This subject has been batted around the blogosphere for as long as I can remember. Ever since I began blogging, I have been planning to comment on it eventually.
Recently, heated discussions about the impropriety of vulgar language in the mouths (and blogs) of Christians have been provoked by episodes on two of my favorite blogsone being a protracted comment-thread several days ago on our own Frank Turk's blog, and the other being a widely-discussed post at Challies.com today.
Where should we draw the line in deciding what language is appropriate or inappropriate for Christians, especially in a public context like a book or a blog or a sermon, when the whole world might be listening?
Here are some points I want to make clear:
- It's hard to be perfectly consistent on this question, because so much about it is inherently subjective. What's profanity in Hindi doesn't offend my ears at all, because it evokes no meaning in my mind. For that matter, certain English words that have no evil connotations throughout the Commonwealth are jarringly offensive here in America, and vice versa. (The late, greatly beloved founder of our ministry's New Zealand branch used to plead with me to try to convince our pastor not to use the word bum to describe a drunken derelict, because that word was simply not used for any reason in polite society by Kiwis from his generation. There's a totally innocuous British expression meaning "stay cheerful" that probably shouldn't be used in mixed company in America. I'd go on giving examples, but I don't want to offend anyone unnecessarily.)
- Nonetheless, we ought to aim at matching our words to our profession of faith. One of the World's Great Powerbloggers accused me of gross hypocrisy a couple of days ago for supposedly winking at Frank Turk's use of an earthy two-syllable Saxon expression. Powerblogger claimed I was being inconsistent with my own policy because I "didn't de-link him." But in point of fact, I did not link to that episode at Frank's blog for the very same reason I haven't linked to other posts elsewhere that have used PG-13 language. The reason I didn't comment publicly about Frank's use of the expletive when it happened is that I was quite literally in a plane on my way home from Europe on the day it happened, and I didn't catch up with the blogosphere until the whole thing was well and truly over. By then Frank had already apologized and spent his time in the penalty box. But he did apologize. And I resolved to post about "bad language" as soon as an opportunity presented itself. So here we are. There's no apathetic double standard here. We're going to try to keep it that way. (Note: Although I once refused to link to a post with an offensive expression at the Whimpering Nexus of the Intellectual Universe, I haven't totally de-linked them, either. Yet.)
- Dirty language and casual cussing seems to be a besetting sin in the "Emerging Church" movement. I don't know if it's a generational thing, a cultural thing, one of the ramifications of the blithe worldliness that pervades the philosophy behind the "Emerging Church," or all of the above. But I listened to the first few podcasts from Emergent, and I was floored by how freely vulgar language and "mild" profanity flows in the so-called "Emerging Conversation." "Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:10).
- I heartily affirm everything Daniel at Doulogos said about this issue. The comments in reply to that simple post show how volatile the issue is, and how recalcitrant some Christians these days can be in defending their indefensible use of bad language. Ditto for the comments at Challies today. (Here's an issue where I think we would all do well to listen to what Carla, Kim, and the majority of the homeschool moms are trying to tell us.)
- The Bible isn't all that confusing in what it says about this issue. In the comments at Challies today, several commenters pointed out that the Bible contains some language that would not be deemed polite for public reading under most normal circumstances. Others seemed to be suggesting that if there's no convenient set of rules or list of disapproved words in the Bible, pretty much anything short of taking God's name in vain is OK. Granted that the Bible records some instances of indelicate language, and there are a few occasions when godly menincluding Paul, Elijah, and Ezekielused some shockingly graphic lowbrow imagery. But it's not true that Scripture is utterly devoid of any restrictions on the use of coarse language.
- Ephesians 5:3-4, for example, was cited by several commenters (and summarily dismissed by several others) at Challies today. That passage and its cross-references do establish a clear, albeit subjective, principle governing the use of coarse, vulgar, and filthy language: "But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks." The Greek expressions for "filthiness . . . foolish talking . . . coarse jesting" are speaking of exactly the same kind of language your mother used to wash your mouth out with soap for. Check any lexicon. It's a pretty sweeping prohibition against every kind of "bad" words. See also Ephesians 4:29.
- Granted, there's no banned-word list, and based on Scripture's own example, the prohibition against the mere mention of fornication is not as absolute as a woodenly-literal reading of that text might suggest.
- What's more, all of us are guilty of violating the standard these commandments give us. We do it all the time. In practical terms, it's impossible for us not to sin in this. "We all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man" (James 3:2).
- Nonetheless, Ephesians 5:3-4 means something, and it's worth pondering carefully. When we have an admittedly subjective commandment like this, that's not a warrant to push the envelope and see how close to impropriety we can come, especially for the sheer shock value of being heard. Rather, it's a good time to exercise extreme caution and stay as far away as possible from whatever is obviously in bad tasteperhaps even what is merely questionable.
- Finally, for those who always insist that absolute guidelines or rules written in black and white are necessary to make sense of (or practically apply) a principle like that of Ephesians 4:29, I can't help you. Just keep your coarse and filthy words off my blog.
- Are these biblical commands really concerned with words, or is this about attitudes and ideas? Both. Colossians 3:8 is expressly concerned with what kind of words we use. Ditto with Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4.
- Why are some words deemed taboo when an exact synonym might be perfectly acceptable in mixed company? The question has interested me for a long time. I work with words for a living, so I think about language a lot. The distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable words are admittedly hard to account for. But I still think there are good reasons to recognize and respect the boundaries civilized society places on language. For one thing, it affects our testimony. That alone should be sufficient reason for Christians to honor the distinction between bad words and their more socially-acceptable substitutes. After all, the fact that Paul bans "filthy language" in Colossians 3:8 without giving a banned-word list or any further guidelines suggests that he was expecting them simply to follow whatever convention was recognized in the polite society of that time. Again, there is a measure of subjectivity here. But that's no reason to throw out the principle altogether.