The Ethics of Swearing

I was asked a question at work the other day that got me thinking, but I also thought that it would be a good question to bring to the Connect community.

First, some background: my coworker is younger like me and he came from a very conservative Christian Mennonite heritage. He has since distanced himself from that. Anyway, we got talking about the ethics of swearing. At work, he does not swear, but he told me that with his friends he does a lot. I do not swear at all (at least, not intentionally). He does not see why swearing is wrong at all. He says they are just words that Christians have, for whatever reason, deemed unacceptable. I could not come up with much of an answer to this. But I asked him what he thought of what I see as secular hypocrisy. Secular parents aren’t afraid to swear. They don’t necessarily see it as wrong. But why do they avoid swearing around young children? Why punish children for swearing if the parent themselves say the exact same thing? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? My coworker’s answer was that when young children swear it usually causes them to be more disrespectful to other people, meaning it breeds bad behaviour. I then asked him why he doesn’t think it does the same when adults swear, but he thinks adults know better.

So my question is: what do you think about the ethics of swearing? Is it right? Is it wrong? Or is it completely neutral, that it has nothing moral to it whatsoever? Why shouldn’t Christians use swear words?

3 Likes

@O_wretched_man Thank you for sharing your story. I have encountered similar situations where people draw a dividing line between adults and kids that, even when I was a kid, was obviously and (in a dark way) comically wrong. If a particular behavior tends to lead kids on a wrong path, then of course it is destructive for adults too…

On this topic, I think the Bible draws a very clear line. Paul never said - hey, it’s okay if it’s not too bad. No, he always called us to think only on those things that are good and pure and beautiful and cursing does not promote that… In addition, cursing is often associated with nihilism or other ways of life that are not in keeping with the way of Jesus. We are to be above reproach and to seek what is above.

Philippians 4:8 - Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Ephesians 4:29 - 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.

You might find this thread helpful:

2 Likes

Thanks @SeanO for the response. I hear what you are saying, but what makes swearing bad? What is it about swearing that makes it impure? Sure, we are to have good thoughts, but what makes swearing a bad thought? These are the questions my coworker and I explored.

1 Like

I have been studying leadership for a long time. There are a lot of things about humans that many people agree are wrong but nobody is sure why. I think swearing is bad because not because of the words but because of the attitude. Swearing says “I don’t care that I offend you”. Somehow that offense is secularly ok but ask your friend, “do you know where you are going when you die?” or “how much money do you make?”. Those things are “offensive”. I used to say, “Jesus loves you” every time they swear just to be offensive back, however, Jesus was not antagonistic.

2 Likes

@O_wretched_man I think there are some very interesting questions here regarding cultures and how certain topics are considered taboo. You could then try to deconstruct those cultural tendencies and try to evaluate if certain topics should / should not actually be taboo or what such a category even means.

However, I agree with @Xander that oftentimes cussing in our culture is associated with the same kind of growing up as smoking, alcohol and other behaviors generally not condoned by Scriptures. In other words, where do you find cussing the most? At least in our culture, generally not in nice places? What kind of music has the most cussing? Generally, music that is otherwise not wholesome either? Why is that?

I’m not sure we can make strong conclusions about every culture that has ever existed, but in Paul’s culture and in ours part of being above reproach, to me, is to avoid foul speech which others may associate with immorality or attitudes of rebellion against authority.

My experience growing up was that cussing was generally associated with “growing up” in all of the wrong ways and was generally associated with other topics that were not wholesome.

What are your thoughts?

1 Like

My Dad could have been a champion swearer. His chain of expletives was infamous. He was never one of those who swore as a matter or course in language, like “hey you so-and-so, how ya doin?”. He only swore in anger. As a type-A personality who have no patience for life’s frustrations that meant a lot of swearing.

I recognized early on that it was ugly, controlling and repulsive. I think that’s why we as kids didn’t develop that habit. So I think it might be important to question what impression you might be leaving on other people and how might that impression affect your life and relationships. Are you trying to control or intimidate others?

My Dad was an engineer and very analytical and a life-long seeker. He always attended church, but more for social reasons. He read the Bible, but not with the eyes or heart of a believer. Once he told me he could not reconcile the God of the OT with the God of the NT. One was vengeful and the other loving. He could not believe in the God of the OT. So I asked him, if that was the case, why is it the OT God that he most often called upon? He had asked God to damn MANY things in his lifetime and that was certainly more in line with the OT than the loving God of the NT he found more more appealing. That certainly shook him.

Ultimately, what value does swearing have for us? What consequences should I be mindful of? What does it say about me? I think culturally it’s generally so we’ll fit in with others and a hallmark of our insecurities about being accepted/rejected. Perhaps it’s a habit that one can easily discard as one matures into a whole person that no longer needs validation from others, although my Dad never grew out of it.

Whether a believer or not, Paul’s words in 1 Cor:10:23-24 are good advice to all:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

A verse that’s made me consider how I express myself is James 5:12:
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
I always took that to mean I should watch what language I use for emphasis or drama, such as: H- - - no!, Absolutely not! D- - - right!. What was I gaining with the added emphasis? Did it bring value to anyone, or any discussion? Wasn’t it just to be seen as committed to my point of view? What might I gain by dropping that which had no value?

