Author’s Note: While this article does not contain any cussing, it does contain words that some might consider mildly off-color. Also, I would like to make clear that is article is not directed toward any particular person(s), nor was it written with any specific event(s) in mind; rather, it is something I’ve wanted to write for over two years and is the fruit of several years of reflection.
“What? It’s just a word.”
As a brand-new believer, I was having a conversation with a friend about language, and that was his summary assessment of a cuss word he had just used. It’s just a word, just a combination of letters, a string of phonetic sounds.
His argument essentially was that all words are amoral, and therefore, not sinful. So a Christian might use the d-word, the s-word, the f-word, or any other word, and all such uses are perfectly legitimate. In fact, he would go on to argue, using those kinds of words is sometimes right, and sometimes even necessary, because only certain words contain the kind of force that will allow us to make the point we’re trying to make.
Rightly or wrongly, I was deeply troubled by this at the time, and I didn’t know what to say. I had never heard that argument before, had never heard my friend talk that way, and was surprised to learn he even felt that way. To me, it seemed so clearly to cut across the face of everything I understood to be God’s expectations of believing people.
Having been a Christian for twenty years as of this writing, I have, unfortunately (at least from my perspective), had plenty of time to encounter that kind of thing several more times since then. But what has been noticeable to me over the last few years especially (since my move to Arizona in the spring of 2020) is what seems to be an increase in frequency of what has always been understood to be “foul language” by Christians. And not mere professing Christians, but people whose walks I’ve held in high regard, people from whom I otherwise never would have expected it.
In fact, I have easily heard more cussing from Christians in the last three years than I heard in the entire previous seventeen years combined.
Why are Christians Cussing?
Why are Christians cussing more frequently? And is it really more frequent, or is it just me? Is culture changing, and are certain words simply taking on new meanings as naturally happens with words in all languages? (To see some of the ways that’s happened in English, we only need to read through a page or two of the King James Version of the Bible.) In our own lifetimes, we’ve seen the cultural significance of things like facial hair, tattoos, and even dress clothes change. So it’s certainly possible that, for instance, the s-word simply no longer means what it’s always meant.
Or, could it be that I am illegitimately binding men’s consciences (cf. Rom 14), or that I am holding people to the standard of my own conscience rather than the standard of the Word of God? Could it be that I’m simply the “weaker brother” or a “legalist”? Or, maybe it’s circumstantial; maybe Christians have always talked that way because they can and it’s perfectly fine, and I’ve just happened to not be standing around when it’s happening up until three years ago.
These are all real possibilities that I don’t deny. As much as it troubles me to think that I’ve been wrong my entire Christian life about so-called “cuss words”—and as much as I don’t think I have been—in my heart of hearts, I have to admit that it’s at least a possibility.
Be all this as it may, there is one question that we cannot get away from, a question we all must deal with, and that is the question of whether the Bible has anything to say about Christians and so-called “bad words.” If it does, then all other considerations—whether or not times change; whether or not the meanings of words change; whether or not some Christians have weaker consciences than others—are simply immaterial.
Ultimately, the question is this: Does God tell Christians not to cuss?
“There is one question we all must deal with, and that is the question of whether the Bible has anything to say about Christians and so-called ‘bad words.’”
If God does not tell Christians not to cuss and words are, in fact, “just words,” then we’ve already wasted several minutes of our time. But if he does, then language is an issue about which we need to think seriously. Along with that, we probably also need a way of identifying what actually constitutes “cussing” so that we can properly obey that command and honor the Lord with our speech.
Cussing in Common Experience
It is important to acknowledge right off the bat that all people, in all places, at all times have had a notion of filthy language. All cultures and languages have—and have always had—their own unique “cuss words.” In a short, interesting article entitled “Why do people swear?,” David Edmonds points out that cuss words are by definition offensive, and that they are so for the sake of being offensive. As he writes, “swear words are taboo-breaking for the sake of taboo-breaking. The whole point is that you’re not allowed to use them, but they exist just for that rule to be broken.”
