Was Paul Vulgar?

[It’s a bit of a challenge to write about vulgarity without alluding to vulgar words, especially when the question is about a particular vulgar word. I’m hoping I’ve pulled this off. I mean, sometimes you just have to give examples.]

I get emails —

Just curious–

How would you understand Eph 5:4 in such a way that it doesn’t condemn Paul in Phil 3:8?  I’ve found a handful of scholarly sources over the years that claim that “rubbish” in Phil 3 is equivalent to what we would consider a ‘cuss-word.’  I was reminded of this just the other day because a guy at my church said that he took a class from Curt Nicum at OC who claimed “rubbish” was best translated “s**t.”  Do we raise too big of a fuss over a list of words?

There are many verses teaching us not to be vulgar in our speech —

(Eph 5:4 ESV) 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

(Eph 4:29 ESV)  29 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.

(Col 3:8 ESV) But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

(Psa 10:7 ESV) His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.

(Psa 59:12 ESV) For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,

It seems pretty clear that God is opposed to vulgar speech. So how can Paul get away with such talk?

According to R. P. Martin’s commentary in the Tyndale series,

Skubala can mean simply “refuse” (so RV mg., RSV). The derivation is a choice between human waste product and the unwanted food which is consigned to the garbage heap. … [T]he derivation of skubalon from es kunas balein, “to throw to the dogs,” is accepted by Moulton-Milligan.

Jac J. Muller in the New International Commentary writes,

It seems as if ??????? is used with two meanings, although the true derivation is uncertain, viz. (a) excrement from the body; (b) refuse of fragments remaining after a feast which are removed from the table and thrown away (to the dogs?)

The Friberg Lexicon gives as a definition —

anything that is to be treated as worthless and thrown out, translated according to the context dung, rubbish, garbage, offscourings

Louw-Nida Lexicon says,

worthless or unwanted material that is rejected and normally thrown out – ‘rubbish, litter, trash.’

Thayer defines it as —

any refuse, as the excrement of animals, offscouring, rubbish, dregs, etc.: (A. V. dung) i. e. worthless and detestable

However, the NET Bible has a footnote:

The word here translated “dung” was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers. This may well be Paul’s meaning here, especially since the context is about what the flesh produces.

Robert McLaughlin comments,

Dr. Fredrick Lang, an excellent German scholar, says that; “Skubala means excrement or dung” and then he quotes the Septuagint where “skubala” occurs only once and he said “It is used for lumps of manure remaining in the sieve to illustrate the refuse, impurity, and wickedness in the mind of man”.

The choice of this word used by the apostle stresses the force and totality of this change in his life, and tells us what Paul thought of his celebrityship, his education, his genius, his power, plans and his ability. Our plans and the human ability we possess is “skubala” when it comes to the plan of God. Skubala is what human power, celebrityship, ability and talent is, when we try to use it to worship or impress God.

Lang’s comment refers to —

(Sir 27:3-4 KJA) 3 Unless a man hold himself diligently in the fear of the Lord, his house shall soon be overthrown.  4 As when one sifteth with a sieve, the refuse remaineth; so the filth of man in his talk.

This is the only other use of the term in the Bible or Apocrypha. Sirach, by Ben Sira, also known as Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus is a Second Century BC book included in the Apocrypha. Although not inspired, it was a very popular work and surely very well known to Paul and many of his readers. And in this context, despite Lang’s comment, I have trouble seeing skubala as meaning “dung” or anything quite like it. It seems to clearly mean “refuse.” Why would you filter dung out of water? I mean, the water would still be far too nasty to drink or wash or cook in. What would be the point? But any filtration process would leave refuse of some kind. In any event, there’s no indication that the word is vulgar in that passage.

Now, vulgarity is a funny thing. Some words are vulgar in some contexts and not in others — “mother” and “suck” would be classic examples. There are many more. Moreover, vulgarity changes quickly in time, because vulgarians enjoy the novelty of new cuss words. “Snafu” began as very profane during WWII and is now generally considered entirely innocent.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the experts disagree on just how vulgar skubala is. Indeed, in English, we have degrees of vulgarity — some words shock more than others. And a translator unfamiliar with our spoken language would have trouble distinguishing very mild profanity — “darn” — from much worse. They look the same in writing unless you’ve lived here.

And so, I have to disagree with the OC professor — assuming he was accurately quoted.

