On the Use of Vulgar Language

Preston Sprinkle —  June 30, 2014 — 12 Comments

Is it ever okay for Christians to use vulgar language?

Charis front cover_w:tullianThis question is particularly pertinent to me, since my book Charis takes liberties that might offend some people. While the response to my book so far has been good, I’ve received not a few reactions that go something like… “I don’t think my grandma will like this book” or “some people will be offended at your language.” One friend of mine was having his wife read the book out loud while they were driving, but he told her to skip chapter 6 (titled “Whore”) because he couldn’t hear her say those words out loud.

Just to be clear, I don’t use any four-letter words in the book. Only five-letter ones. And I never say anything that, in my mind, goes beyond what the Bible (in its original language) actually says.

The plain and undeniable fact is: The Bible at times uses vulgar and offensive language. In fact, there isn’t a single literal translation of Ezekiel 16 on the market. You have to know Hebrew to fully understand that chapter in the Bible, because the Hebrew is just too graphic (The Message comes closest). The same goes for Song of Songs and other portions of the Bible.

But let me share my heart. I want you to know where I’m coming from. I know that the use of crass and vulgar language has become trendy in some Christian circles, and some Christian preachers seem to enjoy shocking their audience simply because they…enjoy shocking their audience. But that’s not me. There is nothing in me, and nothing in my book, that is designed to say things in a shocking way simply to get a rise out of some people. Shock for the sake of shock is immature and unchristian. I have no desire to push some undefined envelope just to thumb my nose at people more conservative than I.

However, I also have no desire to censor the Bible where it was designed to offend, stir up, or shake the overly religious out of spiritual complacency.

As I said, the Bible uses offensive, vulgar, and sometimes quite pornographic (that is: “graphic sexual imagery”) language. Our English translations will dim down the language, and there may be times when unleashing the original language is inappropriate. But my book Charis is written for adults, not children.

So I deal with Genesis 38 and Ezekiel 16 and Hosea. I don’t pass over what Zipporah did to her son in Exodus 4 or Abraham’s past life in Ur. Gomer was not a prostitute but a sexually promiscuous woman, and I explain why this matters. The best English equivalent to zoneh, in certain contexts, is whore (that five-letter word). Hosea would have shocked his audience; if our preaching of Hosea doesn’t shock ours, then perhaps we’re not being as faithful to the text as we should. I’m not trying to be edgy just to be edgy, and I asked my many editors to tell me if they thought I went beyond the actual text (sometimes I did, and those bits didn’t make it into the final draft). I put much thought into every word that I said, and every word I wrote I wrote for a reason. Again, my motivation is not to sound hip or crass or vulgar. It’s to be biblical.

My motivation is and will always be the same: To proclaim and celebrate the word of God in all its grit and grime. Because the scandal of grace is often buried in a pile of religious bumper stickers trying to keep the gospel strapped in a pew. And if that’s how God talks about grace, then so be it. But he doesn’t. He talks about all kinds of sin—the deep, dark stuff—that he rescues us from. Because this impresses on our soul the magnitude of his grace.

My motivation with every word in Charis is to be most faithful to the word of God in its original language, and I want to impact my audience with the message of grace in the same way that the Bible would have impacted (perhaps offended) its own audience. That’s my motivation. Not to be edgy, not to be cool. But to be faithful to God’s word, which I’m determined to teach faithfully.

In any case, I still give this warning in the Preface:

Grace is a dangerous topic. We often want to domesticate it, calm it down, stuff it into a blue blazer and a pair of khakis. But biblical grace—or charis, as you’ll see—doesn’t like to settle down. It doesn’t drive a minivan and it sometimes misses church. To prove this, we’re going to venture on a journey across the land of Israel, and I’m not bringing a pacifier. If you need to scream, I’ll roll down the window. If you want to get off in the next town, sorry, doors are locked. Grace is a dangerous topic because the Bible is a dangerous book. It wrecks people, it offends people, and it’s tough to read from the suburbs. If you’re under eighteen, you might want to find another book on grace. There are plenty out there.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • MarkBeuving

    Not a problem!

  • Jefferson Steelflex

    Would you say your book is strictly for those over 18 years old?

  • Preston Sprinkle

    See my answer to Paul Adams above.

  • Preston Sprinkle

    Hey Paul! You’re right, I didn’t answer the question (perhaps I shouldn’t have led with that general question).

    I think we have to define what we mean by “profanity.” If you think about it, profanity is culturally defined and quite flexible. “Fart” in my family growing up was pretty much a swear word, even though “crap” was okay. One talk show host from the 50’s was kicked off the air (or censored, I can’t remember) for saying “water closet”–an old school reference to the bathroom. The word “sucks” used to be very crass and considered profanity based on its original derivation (as was “getting the shaft”), but now it’s fairly accepted. And, of course, the immigrant from China who knows 5 English words, one of which is “s**t”–not at all knowing what it means–would probably not be accused of swearing simply because he pronounced the sounds of an English cuss word.

    The point is: “profanity” is more of a heart issue than a black and white law about noises and sounds coming from our mouth.

    So I don’t think I can give a clear yes or no answer to your question. Clearly, if “speech” is “unwholesome” (whatever that means; cf. Eph 4), then it’s no good. But I think Paul’s command here goes far beyond profanity and could include all sorts of verbiage that devalue humans.

    Going back to your question, I think even in a casual conversation between believers, there could be profanity that is clearly wrong based not so much on the sounds or meanings of words (“crap” and “poop” mean the same thing as “s**t”) but on the heart-motivation behind speech. All in all, though, I think it’s heard to sort out the good from the bad since profanity is so culturally driven and therefore flexible and changing.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, Paul. What do you think?