As Christians, many of us will remember the scandal of Mark Driscoll, former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, who was sometimes referred to as “the cussing pastor.” Beyond other things, he was often seen as being crass and offensive in his attempts to make a point, and as a result, many were understandably scandalized by (what was seen as) his foul mouth.
Even outside the church, we all tend to generally agree that there are certain words children should not be allowed to use no matter how we ourselves may talk. We know that there are certain words that don’t belong at school or in the workplace, or words that ‘you shouldn’t say in church or in front of your grandma.’ Any of us would be personally offended if someone walked into our home and started berating us with a bunch of blankety-blank-blanks.
In other words, we all have a natural understanding—one that is almost inherent to human nature—that there is, in principle, such a thing as cussing, and we know that it’s wrong when someone does it.
In fact, that’s precisely why justifications for cussing seem to be abound. No one is going out of their way to defend, for instance, the rightness of helping elderly women across the street with their groceries, or of telling the truth. As Paul says, “against such things there is no law” (Gal 5.23), and therefore, there is no need for any defense of them.
“We all have a natural understanding—one that is almost inherent to human nature—that there is, in principle, such a thing as cussing, and we know that it’s wrong when someone does it.”
Cussing in the Bible
Biblical Instances of Cussing
In his heyday, Mark Driscoll would often argue that the Bible uses strong language, and therefore, so should we. That the Bible does in fact use harsh language is undeniable (cf. Ezek 23.16-21, Hos 4.10-12, Gal 5.12, Php 3.8), but it is not undeniable that such language ever constitutes cussing. It is clear in the context of each of those instances that God is, in fact, putting a sobering situation, or event, or reality, etc. in sobering terms, but that is not the same thing as saying that the Bible uses cussing or foul, profane language.
To be perfectly clear, the Bible never uses anything equivalent to the s-word, the f-word, or any other such word.
There are plenty who claim that it does, and they will often point to Philippians 3.8 and Paul’s use of the Greek word skubalon as proof positive, alleging that skubalon was the 1st-century equivalent to the s-word. (In fact, the friend of whom I spoke at the beginning of this article made that very argument from this text.) Notice, however, the meaning of skubalon as provided in BDAG (highlights added):
As we can clearly see from the entry, the word skubalon, like most words, has a semantic range and not a fixed definition, and certainly not a fixed inherent vulgarity. As the entry shows, it could mean refuse generally, or dung more specifically, and it could even have the crassness of something like “cr*p.” But even on the fringes of its semantic range, it never approaches the equivalent of a full-on profanity such as the s-word.
Our point here is simply this: while the Bible clearly uses harsh language at times, it never uses any word in the profane, vulgar, offensive way that common cuss words are used today.
Biblical Instruction on Cussing
One of the most common texts that is cited against cussing is Ephesians 4.29a, which reads in the ESV: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…” In most English translations, the word rendered “corrupting” in the ESV is translated “unwholesome,” “corrupt,” or “foul.” The Greek word here is sapros, which means “rotten,” “putrid,” or “bad.” Literally, according to BDAG, it can mean “of such poor quality as to be of little or no value,” and figuratively, it can mean “bad, evil, [or] unwholesome, in a moral sense.” As an example of this second usage—that is, as an instance wherein sapros refers to moral evil—BDAG cites Ephesians 4.29.
In other words, in Ephesians 4.29, Paul is most certainly forbidding what he literally calls “morally-evil talk.”
Several lines later, in Ephesians 5.4, Paul issues the following command: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place…” (ESV) The word “filthiness” is the Greek word aischrotés, which, according to BDAG, means “shamefulness, obscenity,” or “behavior that flouts social and moral standards.” The word translated “foolish talk” is mórologia, which is literally translated in the ESV, and the word translated “crude joking” is eutrapelia, which can mean “witty” in a good sense, or “coarse jesting, [or] risqué wit” in a bad sense.
What seems to be incontestable on the basis of these two texts is that God does not permit Christians to use profanity, obscenity, or foul language that “flouts social and moral standards.”
There are obviously other texts we might look at, but these two alone suffice to make the point that the Bible does indeed tell Christians not to cuss.