Leave a Reply

  1. Jay,

    The issue behind the question raised is one I've thought a lot about and I still don't have a good answer to one question — How do we know when a word is "vulgar" and when it's not?

    You are right — vulgarity changes in time, and I would add that vulgarity is viewed differently by different people. For example, my wife can't stand to hear the word "cr*p" (didn't know if your blog would even let me put the whole word), but young people today think nothing of it. Who gets to determine whether a word is vulgar or not? If it's the people you're around, is it then OK to use such words as (fill in the blank) if nobody around you views them as vulgar?

    So, again, how do we know when a word is "vulgar" and when it's not? Any answers?

  2. I wrote a blog article about this a few years ago, which continues to be one of the most popular articles in my archives:

    Regarding the question of what is profane, here's what I think, FWIW. I think if the word refers to bodily excretions, but that is not really what is under discussion, then its use is profanity. If the word refers to a sex act, but that is not what is being discussed, then it is profane. (And BTW I think it is inappropriate to discuss sex acts in most contexts). If the word refers to something holy (God, Jesus, heaven, hell…), but that is not actually what is being discussed, then it is profane.

  3. Before Paul was converted, he intercepted letters between christians so that they could be hunted down and hauled back to Jerusalem presumably to be tortured and killed. Paul (Saul) facilitated this. Why would it shock us to think that his language might have been a little salty? Paul's own words about himself make me to think he was a crusty, difficult, tormented man during his time on earth.

  4. Jay,

    In an arid climate, you would filter *anything* out of water and then boil it rather than waste it completely.

    And we are talking about the apostle who said that he wished his circumcision-obsessed opponents would let their knives slip and cut themselves the rest of the way off… so I probably fall in Nancy's camp.

    And even if you translate skubala as the professor believes, I see no conflict between that usage and the other passages. Paul would be using the word in a completely appropriate way. Pretty words don't convey the power of the statement anywhere near as effectively as one explosive term.

    And there's a simple way to get around people trying to use that as an excuse to cuss: "When you're an apostle, and you've given up as much as Paul has (as completely as Paul has given it up) for the gospel, then you'll be wise enough to know when to use such colorful metaphors. In the meantime, go wash your mouth out."

  5. Nancy said, " Paul’s own words about himself make me to think he was a crusty, difficult, tormented man during his time on earth."
    Nancy I read Paul in the very same way you do, that is why I never make excuses about what Paul says to, and about women, or some of the other outrageous statements credited to him.
    I read what Paul is credited with writing and wonder, if Jesus picked this guy to represent him, what was he thinking?
    We are told over and over, that "The Son" is the image of "The Father" . If we are to believe that God picked Jesus to represent him, how are we to believe Jesus picked this vulgar , horrible man to represent him, to the masses. I know "heretic" I am not saying it didn't happen, I am just asking why. I don't believe for a minute that Jesus was scared that Paul would over power him and destroy his ministry, I don't see why the spirit of Jesus would pick this one man out from amongst all the other bad men to to prove his power of redemption. I'm just asking why? I don't believe there are any among us here that would claim Paul as out best bud, or that he ever lived down the mistrust that people had in him. and sure, I believe he talked vulgar just as he had , during his first life.

  6. Laymond, I don't buy it. I don't see how Paul could have credibly written things like the following if he had a habit of vulgar language himself.

    Eph 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.

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

    Col 3:8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.

  7. Jesus himself hung with some pretty course fellows and even picked them for His followers. You know what they say about sailers!

  8. I don’t believe there are any among us here that would claim Paul as out best bud, or that he ever lived down the mistrust that people had in him. and sure, I believe he talked vulgar just as he had , during his first life.

    I'd rather have Paul as my best bud than some of the "super-apostles" who were (and still are) much more popular. Priscilla and Junia and Eunice and Lois and Lydia and Phoebe don't seem to share your opinion that Paul was a horrible man.

    And I see no evidence that there was ever any mistrust of Paul outside of Palestine/Syria, and even that seems wrapped up by Acts 15.

    And one potential cussword, used appropriately rather than as an insult or epithet, in 13 letters, hardly sounds like he held on to his "first life."

    But it is easier to just call serious meditation "excuse-making" in order to throw evidence you don't like out of court. But getting rid of Paul doesn't get rid of the Trinity – you've got a lot more Scripture to discredit before you can do that.

