Cussing Christians: Why I’m with Mark Driscoll on this One

Mark Driscoll gets this one right. Seriously. In my opinion, we ought to have the freedom to use language contextually and not be bound by religiosity. That doesn’t mean that we ought to cuss like a sailor, but words have power… even what our culture considers offensive. (To be clear, I don’t often agree with under-girding theological assumptions that drive his use of foul or provocative language at various times)

I grew up in a context where Paul’s words were oft quoted: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths…” I wonder what determines unwholesome speech? Does the popular culture? Does the FCC? Nope. The answer comes in the second part of the statement: “…only that which is good for building others up ACCORDING TO THEIR NEEDS.” This statement both relativizes cussing and invites contextualization. The test, does using this word tear someone down or build up? If it doesn’t tear them down (because it is part of a language they understand) then we ought not live in a legalism that the Scriptures don’t impose.

Oddly enough, in Philippians (3.8) Paul says that he considers all things as “rubbish” or “garbage” or “dung” or “loss” compared to the greatness of knowing Jesus. This word (skubalon***) is only used once in the New Testament. And yes my friends, that word is a first century cuss word.

I do not think that we ought to be known as “cussers” but I do believe there’s something wrong when my non-Christian friends feel the need to apologize when they slip the F*Bomb in the conversation. My response is always: Please, please, please feel free to be exactly who you are around me! Your language doesn’t offend me or make me see you in a bad light. I’d rather get to know the real you.

Finally, as a Christian leader I would avoid using any language that offends people in contexts that it would be a hindrance for the Good News. In Tony Jones’ book, The New Christians, he tells the story of Mark’s gradual dissent from the Emergent conversation. One of the last draws was when Mark, after being asked to not cuss at a guest speaking engagement (for a friend) did the following:

When Brad Cecil invited Mark to guest preach at Axxess Church in Arlington, he explained to Mark that unlike Seattle, swearing from the pulpit in Texas just wouldn’t fly, and he asked Mark to please keep his language clean.  Mark used the F-Word in the first sentence. (The New Christians, 48)

The above story illustrates the wrong way to use language.  Language is contextual.  Mark Driscoll now disagrees with the way he used language at that time, early in his ministry.  He’s repented and apologized to Brad Cecil.  This demonstrates that there are times when certain words that work in one situation are not appropriate for another setting.

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So, what do you think about the issue of the occasional cuss word and Christians?  Is this a contextual matter in preaching?  How about in personal relationships?

The point here is to talk about Christians and cussing in a broad way, not simply from the “pulpit.” I hope to hear more about the use of cursing in the ‘everyday.’ Is it wrong?

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*** skubalon – In secular Greek this depressing word means rubbish and muck of many kinds: excrement, rotten food, bits left at a meal as not worth eating, a rotting corpse. Nastiness and decay are the constant elements of its meaning; it is a coarse, ugly, violent word implying worthlessness, uselessness, and repulsiveness... The only NT usage is Paul’s in Phil 3:8, where he says of all the natural and religious privileges which once seemed sweet and precious, and all the things he has lost since becoming a Christian, “I count (estimate, evaluate) them as (nothing but) dung.” The coarse and violent word shows how completely Paul had ceased to value them. [New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 1, Zondervan: 1980, pg 480]

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Here are more thoughts from him on provocative language…

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Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.  He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook

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Kurt Willems

Kurt WillemsKurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is the founding pastor of Pangea Communities - a movement of peace, justice, & hope. The church plant, in partnership with the Brethren in Christ and Urban Expression, is based in Seattle, Wa. Kurt writes at The Pangea Blog and is also on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.View all posts by Kurt Willems →

  • Anonymous

    What we understand today as cussing or profanity – whenever a speaker uses profane words to communicate or make a point, there are better ways & better language to use. So we cringe, or certainly have some kind of reaction, when we head profane words. If we are responsible, we also take care to not use that kind of language when kids or other impressionable people are within earshot, who may just hear the words but not the whole communication.
    While some good may be gained if the speaker’s audience’s attention was gained in order for the speaker to make his point, in my opinion there are hopefully better ways for the speaker to connect with his audience, so may we be mindful of ways to do that, if we are prone to cussing.
    On the flip side, if & when we hear blue language, we should be careful not to overreact by harshly condemning its usage &/or whom is using it.
    Making a couple of personal notes – part of my testimony is that when I accepted Christ, one of the changes in my life is that I wanted to honor Him in my speech, so practically applied, that meant giving up swearing.  In addition, I am in a work environment where swearing is discouraged. Although the generally profanity-free environment is not the end of what it should be, it is a mark of a workplace culture where people’s work & ideas are respected & appreciated, and everyone’s a little happier.

