Profanity – A Biblical Assessment

By Wayne Jackson

A sincere Christian recently noted that the Bible in general, and the book of James in particular (cf. Jas. 3:1ff), warns about the improper use of the tongue. Yet he laments the fact that profanity and vulgarity are perhaps more widespread now than at any time in history – at least in America.

He wonders how it is that one identifies “profanity.” The Bible only warns against the evil use of language in a general way, but it doesn’t specify which words are to be avoided. Is it a cultural question?

This is an excellent item for study. It is true that this issue is not addressed in a solitary, compact biblical context. There are, though, helpful principles in Scripture that assist in clarifying this bewilderment. Think about these points for a moment.

  1. The Bible could not possibly provide a list of “forbidden” words, since words come and go. Some words become obsolete, and fade from the human vocabulary with the passing of time. Too, new words are ever being born. A “word list” could never be totally relevant, even if it were possible to construct such. The biblical documents deal with different abuses of language, in a general way, but there is no catalog of prohibited words
  2. No mere assemblage of letters creates an intrinsically evil word. “God” and “dog” have the identical letters, yet the meanings attached to the respective arrangements are worlds apart. Words become “bad” by virtue of their connotation, motive, etc., and such circumstances can change from time-to-time, or from place-to-place.

    Some years ago I was lecturing in Africa in an environment heavily influenced by the British culture. I referred to a certain military encounter as a “bloody battle.” Later, I was informed that the expression “bloody” – which to me was a perfectly legitimate descriptive – was “profane” to my English-oriented audience. The cultural connotation attached to the adjective made the difference.
  3. Words convey ideas; they are vehicles of communication. It is, therefore, the idea associated with an expression that can create an evil word pattern. Here are passages that address the matter in principle.

    The Scriptures speak of “filthy” talking (Eph. 5:4). According to Greek authorities (see Baur, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 29), the term “filthy” (aischrotes) entails “behavior that flouts social and moral standards, shamefulness, obscenity” while “shameful speech” (aischrologia – Col. 3:8) denotes “speech of a kind that is generally considered in poor taste, obscene speech, dirty talk.”

    “Lascivious” speech (cf. 2 Pet. 2:18) is that designed to conjure up illicit sexual images and ideas. “Corrupt” (morally unwholesome, harmful) communication (Eph. 4:29) is likewise condemned. “Foolish (literally moronic) talking” is speech that reveals a stupid mind, while “jesting” suggests off-color humor (cf. Eph. 5:4).

    What is rather disconcerting is the fact that some professed “Christians” vigorously defend the use of filthy language in books and movies under the guise of artistic license; they contend that opposition to such is “anti-intellectual” (see Franky Schaeffer, Sham Pearls for Real Swine, Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1990, Chaper 9, “Freedom Versus Censorship”). Such rationalization carries no weight with the genuinely spiritual person.
  4. Words become profane when sacred meanings are treated in a common and trivial fashion. One of the commands of the Decalog was: “You shall not take the name of Jehovah your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7). This probably refers to an appeal to the Lord’s name within the context of a false oath (cf. Lev. 19:12). To lie under oath (“so help you God”), or to whimsically accentuate your affirmations with a “by God” is, in principle, a form of profanity.

    Under the law of Moses, the “name” of God was not to be profaned (Lev. 18:21). The context has to do with the use of Jehovah’s name in the environment of pagan worship. The principle involves taking the sacred name of the Lord and vulgarly transporting it into the domain of the secular. This concept finds a manifestation in various ways in America’s crude modes of expression, such as, “O my God!” – as an ejaculation of surprise. “Lordy mercy!” “Jesus Christ!” and such like are equally inappropriate.

    The Greek word bebeloo is twice rendered “profane” in the New Testament (see Mt. 12:5; Acts 24:6). It is defined as “to cause something highly revered to become identified with the commonplace, violate sanctity, desecrate, profane” (Danker, 173). Surely it is not difficult to conclude that this category of irreverence is perpetuated in many common expressions today. And it hardly minimizes the transgression to euphonize the use of sacred names by disguising the format – as in, “Good gosh!,” “Golly!” and the like. An unabridged dictionary will reveal the derivation of these terms to those who have sufficient interest in their vocabulary.
  5. In biblical parlance, to “curse” (katara) is to utter a “malediction” or an imprecation upon someone. The term may be used legitimately of a pronouncement of divine judgment (cf. Gal. 3:10,13; Heb. 6:8), but when employed whimsically by humans, it denotes a malevolent “curse” uttered against another as expression of personal wrath (cf. Jas. 3:10; 2 Pet. 2:14). It finds a modern vent in such phrases as, “You go to hell!” or “Damn you!”

    It is important to note at this point that neither of these terms, “hell” or “damn,” is inherently evil. There is a proper context in which they are permissible. Jesus spoke of that sort of person who is “a child of hell” (Mt. 23:15), and the Great Commission warns that those who believe not “shall be damned” (Mk. 16:16, KJV). It is the manner in which such terms are employed, i.e., hatefully, vindictively, in a pejorative fashion, that makes the use of them wrong. See similarly the use of “fool” (Mt. 5:22), yet compare that with a legitimate employment of the word (Psa. 14:1; 1 Cor. 15:36; Gal. 3:1).

As a side note, we might mention that many misunderstand the meaning of the New Testament text that records that Peter “cursed and swore” in connection with his denial of Christ (Mk. 14:71). This does not mean that the apostle broke forth in vile, vulgar language, such as we commonly hear today. Rather, the meaning of the passage is this: In his fear, Peter denied the Lord, re-enforcing his denial with a calling down of “curses upon himself,” if his testimony were not true (Danker, 63).

What he did was terribly wrong – the panicky act of a terrified man. But his language was not the coarse, gutter-variety that one generally associates with the word “curse.”

The Christian must strive to keep his speech pure, such as facilitates edifying (Col. 4:6). One must try to refrain from the vulgar, the irreverent, and the reviling abuse of language that is unbecoming to the spiritual person.

The Bible does not lay down a prohibited vocabulary list, but it certainly contains guidelines that will assist the devout person in using speech that is well-pleasing to the Lord and to others. Note: For further reading, see our “Penpoints” article, “The Plague of Profanity” (October 18, 1999).

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.