1 Like

Personally I know plenty of cussing Christians and non-Christians alike. Some will use certain scriptures to prove that some prophets and Jesus cussed considering the culture and society back then. While I’m not fully convinced about that I do believe that as people submit more to Christ even the way they talk changes.

I don’t think it’s okay because as Christians we are to show ourselves separate from the world. If the world can’t see a difference between us and them then what reason do they need to question their own way of life?

God holds us to a higher standard and most people don’t like that. It’s inconvenient for us all and if we aren’t careful we’ll make it a habit of trying to justify things that aren’t fully forbidden but we know isn’t good. Such as drug addiction. It’s not specifically in the Bible but we know it’s not good and rips families apart.

One thing I would ask your friend is why do they feel it’s so taxing not to cuss. If they are just words then why feel annoyed at being restricted in saying them? Even if they are just an expression cussing is frowned upon at work, schools, court rooms, and other places of standard regardless of religion. Which means society as a whole agrees its not appropriate.

I personally don’t think cussing will send you to hell or that it’s sinful but I do think for a Christian it will make it a lot harder to witness to non-Christians and in time force others to question how seriously one is being about representing christ.

2 Likes

One of my nephews used a slang word to show dismissive consideration of what I was saying. When I challenged his wording he responded; “its just a word!” He insinuated that I alone bore the concept of inappropriateness. So, without missing a beat I continued the conversation and injected an expletive as I spoke. He was shocked into silence. Then he yelled; “Auntie!”

The hypocrisy of profanity in any culture is that its impact can be altered if we all agree it can be. But whether I am speaking English or any other language it universally translates into obscenity and disrespect. And even if used circumspectly around children, they know that it represents vulgarity in the lives of the adults around them. Just one more lie we tell our children. Just one more lie they consider when deciding what is true. What is right.

Profanity is similar to the claims of someone caught in adultery. “Its just sex, I don’t love them!” Whether your friends accept that explanation or not; it certainly informs them about your character. They might love you but they don’t want their husband or wife spending a lot of time with you.

It can be difficult and shocking to encounter profanity from someone who professes to love GOD. My sainted Mother did that once. I remember the immediate confusion I experienced. My Mother for many years lived for GOD. But in her anger and frustration, she used a profane word She said it was the only word that seemed to accurately describe that individual.

I only heard her say it once, but I remember, even now, how disappointed I was. My Mother not only lived for CHRIST but she had taught us that when people resorted to profanity it portrayed laziness or limitations in their ability to communicate. Quite simply it was one of the few times I ever experienced un-prayerfulness in my Mom. It helped me because it informed me of the cautionary tale of besetting sin and the danger of un-prayerfulness. Truth, respect, and any of the attributes that make us civil towards one another are never fluid in their meaning. I am persuaded that Truth, is never relative.

2 Likes

@SeanO @Xander @Jennifer_Judson @Luna @cer7

Okay, so let me summarize what you are all saying:

  • Cussing is a sign of disrespect, especially to the people around you.
  • What usually embodies cussing is negative and not wholesome
  • Cussing can be controlling, a bad habit
  • Cussing brings no value to a conversation
  • Refraining from cussing can distinguish us a Christians apart from the secular world
  • Cussing can represent vulgarity
  • There is a reason why the kindest people we know, if they cuss, can shock those who know them

Is this a fair summarization?

3 Likes

@O_wretched_man. Just one missing, for me, the most important one. GOD said don’t do it. Ephesians 4:22-32, or Colossians 3:1-10 for example.

3 Likes

Yes thank you! I am aware that it’s unbiblical, but I’m not so sure that my coworker would care all that much. Sure he grew up in a Christian home, but the bible holds little to no authority for him now.

I think your summary is fair.

I don’t know what motivates this guy, but I know many women for whom that behavior is a real turn off. That may be something he’s never considered.

1 Like

We want to be careful with our words. That would be the short answer.

Swearing rarely conveys anything that cannot be said more eloquently without swearing. I say rarely instead of saying always because there is actually at least one swear word in the Bible that comes from the apostle paul which he uses to illustrate a point. I will give the verse.

Phil. 3:8 (ESVS) 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.

This word rubbish here actually means excrement. Now, Paul is using this word appropriately, not because he is loose with his tongue and that makes all the difference in the world. In short, he uses this word here because it is the best way to convey the point he is trying to make. He is doing the opposite of being flippant with his words when he says this because he must use an extreme word here to convey and contrast the insurmountable worth of Christ compared to all that comes from the flesh.

Also, I just want to point out that Paul here uses a cuss word and not a curse word and there is a difference. A cuss word is a word that is extreme by it’s nature. It’s the kind of word you don’t say at the dinner table, but you might say as someone who is trying to drive home a point that cannot be made any other way. A curse word is a totally different story. That would be a word you would use to curse someone or something. Even here, I believe the disciples were at liberty to actually curse, but don’t quote me on that. Also, I want to point out a verse talking about cursing and blessing.

Gen. 12:3 (ESVS) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and pin you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

I believe this was YHWH saying this. Naturally, those who have the authority to curse people come from very high up the chain.

Lastly, I just want to say that some curse words may be demonic language and though I don’t know any of these words, they should never be said by a human.

1 Like

“Vulgarity is not substitute for wit”

Lady Grantham Downton Abbey