Profanity is typically condemned by Christians. However, is this view backed by scriptures? I’ve been interested in considering the verses that speak to this, and apply this to the meaning of profanity to wrestle with what scripture really says about profanity.
There are several verses that are usually quoted in regards to profanity, including Col 3:8, Eph 4:29, and Eph 5:4. So do these verses really condemn profanity? They do indeed speak to the subject. But, what Paul actually condemns isn’t exactly “profanity”, but rather “filthy” or “corrupting” speech. Quite simply, it is just not accurate to precisely equate these concepts with the English tabooed four-letter words. Furthermore, if we were to back-translate our English profanity into Hebrew and Greek, we would find these words actually appear in scripture. Relevant magazine has a great post explaining how profanity is used in scriptures, and particularly even by Paul. The scriptures on this subject, are not concerned with outlawing certain words, but directing the content of what we say.
We have a tendency to interpret these verses as a banned list of words due to our tendency to be attracted to legalism over relationship. Legalism is attractive because it allows us to define a specific set of actions that we avoid or participate in to gain divine favor. Unfortunately legalism always separates us from God, because it is about mechanism to achieve benefits, rather than God Himself. A relational understanding is more difficult, because we have to seek to understand the purpose behind scriptures. As we look at these verses, we must seek to understand the purpose that God is seeking for speech, rather than just trying to simplify into a legalistic definition of acceptable and unacceptable words.
Again, the words used in these verses indicate that we are to avoid corrupting or filthy speech. This points to avoiding communicating a message or ideas that are degrading to other people, or degrading the beauty or purity of situations or moments.
To consider how this intersects with English profanity, and its usage, let’s consider some of the reasons why profanity is typically used:
- To express intense and strong emotions–It is not uncommon for people to exclaim expletives, that have absolutely nothing to do with the sexual or excretory meaning of the word, but rather to express their extreme emotional experience. The Bible is filled with intense emotional experiences, that are readily expressed, and it would seem rather absurd to suggest that the Bible wants to condemn language that communicates intense emotion. And again, it would appear that Paul even demonstrated the use of expletives to express his intense emotions.
- As a social cue–Often profanity is used as a signal of association with lower status or classes. Profanity is partly defined by the cultural selection of words that are acceptable for “civilized conversation”. Profanity is sometimes used as a way of indicating affinity with a lower class, as opposed to upper class that wouldn’t use such language. Interestingly, this type of association is actually Biblical. Jesus explicitly identified himself with “the least of these”, and Paul’s word selection may have been, in part, an act of this identification, demonstrating that though he used to be an elite Pharisee, he now identified with the commoner.
While these are some situations where it seems to me that profanity can be used appropriately, there are certainly situations where it is used destructively.
- Degradation of others–“F*** you” is almost always used for the purpose of degrading or insulting another person. It is not simply an expression of emotion or association. It is used to maximize insult. Also, in general, sexual profanity is frequently employed in ways that degrade women, implicitly or explicitly reducing them to having nothing more than sexual amusement.
- To degrade conversations–This certainly isn’t specific to profanity; crude humor, and even just careless joking, can often move a conversation from meaningful to meaningless, or from beauty to parody very quickly. Again, this isn’t about specific words, but we should aspire to avoid to being a force that is pushing the conversation towards the meaningless, and there are indeed words that can be more likely to move in that direction. For example, sexually-based profanity often functions to degrade the beauty and value of sex.
- To be offensive–This is not an absolute intrinsic evil of profanity, plenty of people are not offended by profanity, and we can not condemn profanity for being offensive if no one around us is offended. This is relative to the audience. However, if you are aware that your audience may be offended, a loving approach to your audience demands avoiding needless offense. Now, it is worth remembering that sometimes offense is needed. The Bible has numerous messages that can be offensive and hard to hear. However, in general gratuitous or unnecessary offenses that only become barriers to more important communication, should be avoided. If you prefer to refrain from using profanity (as I do), this might be a good reason.
These are some guidelines that I think could be applied to profanity. Hopefully that might give us some ideas for looking at these scriptures with deeper, more relational understanding. As Solomon said, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens”, and most likely this concept applies to profanity as well.