  • Sandy

    In my opinion, it’s just silliness to take two words that mean exactly the same thing and call one bad and the other good. I feel like the heart motivation behind words matters much more than the words themselves. If I’m using my words to tear someone down, then that’s bad. I use “curse” words frequently, because I just think it’s funny, honestly. It’s a lighthearted thing, and it makes me and those around me laugh. If my husband’s in a crappy mood, I’ll call him off into a corner and be like “What the f*ck is wrong with you?” Then we both laugh and he feels better. :p I try not to “curse” around people that I know would be offended by it. But I also don’t try to hide that fact that I think the whole concept of words being bad in and of themselves doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Sandy

    p.s. And my impulse is to disagree with Driscoll’s use of the “f-word” for shock value at a church where they asked him to keep it “clean.” Can’t say I would feel right doing that. But Jesus sometimes seemed to go out of His way to offend the church folk of His time, to remind them they had their priorities wrong.

  • Michael J Willms

    Provocative language…

    This is a very intriguing blog and topic. My name is Michael Willms (I believe we dropped the “e” sometime in the 1700’s) and share the same Anabaptist/Mennonite background. Who knows, going back far enough in the family tree we may be related. For all you non-Mennonite readers we play a game, “the Mennonite game”, where we discuss who we are related to when we meet. Sounds a little hillbillyish but it’s surprising to find out how many people are actually related.

    Anyway back on topic. I know of a Mexican Mennonite (very conservative group of Mennonites for those who don’t know) father who sent two of his boys to pick up a bull he purchased from his neighbour. As they were trying to walk this bull home they were struggling as it did not want to go. They had both butchered many times with their father so they decided it would be much easier to butcher the bull and haul it home in the cart. The only problem was the bull was intended for breeding not meat. This is a good example of a family that for “religious” reasons did not talk about things that might be considered provocative or at least sexual in nature. I remember my grandfather not being able to say “bra” because he was too embarrassed to get the word out, and he was only talking about the kind for the front of a car. We got a good chuckle out of that but for him it is how he was raised and it bothered him.

    I completely understand where people are coming from when they do not want to talk about sexual issues. They were raised to think that if you get too comfortable with sexual issues and talk you will become a bigger target for temptation. I don’t completely disagree. The more comfortable we are with sex the easier it is to be tempted by sexual desires. I am only pointing out sex but there are other provocative topics that can be treated very similar. I could do a whole blog on this topic but not today. :)

    Am I saying we should avoid sexual topics like the Mexican Mennonite family? No, definitely not! I do think that with any topic that can lead us into temptation we must be cautious not to go too far and not get too comfortable with it but we need not be ashamed to talk about any topic.

    Now in regards to using what many people to consider “foul language” I have some thoughts as well. I personally do not condone nor recommend using foul language just because a person is ministering to people who do talk that way and consider it to be normal vocabulary. A lot of the same people also believe in having sex with whoever and whenever so should we consider this acceptable as well? I think not.

    For six years I worked in the oilfield which has probably the most foul talking people of any group of people. Even though my language is not perfect I still chose not to use the same vulgar language as my piers and subordinates. I did not expect them to change their language for me nor did I tell them to. Some of them out of respect for me still chose their words differently around me but knew I was not offended by it. We don’t have to join in to be accepted in fact our actions speak much louder than words. People knew that there was something different about me through the way I talked, acted and treated people. I was greatly respected for it and no one felt uncomfortable around me. In fact many came to me just to talk because they knew I was not going to be judgemental.

    I could easily write much more on my thoughts on this topic but I’ll close with the following. In 1 Corinthians 10:23 Paul says ““Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive.” I think we need to take this to heart. We do not need to act like our neighbours to be accepted nor should we. Our actions and inactions will speak much louder than any word can. We must accept people for who they are and try to build them up rather than tear them down so let’s not be judgemental either.

    @PrayingMike

  • Michael J Willms

    PS One of my former managers who was not a Christian commented on how he noticed that I did not use curse words or foul language. He commended me on this and stated that people who have to use such colourful language to get a point across just aren’t smart enough to use the proper words that will do the same or even better job. As a manager he expected me to continue to be that kind of example. It made me look like I was an educated person not a high school drop out. He does have a point when it comes to business.