  9. Sorry, but the rhythms and sounds produced by the vocal cords are meaningless in and of themselves – it is the accompanying spirit behind the rhythms and sounds. The "word" is irrelevant. The explicit link in the Bible is between the heart and the word – words show the heart. Pure heart = pure words. Corrupt heart = corrupt words. Angry heart = angry words. Loving heart = loving words.

    I hear Christians say "man" with anger, frustration, and resentment dripping from their tongues. It is the spirit that makes the word profane. "Man" can be a curse word. As can "dog."

    As Christians whose citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven and not 21st century America, we need to move beyond the list of 4-letter words that our culture deems profane. We are to have a pure heart, which produces pure words, even if those words then include what our society deems profane.

    Then, by letting God purify our hearts and tongues, we can then speak the "profane words" of our society when appropriate – when God's purposes are achieved by using them, because the words themselves are meaningless – it is the Spirit behind them that is of value.

  10. Without checking for myself (shameful I know), are there any 'softer' words Paul could have used in the Greek to show the same meaning as the seemingly harsh one he did? In other words, if he meant to use fecal matter as his meaning, is there a Greek equivalent of 'poopie'? ( Not meaning to be vulgar myself. If the p-word offends, I apologize).

    I somehow don't think the force of Paul's argument would have come across as well with any other word. And really, to me, I think the imagery of that word when thinking how important everything else should be to us when compared to Christ is quite powerful. There is absolutely nothing of substance or value to be had in holding on to such things, and who would argue with Paul about that?

  11. That's precisely my point, Brad – only a word crude enough to be considered vulgar will convey the wide gulf of separation Paul is placing between himself and his former credentials. Other words are either too cold and clinical, too cute, or just too bland.

  12. I'd say Paul is to be imitated as he imitated Christ (1Co 11:1).
    But since he was a mere human, there are also some events in his life that are maybe not too praiseworthy.

    His argument with Barnabas over Mark is an example (Acts 15:37-39), or his namecalling the High Priest (Acts 23:3-5). Not very Christ-like …

    I think Paul was a hot tempered person. We would not dare to come with a rod as he threatened (1Co 4:21) – we (most likely) would not judge a person while being absent (1Co 5:3). So also his rather strong words in Php 3:8 or in Gal 5:12 reflect his character.

    But the other side of this is that he was also quick to forgive (2Co 2:10), he was passionate and energetic (Acts 20:31) and also willing to be humbled by his Lord (2Co 12:7-9) … he spoke of love (1Co 13:1-8) and he loved (1Th 2:7-8).

    This – and a lot more than that – reflects who Paul is, a person called and loved and used by our Lord Jesus.

    It would be a challenge to have him in our midst today. Some would adore him, and others would leave the church because of him … but we should see Christ in and through him. So we should not focus on his human weaknesses, but on Him whose strength becomes powerful in weak persons.

    What I think about his strong words is quite simple:
    Who never used a four-letter-word may throw the first stone.


  13. There is an adjective used in medicine today to describe a certain type of excreted stool: scybalous. I don't know the exact etymology of our medical term, but it looks a little like the Greek word. Paul used. If they are connected, then it would argue for a meaning more like fecal matter rather than just any refuse


  14. Nick, is natured somewhat like myself, he likes to stroll through old battlefields, kicking up bones of past battles. I must admitt I enjoy a good rehash of past battles as well.

    Nick said; ". But getting rid of Paul doesn’t get rid of the Trinity – you’ve got a lot more Scripture to discredit before you can do that."

    Isa 45:5 I [am] the LORD, and [there is] none else, [there is] no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me:
    Isa 45:6 That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that [there is] none beside me. I [am] the LORD, and [there is] none else.

    I don't know why some people insist that God was lying when he made that statement, it seems Mark,Paul, and James believed every word of what God said.

    Mar 12:32 And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:

    1Cr 8:6 But to us [there is but] one God, the Father, of whom [are] all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom [are] all things, and we by him.

    Eph 4:6 One God and Father of all, who [is] above all, and through all, and in you all.

    1Ti 2:5 For [there is] one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;

    Jam 2:19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

    digging up bones, is a fun thing. especially when DNA is on your side.

  15. Laymond, I've opened my own blog for this discussion more than once, and you've ignored it, preferring to scrap in the comment section of unrelated blogs like this. I'm not going to play it anymore… but I *will* share just this much.

