Swearing and The Church: What We’re Missing

The topic of swearing can quickly become divisive. Some believers believe swearing of any kind is evil and should be avoided at all costs. Now, a new generation of “hip” Christians think you have to swear to relate to the culture and make an impact. Where do I stand? I probably stand in an offensive place for both tribes. The middle. But before I dive in, it’s important for you to know my heart in this discussion.

Here’s what I’ve seen throughout most of my life: I have abandoned opportunities to share God’s love with lost neighbors and friends simply because their actions didn’t look like my stereotype of a Christian. I somehow expected the hearts of those who don’t know God to look like those who do. But Jesus doesn’t expect it. Why do I?

As we begin this conversation, let’s start with the law, and end with grace.

Swearing and the Bible? Let’s start at the law, and end with grace. Click To Tweet

I: What God Says

I’ve seen two camps of “bad” words people use today:

First, I’ve witnessed the more biblically based swearing… These are your British classics: God, damn, bloody Hell, etc. The glaring problem with shouting “Jesus Christ!” when we get cut off in traffic is that God says not to. It’s actually one of the 10 commandments; “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…” (Exodus 20:7). Yes, I understand this is part of the Mosaic Law, and I’m not an ancient Israelite. But it doesn’t mean God’s ideal includes me flippantly using his name out of context. And if I’m asking God to damn anything to Hell, I probably need to revisit my own brokenness and need of grace.

I’ve also heard those “crass” or “vulgar” words- the American favorites: the F-Bomb, 💩, 🍆, etc.

So what does the Bible say about these four-letter frenemies?

Check out  a chunk of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus where he talks about what “new life in Christ” looks like. He explains a new way Christians have learned to walk, and he does this effectively by contrasting the old with the new. For example, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work…” or, when it comes to how we speak to one another, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29) The Greek word for “corrupting” is defined as “rotten, putrified, unfit for use, poor quality.”

A few lines down in chapter 5, Paul says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”

Now, as uncomfortable as it might be to me, there’s actually a time and place for all of these words (that’s why they’re words – they were created for a purpose [duh]). The Bible actually uses plenty of “swear words”, but they’re either used in their proper context (like Paul in Philippians 3:8 or anything in the Song of Songs). It’s might be used when a person is living in opposition to God or just being a jerk (1 Sam. 20:30). The latter can be paralleled with the general use of these words today, as intensifiers or in strictly obscene and/or vulgar contexts.

Excluding the very few words inherently created to tear others down, I think of these words like a brick. I can take a brick and knock somebody out with it, or I can get a couple more and build a hospital. Words are tools; they are amoral (therefore, there are no such things as bad words), but when they are placed in the mouth of a human and the context of our situation, they start to take on a personality. They either build others up, or they tear others down.

There aren't good or bad words. Words are tools. They either build others up or tear others down. Click To Tweet

Notice the cultural caveat here. A huge slice of the American population grew up hearing their parents, friends, and everyone else spout these words like tap water. They were common, used often, and have no negative association attached. To them, cursing is just a way to emphasize an idea or punch line. Knowing this, when Chance the Rapper meets Jesus and starts his faith journey, it’s on me if I greet him with criticism of his language. Remembering the people who were deterred from Jesus because of my self-indulgent “holiness” breaks my heart.

II: What God’s People Miss

I grew up in the conservative south. Our family went to church three times a week. Us kids had “quiet time” each morning. And it was basically a sin not to pray for your food. You could probably guess it: we didn’t hear many swear words growing up.

My parents were and remain beautiful examples of what following Christ can look like. They certainly kept us isolated from much of the world, but only because they wanted to walk with us and explain why things were the way they were and how we might could react to them.

But as a kid, it was easy for me to misconstrue their intentions. In fact, throughout most of my growing up, even though my parents had started to put me in more and more situations to make friends with unbelievers, I avoided them. I looked at their actions and expected them to behave like Christians. An easy way to tell if they were “good” or not was their language. So I grew up judging those around me and not associating with others based on whether or not they used profanity.

Sadly, it wasn’t until my college years I started seeing biblical passages with fresh eyes. But when I did, I saw the flannel-graph Jesus I grew up believing in doing some very strange things. For instance, God incarnate, the holiest person to ever walk on our planet, didn’t hang out with the “holy people”. The New Testament pharisees hold a negative stigma in our minds, but to Jesus’ friends and family, they were the Billy Grahams of the culture. Pharisees gave their life to the learning and teaching of God’s word and serving others. Nobody was cleaner or holier.

And yet, we often see that Jesus doesn’t praise or hang out with these people. In fact, in most of their featured stories Jesus criticizes them for their pride and self-righteousness. So who do we find breaking bread with Jesus on multiple occasions? Sinners & Tax Collectors.

(There’s something we need to note here: the Jews used the term “sinners & tax collectors” was used to refer to the scum of the earth. These were the cultural untouchables. The whores and the thieves. Okay, we can proceed…)

Jesus invites all these evil and unclean people over and they eat and chat together. Then the pharisees, the cultural equivalent of your church’s most respected pastor ask Jesus’ friends, “Why is Jesus hanging out with these people?” And of course, because he’s God, Jesus overhears the conversation and drops knowledge on the boys. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Here’s where we come to a crossroads, the place where my ideology deviates from many I grew up with. And it’s the place where I’m asking the more conservative camp to gracefully hear me out. If we never allow ourselves to even hear cuss words in conversation or culture, we will never do what Jesus is prescribing here. It’s easy to pick out who we as the Church would view as sinners in our American culture: porn stars, vulgar lyricists, those who work for the IRS… And here’s the problem: if we expect unbelievers to act like they know and follow Jesus before we will reach out to them, we will NEVER engage them like Jesus and his disciples did.

On a very personal, convicting, level, I know that 🤬 isn’t God’s ideal for my life as his son, but that doesn’t mean I’m not tempted every now and again to get fancy with my vernacular as I’m driving down the interstate or when I get a little too competitive in pickup basketball. And still, I find myself tempted to judge other brothers and sisters who struggle with the same thing – and even unbelievers who have no reason to act differently!

So without grace, I’m throwing away a God given opportunity to share his gospel. I’m also becoming a hypocrite by judging others and hiding my own struggle.

Because here’s the truth: I am the sinner & the tax collector. I am the one who needs grace. And if God had looked at my dirty self like I look at [insert anyone in pop culture], I wouldn’t have a chance. But thank you, God, for your grace. Thank you for eating with the sinners. Thanks for saying, “Salvation won’t exclusively be for my chosen family, the descendants of Abraham. I’ll extend salvation to the Gentiles – the lost who don’t give a thought towards me. I’m going to come, sacrifice everything and die for them.” (that’s not an actual quote – don’t @ me)

Speaking foolishly, joking vulgarly, and using God’s name in vain isn’t the renewed way we’re supposed to live as Christ followers. But, God, forgive us if we judge and exclude the lost because their actions don’t line up with our ideals.

God, forgive us if we judge and exclude the lost because their actions don't line up with our ideals. Click To Tweet
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