element in showing humor—ironically, using what older people would call swear words is often a high-context indicator that one is taking something in good humor, rather than being genuinely angry.

3. The Bible models the use of profanity

I would require some convincing that Christians are prohibited from using words that even their own social circles would take as profanities. There is no doubt that we should not be spewing profanity thoughtlessly, for out of the heart the mouth speaks, and that would indicate an “internal” problem. But there certainly seems to be some place for profanities; Paul, for example, uses the Greek word skubalon in Philippians 3:8 to tell his readers that he counts all things not as “rubbish”, as most translations sanitize it, or even as “dung”, but most probably as “crap” or even “shit”. That is what the idiomatic import of the word most likely is—but translation teams have to sell their Bibles, which is hard if they offend people, so they pick a nice euphemism instead.

Similarly, there are several places in the Old Testament where lewd or vulgar comments are unapologetically recorded. 1 Samuel 20:30, for instance, is translated idiomatically, but I think legitimately, in the NLT as, “You son of a whore!” And if you would like to make your congregation blush, try preaching through Hosea.

A final thing to consider is that a Christian may sometimes be prudent to use language which others would find offensive. Paul says he was “all things to all people”. So if you are ministering in a prison, for instance, where inmates use the word “fuck” and all its wonderfully flexible conjugations as an expression to pad out any sentence, rather than as a word intended to denote obscenity or connote denigration, it may be difficult to develop sufficient rapport to share the gospel without adopting—to some degree—their manner of speech.

Christians should not be easily offended

As a parting thought—and this is not aimed at anyone at all in particular—but let me suggest that having an automatic reaction of huffiness when someone uses bad language is an unfruitful habit. Allowing yourself to be offended is to allow someone to have power over you—and allowing someone to have power over you merely by saying a word seems inadvisable. It also smacks of legalism. We should be more gracious than that. We should be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to anger.

9 comments

  1. Dr P

    Well put. ISTM gossip and slander are much more easily forgiven than an hearty “shit!” upon hammering one’s thumb at a church work day. Which one is more offensive to God doesn’t seem to matter.

  2. James

    Bonnan: There is something seriously wrong here. The sad thing is that you do not see it. May God open your eyes. I was extremely profane when I was young. When I was still young, in the mercy of God I was saved, and I began quite quickly to see profanity as opposed to God. I did not need someone to tell me this. I did not need an older person, as recall, I was young. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification, and in God’s grace, I no longer swear, or use profane words.

    Dammit, surely, is a word every true believer understands to be intimately connected with the greatest, most serious of issues, that of hell itself. It is not used at all lightly, even though in your modernist thinking you have tried to nullify inherent meaning of language, which is a serious mistake itself, and simply following progressive thought, which has already be proven to be a complete waste to time, and farcical. Do you not yet understand the only God can damn, and when He does, it is the most extreme form of judgement? For you, as a claimed believer, to use this word rings alarm bells, not just for the older Christian lady you cite, but for me also, a younger Christian man.

    Also, you yourself state in a previous article that “The language we use matters, because it shapes not just our perception of ideas, views, and people, but how we are able to talk about them”. http://bnonn.thinkingmatters.org.nz/why-christians-should-not-use-the-word-homophobia/. Clearly, you don’t really know what you believe.

    Or have you, once again, rationalised this away using progressive, relativist thinking? You have identified yourself clearly, and I feel very sad for you. True believers will fight you on the beaches, in the trenches, in the valleys and mountain tops, and they will never surrender. God’s truth will prevail, even though people like you try to twist, distort and manipulate it.

    You mention ‘huffiness’ in relation to another believer brining your profanity to your attention. Obviously it has not occurred to you that that is a mere foretaste of what we will experience at the Judgement when God brings all things into account, including our speech. It has slipped past you that someone is warning you, and trying to raise you from your slumber, to alert you to your need, and instead, you have developed a spirit of defensiveness.

    Be careful, or before long, God may send you a trial that lays you low, with many regrets, to bring you to your senses and humble you in love, if indeed you are a believer. If you are not, then you will be led further astray. But God have mercy on you if you lead believers away from the truth. I would tremble for you if that were the case.

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    James, I debated whether to publish this comment. I assume you mean well, but pharisaical puffery isn’t a replacement for engaging my arguments. Your holier-than-thou moralizings and ominous prophecies sound very pious, but they don’t interact in the slightest with my argument.

