The Bible prohibits unclean language. This includes all language that society understands be obscene or dirty. Obscenities and vulgarities refer to things that are offensively revealing, disgusting, dirty, ugly or crude.
Certain passages of Scripture forbid such speech. Jesus, in Matthew 15:10 says, “And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Ephesians 4:29 says, “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 5:4 says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Colossians 3:8 says, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
In light of the biblical teaching, John Calvin wrote, “God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and pure from lust, but prohibits all external lasciviousness or obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance of this law, though there were not another man in the world” (Institutes 3.19.16).
So, what kinds of speech are obscene or vulgar?
There are two main kinds. The first refers to bathroom functions. The second refers to sexual activity or body parts. There are socially polite categories that can refer to both. But there are also offensive vulgar and obscene categories that refer to bathroom functions (eg., S word) and sexual activity (eg., F word).
The Bible commands us to avoid those unholy words. There is nothing sinful about the words in themselves. Words in themselves are sounds put together in a certain order. But in every society, some words exist for the purpose of profanity that gives offense. Other words can communicate the same things in a respectful way.
Some teachers claim that Christians may use vulgar and obscene language. They say you can find prohibitions against obscenities and vulgarities in the Bible, but you can also find examples of people using them in the Bible. Therefore, these teachers think, the issue isn’t whether we may use such cuss words, but whether we are using them in a godly way. They teach God’s people that there is a holy way to be obscene and vulgar and there is an unholy way to be obscene and vulgar. Such teachers may use the word “Bull-S” in a sermon. Or they might write a blog post that uses the “C” word to curse a sinful woman. And they claim that any objections to their use of such words are really just a hold over from an unbiblical victorian and prudish era.
Here is my counter-argument.
First, the Bible issues absolute prohibitions against such unholy speech. To say that such language is sometimes permissible flies in the face of the clear teaching of Scripture. Additionally, the Bible never commands or commends the use of such words. It only forbids them.
Second, the Bible teaches that words come from our hearts. “Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). Thus, someone who speaks profane and unholy words has a profane and unholy heart. People who speak vulgarities and obscenities are revealing themselves to be vulgar and obscene. But if our hearts are full of love, gentleness, and grace, then our words will also be full of such grace. Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke graciously. “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Lk 4:22).
Third, alleged examples of unholy speech in the Bible are not clearly examples at all. Let’s look at some of the main texts cited in favor of “holy Christian cussing.”
Galatians 5:12 – “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”
But the GK word translated “emasculate themselves” is simply the word for “cut themselves off.” Many classical commentators have taken that term to mean that Paul wanted these false teachers to cut themselves off from the church, to renounce their false professions and leave God’s people alone.
Philippians 3:8 – “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Many claim that the word translated “rubbish,” GK, “skubalon,” is equivalent to the vulgar English “S” word. But the BDAG GK lexicon defines the word to mean useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage. The word “garbage” is not a vulgar term. It’s not a profanity intended to offend. There is no reason to conclude that this GK word “skubalon” is a vulgarity.
1 Kings 18:27 – Elijah told the prophets of Baal, “Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
Many have argued that this term “relieving himself” is an offensive vulgarity. There are two things here. First, according to Gensenius’s Lexicon, the Hebrew term translated “relieving himself” means nothing more than “withdrawing, or going away.” It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the restroom at all. Second, we shouldn’t take a record of something said by a person in the Bible as a normative pattern for us. Elijah’s statement is not a prophetic utterance from God. It’s just something he said. If Elijah did speak an obscenity (and there is no evidence of that) then we could certainly say that Elijah sinned. Many of the patriarchs and prophets sinned. We have to use the commands of Scripture to interpret the actions of the characters of Scripture.
Isaiah 64:6 – “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
Some have said that the word “polluted garment” carries the meaning “menstrual rags.” But according to Gesenius’s lexicon, the Hebrew words don’t include that gloss at all. Instead, they simply refer to “dirty clothes” or an “unclean covering.” Therefore, it’s unwarranted to conclude that this prophecy is vulgar.
Ezekiel 16, 23 – These are two of the most graphic passages in the Bible. They describe the way sinful Israel became like a prostitute.
Some claim that the inspired language here proves that Christians may use obscenities. But nothing about the actual words of the passage is obscene or vulgar, though it is graphic. Also these are God’s righteous judgments of a people. But Christians are never instructed to speak this way and we are to follow God’s explicit commands.