Is the casual use of foul language morally wrong? Some Christians think not. To defend their stance, some point to the fact that the Bible includes language that may surprise or even shock some modern readers. But is this enough justification for allowing cursing in everyday speech?
The golden text in the debate is Paul’s famous use of a crude term. When describing the value of his accomplishments when compared to the worth of knowing Christ, he calls them skubalon (Philippians 3:8), often translated as “refuse,” but more accurately meaning “dung” or “feces” (or perhaps in the modern vernacular, “crap”). The prophet Isaiah says something similar about good deeds, calling them “filthy rags” (or a “polluted garment,” ESV; Isaiah 64:6), a reference to the cloths women would use during their monthly cycle.
Ezekiel and Jeremiah include sexual references in their prophecies (cf. Jeremiah 13:20-27), including some striking metaphorical descriptions of the unfaithfulness of Israel (Jeremiah 2:23-24; Ezekiel 16:15-58). The frankness of the author’s description of his love’s physical beauty (see Song of Songs 4:5) may cause some to blush. Further, some scholars believe they can detect sexual acts mentioned obliquely in the book (although we must understand that this is not for the sake of crass sensuality, but because it offers a holy look at the physical pleasures of marriage).
Although the Bible occasionally uses some terms that push the envelope of what we might say is appropriate for polite conversation, this is a far cry from using swear words in everyday speech. We might break down swear words into different categories.
- Exclamatory expressions involving the names of deity
- Derogatory insults
- Exclamations, typically used to express anger or frustration
- Coarse jokes
- Parts of the body (often sexual)
- Terms originating in sexual acts
- Terms originating in some aspect of bodily elimination
The Bible forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7; cf. Leviticus 24:16)—that is, using God’s name without proper respect. His name is holy (Isaiah 57:15), so we can’t use it profanely in any way (Leviticus 19:12). The first item on the list is forbidden explicitly (this includes words or phrases like GD or OMG, obviously).
Using language to condemn or insult others is contrary to numerous passages in the New Testament. Paul emphasizes using our speech to build up and bring grace to others (Ephesians 4:29); using it to tear others down is a clear violation of God’s will. He also prohibits “obscene talk” (Colossians 3:8), which is understood more precisely as “abusive language.” This rules out the second item on the list.
Exclamations of frustration or anger are popular uses for swear words. But we have to ask, why use an offensive term when there are more intelligent—or at least, less offensive—ways to express the same sentiments? Further, the use of this language often raises tensions and adds to the problem already at hand. (Like hack for the day: people don’t like being cussed. Shocking, I know.)
Foul language is often used to provoke laughter. If a person is not using foul language to denigrate someone, they’re likely using it for comedic effect. This falls under Paul’s prohibition against coarse joking (Ephesians 5:4). In the same verse, Paul also forbids disgraceful speech, which is regularly translated as “obscenity’ in light of the previous verses that deal with sexuality (in other words, speech with unwholesome sexual content). Paul says these things are “out of place” and that they should be replaced instead with thanksgiving. This rules out the fourth, fifth, and sixth items on the list as well.
As for using profanity inspired by bodily functions, what place does that language have in polite conversation anyway? Again, Paul states that unwholesome talk should be replaced with language that supports, encourages, and gives thanks.
James 3 states that the tongue is a fire and that the ability to control the tongue offers a preview of how well a person can control the rest of their bodies (James 3:2). Jesus goes even further and says that a person is accountable not only for the quality of their speech but also for each careless word that comes out of his or her mouth (Matthew 12:36). In other words, we are to care for every single word we speak.
Cursing isn’t merely for fun—although some people do use it that way. Often these words are used to make someone else uncomfortable deliberately, to express hostility, and to mock or denigrate other people. The real question is not whether using swear words should be permitted but whether their use is consistent with a life that honors Christ.
Some argue that it isn’t a sin to use swear words and cite Paul’s use of skubalon to support their viewpoint. However, if the best argument in favor of cursing is using a handful of references including strong speech to offset clear passages against using foul language, then someone is trying far too hard to justify themselves.