    You also seem to have fundamentally misunderstood my point about the word “homophobia”. The problem with that word is that it implicitly equates disagreement with irrational fear by merit of its structure, which places it alongside other words describing well-known phobias. Yet words like “dammit” can hardly be said to be invented as cynical social engineer ploys. Ironically, you are exhibiting precisely the behavior I was condemning in that article—only instead of saying, “Agree with SSM or you’re a homophobe”, you’re saying, “Don’t use non-approved words or you’re a false believer”. It’s sad to see that witch-hunt mentality coming from a professing Christian.

  4. James

    Your reaction proves my point. You have abandoned the old paths, if indeed you have even investigated them. You cannot hide forever behind arguments, debates and engagement. Eventually it comes down to a walk the The Lord Himself. Flying close to the world, has forever been seen as dangerous by the church. It is only in recent years that believers have begun to talk like this, and it is surely a time of growing apostasy. The remnant only will be left. Are you furthering the cause of holiness here? Numerically we need believers. They are not produced by the arm of the flesh, but by the Lord’s ways and means, which have long been proven to work, and it invokes the true gospel message. I perceive a deviation from this message.

    If you are having an influence on believers, then all the more cause for your humility in receiving comments and reproof, especially from those who have gone before you, and may see ahead of you in some measure. It is the unblocking of the old wells that is needed right now, not digging new wells to try to find something elusive. Return to the old paths Bonnan. They are tried and true, and the believers understood clearly the need for separation from the world, and a distinction that drew them into the church. It is not the world that is a danger to the church right now, but the world that is in the church. It is not only the mega churches now that have adopted this strategy, but it seems that Calvinism is now the new target.

  5. Hayden

    Hey Bnonn,

    I agree that just because someone somewhere thinks that you shouldn’t use a word doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be free to use it. I am from a place where calling someone a bastard can be an endearment between friends as a recognition that someone has aptly outperformed you in a competition. I am not sure why it has developed this particular meaning but it has.

    I am thinking about your prison example. I have noticed many people clean up their language in certain situations and I think that this points to the fact that though they may find it socially acceptable they also understand that vile speech is sinful. Even though it may be socially acceptable to speak a certain way we are called practice a ‘set-apart-ness’. Worldly societies accept many things that we would do well to reject. It is to our advantage to demonstrate loving communication that exposes the sinfulness of vile speech casually infused with obscenities and profanities.

    If taking the Lord’s name in vain was ‘simply an expression of annoyance and exasperation’ I would still object to Christians using it. They may not even be thinking about Christ when they use it, but it still has meaning.

    On the other hand, I think that certain words such as ‘shit’ can leave a powerful impression when used properly. The intensity of hearing someone who otherwise has a pristine tongue can emphasis how seriously we should take a situation. I have only heard my father swear once and I heard the message louder than if he had abstained from swearing.

    Thanks for the article. It was thought provoking.

  6. Dr P

    I think one can argue for guarding one’s language as a 4th(5th) Commandment issue, but that addresses risking needless offense rather than commission of sin, particularly in private among friends similarly inclined; ie where and when versus if. BTW , The first definition of damn in the OED is ” to pronounce adveres judgement on, affirm to be guilty; to give judicial sentence against; = CONDEMN” – activities hardly limited to God. I also suggest that what passes for proper conduct within the church world may be of no regard without it; having spent a good paret of my lifei without it, the language that offended me more than what offends Jim was the selfrighteous, self-congratulatory, and slanderous talk all too common among the churchy set. James’ umbrage would be better directed that way.

  7. Pablo

    I think this is very wrong but you should at least consider this.Paul talks about eating meats, and how it may cause a brother to fall so you shouldn’t do it, so assuming you are right and the rest of us are just in the past you should control your tongue anyway. The logic is that the Bible does say don’t be profane but doesn’t say to use whatever words necessary to win people to the gospel, so at best you’re right and you gain nothing at worst you are sinning against the most high despite the warning before you and leading 1000’s of others away form His commands as well.

  8. steve hays

    For what it’s worth, I’ve discussed some of the exegetical issues here:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2015/01/cussing-christians.html

  9. Kirk Skeptic

    Steve, great article. As Dr P (#6) put it , it’s a wisdom issue in many cases.

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