    • Paul Adams

      Thanks for the detailed response, Preston. This is no easy pie to slice and I agree that much of this topic is culturally driven.

      What comes to mind is the post I wrote some time ago. Since your blog does not permit links, I’ll add my “two cents” below from that. Please do forgive the pedantic nature of what follows.

      “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29

      This text has long been a mainstay for me on the topic of profanity. My initial take is that believers should never use profane words, simply because there are so many other colorful terms available that are often more descriptive of whatever state of affairs one is explicating. After all, “the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words.” Surely if one expanded their vocabulary, a more useful and less offensive word could be found that has just as much zest. Only a few episodes watching Downton Abbey and it’s easy to see how high British speak can cut deeply in some of the most polite and seemingly civil ways without one use of a profane term!

      Nevertheless, I get it that one occasionally chooses to use a profane term for the sake of emphasis. One might argue the strategic use of a “colorful” term can get the point across in ways no common speak could. But as a manner of speaking, even occasionally, obscene or foul language hardly seems appropriate. I personally believe it is annoying, juvenile, and intellectually immature. And, yes, that belief applies to me, because I’ve certainly been guilty of this peccadillo. I say this because of Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians and to us. Let’s look a bit more closely at his meaning.

      First, Louw and Nida’s, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, has some insights on the use of the term “unwholesome” (Greek “σαπρός”), when they write:

      “20.14 σαπρός, ά, όν: pertaining to that which is harmful in view of its being unwholesome and corrupting—‘harmful, unwholesome.’ πᾶς λόγος σαπρὸς ἐκ τοῦ στόματος ὑμῶν μὴ ἐκπορευέσθω ‘let no harmful word go out of your mouth’ Eph 4:29. In Eph 4:29 σαπρός is in contrast with that which is ἀγαθός ‘good’ for building up what is necessary. In such a context ἀγαθός may be interpreted as that which is helpful, and by contrast σαπρός may be understood to mean ‘harmful.’”

      The same term is also used by Jesus when describing a bad tree that cannot bear good fruit (Matt 7:18). The tree is either seriously diseased or of seedling stock, which is to say it does not bud or produce anything. It is useless. Similarly, this term is used of fish that are not fit to consume but instead are to be discarded after the catch (Matt 13:48), likely because of decay or putrid smell. So too profane words or “talk” that comes from our lips. It corrupts our speech (see ESV) rather than clarifies and helpfully constructs our thoughts so others will be encouraged. Clinton Arnold notes:

      “The image of rottenness suggests that Paul wants believers to develop a kind of “gag reflex” to unhealthy ways of taking that will repulse them and cause them to clean up the way they speak to each other….Ministry to one another includes the practice of speaking encouraging and helpful words.” (Ephesians: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p 305).

      Just as our speech with “outsiders” — those who are unbelievers — must be seasoned with salt (Col 4:6) so that it preserves our conversation in ways that are meaningful and gracious, believers must “grace” their brothers and sisters with kind words that build up and are useful. Profane words are to be treated as “junk” words; a waste of breath and sound. Either our words are helpful or they’re hurtful. Not only are profane terms “ugly” (as in a decaying fish), but they are “useless” and to be thrown out.

      This would include not only profane terms, but sexually crude talk or unkind speech, just as Paul goes on to say:

      “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” Eph 5:4.

      Interestingly, the prohibition is in the form of a present imperative (μὴ ἐκπορευέσθω), suggesting that it’s always inappropriate to use “unwholesome” or “corrupting” speech. Not only must it stop happening, but it should never happen that believers use profane terms. Put positively, it’s always appropriate to speak with grace. There’s never a time when gracious speech is out of season.

      Believers should only and always speak “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29).

      So…that’s what I think (imperfect as it may be).

    • David Antonini

      I remember when I first moved to Australia, I was in the 4th grade or something and used the word “bollocks” – a British colloquialism generally used to mean ‘rubbish’ or BS, but actually an Old English word for ‘preaching’. Needless to say, an innocuous word in the UK was apparently a bad or swear word for a child to use in Australia. Competely innocent use of an admittedly fun word to say, but in that cultural context, it may have not been appropriate, and had I been aware of that, and persisted in using the word anyway, then I might have been in the wrong, or at least abusing my Christian liberty knowing I would upset someone.

      • NickWelford

        David “bollocks” is a bit more than rubbish, it is a slang term for the testicles!

  • MarkBeuving

    Paul, just a heads up, I took out your link, per our comment policy: http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/about-this-blog/comment-policy-2/

    • Apologies. Was not aware external links were prohibited.

  • John T. Jeffery

    Thank you for this thoughtful, provocative, and well-written post. Your careful qualifications are appreciated. Some of your statements are “take aways” that bear repeating and sharing:

    “…there isn’t a single literal translation of Ezekiel 16 on the market.”

    “Shock for the sake of shock is immature and unchristian.”

    “…I also have no desire to censor the Bible where it was designed to offend, stir up, or shake the overly religious out of spiritual complacency.”

    “Hosea would have shocked his audience; if our preaching of Hosea doesn’t shock ours, then perhaps we’re not being as faithful to the text as we should.”

  • Good post, Preston…as far as it goes. But I wonder, when not simply saying what the Bible says or trying to be cute for shock value, is it okay for believers to use profanity? I’m not sure you answered this question.

  • Guest

    This is good, Preston. But I wonder, is it okay for Christians to use vulgar language when not talking about what the Bible says or when not seeking some shock value, as, IMHO, some immature preachers may do?