    I am not saying that people who sound “uneducated” should be treated differently even though to some degree my manager did. I choose to accept people for who they are and how they talk. In certain situations like around children I may encourage them to “clean up” their language some but I won’t make them feel like I’m judging them.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @51e24e1a2e05eb989a1f064c0dbc892c:disqus … good thoughts and sometimes our lack of vulgarity can be a good witness.  I’m simply saying that Christians who judge other Christians based on some “moral code” not found in the bible get this issue wrong.  They create a new Law; when Paul chose a choice word in the 1st century to convey a deep point.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @51e24e1a2e05eb989a1f064c0dbc892c:disqus … good thoughts and sometimes our lack of vulgarity can be a good witness.  I’m simply saying that Christians who judge other Christians based on some “moral code” not found in the bible get this issue wrong.  They create a new Law; when Paul chose a choice word in the 1st century to convey a deep point.

  • http://www.fivedills.com Greg Dill

    One of my favorite quotes about cussing is by Dr. Campolo himself. Enjoy:

    “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” (Tony Campolo)

  • http://www.fivedills.com Greg Dill

    One of my favorite quotes about cussing is by Dr. Campolo himself. Enjoy:

    “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” (Tony Campolo)

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @fivedills:disqus … AGREE!

    • Anonymous

      I’ve heard Tony use that line years ago – At first I thought it was novel and provocative. Now I’ve come to resent the assumption that I couldn’t be upset with “both”. I ought to be… 
      Aside: Why would Tony feel the need to motivate others to compassion for the poor by shocking them with profanity? It’s a base and illogical argument that doesn’t honor the consistent pure heart of Jesus Who, incidentally, also cares about both.

      • Macroman

        English
        is a diverse language and you will find if you travel to different countries or
        areas that what is considered a cuss word in one area is not in another.  

        My father was a dairy farmer first and Canadian.  Shit was what you shoveled on a daily basis literally.  I never imagined it had any foul connotation till I moved to parts of the US. 

        • Anonymous

          Clearly, that’s not what’s being discussed here. At issue is what is being forged in your heart as you use the word. Are you appealing to the power of a provocative word that injures the spirit or are you appealing to the Spirit of God Who is able to transform and purify? ..Nothing puritanical about this. It’s essence of material, spiritual, truth. It’s unconscionable for Kingdom leaders to minimize the use of profanity that has as it’s intent to injure or “curse”. As Jesus (in red) might say: “YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT SORT OF SPIRIT YOU ARE OF; FOR THE SON OF MAN DID NOT COME TO DESTROY PEOPLE’S LIVES BUT TO SAVE THEM.”

  • Patrish7

    I agree, totally. i have in the last couple years finally come to this conclusion myself. There nothing like a well placed “that’s bullshit” of F’ that. I am careful and try not to drop the f-bomb often. And I have to admit that on occasion I find myself tossing in a cuss word just to deliver a blow to someone’s “religious” attitude that is so counterproductive.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @7de793785d67a4888529c719e488bb76:disqus … good thoughts.

  • http://twitter.com/nokoryous Kory Mereness

    “I do not think that we ought to be known as “cussers” but I do believe there’s something wrong when my non-Christian friends feel the need to apologize when they slip the F*Bomb in the conversation. My response is always: Please, please, please feel free to be exactly who you are around me! Your language doesn’t offend me or make me see you in a bad light. I’d rather get to know the real you.”
    I like this. It’s about balance. And it doesn’t endorse me cussing just to culture-fit myself. I do really like Driscol’s take on being a missionary with the world looking in on his culture. It doesn’t necessarily sell a Gospel of “stay the way you are,” which is what I think worrying Christians worry about in this conversation.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @twitter-244251400:disqus … balance is absolutely key.  I don’t cuss on a regular basis, but I’m also ok with words that don’t do violence to others.  Words that degrade such as slurs (for instance) are never to be used because they lack the ability to ever ‘build others up.’  They always tear down.  And yes… we always move people into conforming to Christ not staying where they are.

      • Rayfius

        Love is not rude, so it might not cuss among those that think it rude, at the very least. Also, cuss words are highly charged emotionally, often with anger, and may perpetuate a reactive anger response.

