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.