Identifying Cuss Words
The postmodern idea that words have no meaning and everything is a social construct obviously lies in direct, irreconcilable conflict with a biblical worldview. Nevertheless, there is an element of truth in it, which is probably why the whole camel is so easily swallowed along with the gnat. That truth, which we have already acknowledged, is this: while words convey definite meaning, that meaning can—and does—shift and change over time. As Edmonds observes in the above-referenced BBC article, “Words develop their power over time; it’s a historical process. In the past, many swear words were linked to religion. But as countries like Britain have become increasingly secular, [those words] have begun to lose their force.”
There are several things in this quote that are interesting and very tempting to talk about, but in the spirit of non-digression, the relevant point for us is that words have certain, definite meanings within certain cultures.
In other words, since there is no such thing as a phonetic sound that is inherently sinful in itself, the real barometer that every Christian in every age has for gauging whether or not a word constitutes a “cuss word”—or, to use Paul’s term, ‘morally-evil talk’—is the culture or society in which he or she finds him- or herself.
“The real barometer that every Christian in every age has for gauging whether or not a word constitutes a ‘cuss word’ is the culture or society in which he or she finds him- or herself.”
An Example from Pakistan
When my wife and I were newlyweds, we developed a pretty close relationship with a neighbor who was a single, elderly, Muslim woman from Pakistan. On several occasions, I remember her excusing herself to use the restroom, but the word she would use was a p-word that means to urinate, and she would add a “y” at the end (if you need help, it rhymes with “missy”). It always stood out to me because that p-word is not a word that I have ever used since becoming a believer, but it was obvious in the way she was using it that she was trying to be polite and discreet—maybe something equivalent to the term “use the ladies’ room.”
As a Pakistani, I knew that her English would have been British English predominantly, and probably early 20th-century British English, and it has always been my impression that that particular word simply did not carry the same measure of crassness in that culture—and, by extension, her culture—that it did for me. (In fact, to be honest, I always thought it was kind of cute and I appreciated her modesty.)
Nevertheless, it was an example to me of how culture is largely determinative of the force of a word’s meaning and the nuances of that meaning.
Using Standard Measurements
As 21st-century American Christians, we must ultimately judge the value of a word based on its meaning and function within our own culture.
We do recognize, however, that there is not a hard-and-fast line between “cuss words” and “non-cuss words.” Vulgarity, or offensiveness, or profaneness of words is more of a continuum, and different words are at different points on that continuum. Again, to reference Edmonds, there is a range of offensiveness in the various vulgar terms for bodily functions, and at the innocent end of that spectrum is the word “‘spit’ which is not a taboo word at all.”
As we all probably know, there are also Romans 14 conscience issues at work among believers when it comes to certain words. Some Christians will find more crassness or offensiveness in words that are generally not considered cuss words (like “heck” or “darn”), while others may find such words completely harmless. As with all matters of conscience, the Lord’s expectation is that Christians approach the use of such words with grace, deference, and discretion, prioritizing the edification of others and the testimony of the Lord Jesus (Rom 14.1-22, 1 Cor 10.23-33).
These issues aside, the plain fact is that, in the context of our society, there are certain words that are definitively, unquestionably cuss words. They are words that are universally, unambiguously understood to be morally bad. They are, by definition, “bad words.” Even Hollywood recognizes that.
(In fact, as a case in point, Hollywood doesn’t even recognize it. They simply operate instinctively on the assumption of its reality, just like everyone else in our society.)
Conclusion: Should Christians Cuss?
No, Christians should not cuss. The Bible makes that unambiguously clear.
Rather than being those who try to justify words that even the lost world around us clearly understands to be foul, filthy, and morally-corrupt, Christians should be people whose words are full of grace, wisdom, truth, praise, and thanksgiving.
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth… Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
–Colossians 3.8, 4.6
About the Author
Tony de la Riva is an elder and pastor at Firm Foundation Bible Church and is earning an MDiv at The Master’s Seminary. He is originally from Fresno County, CA, and he and his wife Beki have been married since 2007 and have four children. More from Tony ⟶