  • Michelle

    I was brought up quite strictly on this issue – we never swore on pain of death! I appreciate it now. It’s just not part of my vocabulary, and it would not be me to do that. I don’t get OFFENDED when people swear, but the words do have a jarring effect on me, probably because I’m not used to it.

    I agree that it is a minor issue but I would probably still enforce non swearing as a rule my daughter – I think it teaches kids to be careful and thoughtful with their words.

  • Kerusso323

    What exactly is the reason for a Christian to swear? To fit in? To shock? Seriously. It’s so overblown and so overused, why not start a counter-revolution and NOT swear? 

  • http://jesusjusticeandjargon.blogspot.com/ Schuyler Stallcup

    I was having a debate with a few friends of mine over whether or not Christians should be nonviolent. Only my buddy Rodney and I believed that Christians should practice nonviolence as Jesus did, while the other four guys disagreed. At one point I said that I found it “fucking devastating” that people in Iraq who equate America with Christianity thought that Jesus hated them and wanted them dead. One of the guys heatedly responded, “I’m appalled that you just used the F-word and Jesus’s name in the same sentence.” Rodney responded, “I’m appalled that you would use violence and Jesus’s name in the same sentence.” 

    Since I was like 13 I never understood why Christians were so opposed to “cursing.” Anytime I’d ask someone to justify their opposition with scripture, they would point to the verse about unwholesome talk. I’d ask them what defines unwholesome talk and nobody ever seemed to have an answer for that. 

    From strictly a rhetoric standpoint, I agree with Driscoll (and I rarely say that.) I try to be sparing with the strong language I use so that when I do use it, it really makes a point. 

    Even the idea of using the Lord’s name in vain has been limited to saying “Oh my God.” We really use the Lord’s name in vain anytime we use Jesus’s name to back up our own agenda, rather than promote His. I wrote this short blog over that. http://jesusjusticeandjargon.blogspot.com/2011/10/god-bless-america.html

    Great article!

    • Temi

      This is such a great example of how many Christians think.  It’s like what Jesus said to the Pharisees, “you strain out a knat and swallow a camel.”  We’ll march to war in Jesus’ name, but let’s keep the language clean…

  • Temi

    For the most part, I don’t cuss.  But I am not shocked or offended by it.  I have never found any reason to think God would be either.  They are just words.  Anyone who is the least bit able to adapt to a group will often find him or herself taking on the accent and language choice of the group.  I can’t see how it would be more righteous to say “buttocks” than to say “ass.”  It is a matter of appropriateness, not holiness.  

    The thing that really bothers me, though, is the way such a small thing is focused on, while things that really matter are completely missed.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discussed a movie or a book with another Christian and since the language gave offense they missed the wonderful, uplifting message of the story.  Or other times when a book or movie has had a truly awful, faith-crushing message, but since it got a PG rating everyone feels it must be okay.

    In short, if my non-Christian friends and co-workers notice a difference in the way I talk, I hope the difference has more to do with the content of what I say and less to do with my lack of colorful vocabulary.

  • Susieladuke

    It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. Romans 14:21
    If it distresses someone of weak faith when we use cuss words then we should not use cuss words, if cuss words will lead someone to a faith in Jesus cuss away!

  • Colin Bain

    Its disingenuous to compare the wrongs of the world (starvation) with the behaviour of Gods people. We are, after all, citizens of heaven. Not only that, but non Christians expect higher standards from Christians. How does swearing reflect love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness GENTLENESS and SELF CONTROL? I get upset at swearing, BUT I also get upset at the starving millions. And leaders are held to a higher standard we are warned.

  • http://twitter.com/nokoryous Kory Mereness

    I’ve had a student coming to my small group the last two weeks, and it’s his first church thing…ever. Reading this article really helped me to grapple with an appropriate response to his somewhat colorful language. It’s awesome that he’s a part of our group, and definitely uncomfortable when he drops a curse word during a Bible study. But I think my repose has been important for his feeling accepted enough to remain a part of a group where he has every right to feel like he’s on the outside. Hopefully God will work in this kid’s heart to show him who Jesus is. Then maybe we can get that language cleaned up.

    Pray for Dale. I hope God can continue to use this group (or anything) to reach his heart with Jesus’ love.

  • Lmariecarson

    I was never a cusser until I met with the intensity of life and emotion via the actual challenges of loving in the midst of pain. Which is strange to suggest that Christianity and the work of it surfaced the intensity of provocative language….and swearing. I then tend to be suspicious at someone who can’t….but yeah, in context I suppose. 

