Thursday, August 25, 2011

Foul Language

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Foul Language:

Q:  Is it a sin to use “curse words” or “foul language?”  Where in the Bible can this be found?

The acceptability of certain language in our culture is certainly a standard which has seen a great deal of change in the past two decades.  I grew up in the era of the “Seven words you can’t say on Television,” which seems to have been a transitional time which left behind the excessively-conservative portrayals of married  couples sleeping in separate twin beds, but preceded broad availability of networks such as HBO, Showtime, and MTV, where nearly anything goes. 

During those times, I remember being instructed, sometimes even by well-meaning Lutheran School Teachers, that there were certain words one ought not say because they are sinful.  This reflects one side a divide that often exists regarding the morality of using certain language.  Some teach that there are certain topics that are not permitted for discussion or combinations of syllables that are immoral to vocalize, while others take the approach that, since there is no list of forbidden words in Scripture, that anything goes.  I remember once hearing it said that there is no commandment reading, “Thou shalt not say **** an awful lot.”

These opposing positions are both partially correct.  On one hand, there is no Biblical law regarding certain four-letter English words (since English as we know it did not yet exist in the first century A.D.) or outlawing the discussion of certain topics.  On the other hand, the Bible does frequently speak about our use of language. 

For example, Jesus’ brother James speaks in his letter about “taming the tongue,” and Jesus speaks once in the Gospel of Matthew against the use of “idle words.”  Several verses throughout the Bible, especially in Proverbs, encourage pure speech and maintaining a good reputation before one’s neighbors, but none of them specify the content of that speech in such a way that certain words are permitted or forbidden. 

Additionally, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians that “everything is permissible, but not all are beneficial,” and in both 1 Corinthians and Romans, he discusses how Christians ought to treat their “weaker brother” on matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God’s law.  

Most Christians regard the Ten Commandments as the foremost summary of God’s law for humanity.  Many of them would point to the Second Commandment, which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” as forbidding the use of certain words.  This is true, but this commandment only forbids misusing God’s name.  This means that Christians ought to use the names and titles ascribed to God by the Bible in the ways that He has commanded, but what about those other words that do not involve God’s name?

Some of the other commandments can be helpful in this respect.  For example, for children to use language forbidden by their parents, teachers, or other authorities would be to sin against the 4th Commandment.  To use language in such a way that harms another person, either by damaging their reputation or by being verbally abusive or intimidating, would be a sin against the 5th or 8th commandments.  And, to use language in a way that is sexually indecent would be a sin against the 6th commandment. 

In light of these verses and commandments indicated above, we could probably conclude that the traditional list of “naughty words” is pretty accurate, but not for the reasons usually argued, and that not only they, but many of the other ways that we typically use language, are also not in harmony with God’s commands.  Even in the case where we could not say we have a clear command from God regarding a word or phrase being sinful, the Bible encourages us to consider how our actions will affect our reputation in the world or the state of our neighbors with a weaker conscience. 

In the end, it is not the vocalization of certain syllables, but the manner in which we use our words and the impact they have on our neighbor that informs its use.  Therefore we ought to choose our words carefully and consider their impact before we speak.

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