  • Sojourner_Truth

    This really shouldn’t be open for debate.  The bible is very clear on where we should stand as Christians on the issue:

    “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are
    made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing.
    My brothers, these things should not be this way” (James 3:9-10)

    Ephesians 5:4

    ESV / 78 helpful votes

    Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which
    are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

    Ephesians 4:29

    ESV / 58 helpful votes

    Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is
    good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to
    those who hear.

    Colossians 3:8-10

    ESV / 52 helpful votes

    But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander,
    and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that
    you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the
    new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its
    creator.

    Philippians 4:8

    ESV / 23 helpful votes

    Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
    whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is
    commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of
    praise, think about these things.

    Matthew 15:10-11

    ESV / 16 helpful votes

    And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and
    understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,
    but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
    Not just cussing, but using crude language is not biblical.  You can’t say your biblical, but then wrap your opinions in cultural contexts when it’s convenient to not be biblical.  I don’t get it at all.  This is exactly why I’ve just about tuned Mark out at this point.  He’s all over the place.  MMA brings glory to God, but not video games.  Avatar is demonic, but not crude language.  Accepting a certain concept of the trinity is necessary for salvation, alongside of believing the Jesus is the son of God.  It’s almost like he’s the poster boy for the same legalism that he supposedly hates?

  • http://twitter.com/navychristian Dan Smith

    By the way, I’m a Sailor. We would use the word skubalon a lot.

  • http://twitter.com/lindyireland Lindy Ireland

    Yes, this is a tricky one. But I notice that when someone who normally cusses DOESN’T do it in conversation with me, I take it as a conscious sign of respect.  In the same way that most people would probably choose not to cuss around the president of the U.S. or the pope or their grandmothers.  

  • Jim Smith

    Meanings are in people, not in words. If I use a word and you are offended by it then regardless of my intent I have lessened the opportunity to engage in dialogue with you and that is the true transgression. But we should be reminded that it is possible for any word to cause offense just as it is possible for any word to be received without offending. Context is everything.

  • Dana

    I’m an over-educated, 20-something, Christian woman. In my groups of friends, cussing is normal. It’s not a sign of any kind of personality defect, anger issues, or stupidity, and it’s not an attempt to offend. Appropriate use of cuss words is an essential part of humor and conversation in that subculture and has been in several different cities in which I’ve lived. Our conversation would lose part of its sparkle, humor, and expressive power if we all felt obligated to take the cuss words out.

    Even so, there are some contexts where I avoid cussing. But those contexts are things like work, or other places where I’m among people who *aren’t my friends*, where one speaks professionally or with the politeness one uses among strangers. Among friends, if you’re relaxed and just talking, of course you cuss.

    Some people don’t belong to such a subculture. But that’s no reason to look down at people who do. There’s nothing morally superior about not cussing. Furthermore, it’s a major turn-off for people who weren’t raised in church to come in and get looked at funny if they cuss in what felt like a casual friendly gathering. If you can’t handle people cussing, then then large numbers of perfectly nice people are going to come to the conclusion that they don’t fit in there, aren’t welcome and never will be.

    People should try to accommodate one another and make other people comfortable. I try not to cuss if I think it will make the person I’m talking to uncomfortable. But people who dislike cussing need to have the same attitude, and make an effort not to look down on people who cuss, and try to get over feeling uncomfortable if they can. Sometimes it’s just a part of the person’s way of speaking.

  • Redeemed

    If Paul used offensive language, he would have detracted from the argument that he was making. Not going to happen.

  • HeirBornMusic

    Really? Are we saying that the Holy word of God has curse words in them? What an arrogant indictment to make on God’s word. 2nd Peter states that the Holy Spirit wrote the word, not Paul. That does’nt make sense Mr. Author, to say that Scripture, that condemns unwholesome speech, to have unwholesome speech contained in it. Let’s not bring down the integrity of the holiness of God so that we can feel justified to use unwholesome language. Tell me, does it make you feel good to be edgy? Does cursing make you feel liberated? Kinda anti-establishment right? Regardless of how you want to interpret “dung”, we’re called to be holy. Cussing is not holy. Never is, never was. Not even by the world’s standards. Why try to offend people? What pleasure do you get out of dropping F-bombs? Is it really being ” religious ” not curse and swear? If you really fear God, you should examine your actions and motives and see whether their on glorifying Him, or because you like to shake people up. If its the latter, you’re in the flesh.

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