    Deut 6:5 Hear O Israel! The Lord our God – The Lord is One!

    1 Cor 8:6 but to us One God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and One Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist.

    Now unless Paul changed Gods, 1 Cor 8:6 certainly looks like a quotation of Deut 6:5 (one, Lord, God) with Jesus placed right in the middle. Within the One True God are God the Father and Christ the Lord.

    Jay, I apologize for getting this started again.

  16. I'm always amazed at what people read between the lines in an attempt to "humanize" the Bible. Even though Paul persecuted early Christians he was still a strict Pharisee. I think it is ridiculous to assume that Paul would be cussing. And no where do I read between the lines that he was a crusty old man. Of course I'm sure some would be uncomfortable around him as he definitely wasn't wishy-washy in his faith.

  17. I like what Anne said.

    When I was an unbelieving adolescent, I used profanity on a regular basis. When I became a Christian, the Spirit of Christ convicted me of my sin in this area. The Scriptures are clear that I am to speak in ways that honor my Savior. He deserves it.

  18. Anne,

    I have to agree with you. A reference to feces is not necessarily vulgar. It takes much more than the fact that Paul used a word that might mean feces or might mean refuse to make him into a vulgarian.

    I read several blog posts across the internet that people have written on this question, and I would up feeling like I was back in 6th grade — with a bunch of guy snickering at every word that might have a scatological or sexual reference.

    Personally, I think Adam nailed it. As is so often the question, it's about the heart and spirit behind the usage. Teach a class of seventh graders, and they may giggle when you talk about the "damned" going to "hell" — because their mommies taught them these are dirty words. And they aren't. But call on God to damn someone to hell, and that's not cussing, it's cursing — because of the heart behind it.

  19. N.T. Wright also thinks the best equivalent for the word "skubala" (rubbish, waste) is actually the word "s**t". And it was a word frequently used to describe excrement.

    But does that mean Paul is using the word in a vulgar manner? I think it is a matter of context and intention on the part of Paul, the later of which we can never know since we do not posess or have access to the mind of Paul. My guess is that Paul was not be flipant with his toungue nor was he seeking to be like the world. Rather, he used that word to show the severity of his point.

    I recently preached on this passage and the way I dealt with it was to say that "Paul uses a term here that is best translated as "crap" or a term that is vulgar enough that I won't actuall repeat it but I am telling you this to tell just how worthless Paul feels about all the religious accomplishments we could boast on."

    Grace and peace,


  20. Was Elijah being vulgar when he suggested to the prophets of Baal that perhaps their god was unavailable to answer their petitions b/c he was in preoccupied in the outhouse?

    This type of language is not necessarily vulgar. I wonder if the time used up on this subject matter is in keeping with our tradition of majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors.
    Peace to you all from the other side of the street,

  21. Good article, Jay.

    I find that extremism is a horseshoe-shaped continuum, not a linear one, bringing those at both extremes much closer to each other than to the rest of the people at other points on the line. That's true in this case as well, I think. Those who want to say that all profanity is just about words ("See? Even Paul cussed!") and therefore Christians are too uptight, and the ol's Sunday school teacher I had who thought Beaver Cleaver was a cussin' fool ("Go**y, Wally…") are at the extremes, more alike each other because of their all-or-nothing stances.

    I have to wonder, though, how any language scholar can say with any level of authority that the word used means "sh*t" and not "cr*p", "man*re" ;-), or simply "dung." The word could mean any of these, and saying as though you know with certainty which English word Paul would have chosen seems, at least to me, quite the precocious assumption. What's stopping me from saying with great authority that he meant us to translate it as "poo-poo?

  22. There is a big difference in coarse language and vulgar language.

    Paul in my opinion was using coarse descriptive, not vulgar.

    Example: I have a man working up high on a newly being constructed building and he keeps forgetting to wear his fall harness and I fear for his life. Several times I have told him to put it on but he doesn't. Next time I will tell him to put it on or I'm going to kick his a__. Thing is, I mean it.
    That's descriptive coarse.

    Later that same day a pretty woman walks by the job site and one of the men hollars something about how her a__ looks. That's the same word, but that's vulgar and will cause him to get the coarse descriptive done to him quickly.

    See the difference?

  23. Randall,

    it may be majoring in the minors, but i think it deserves some attention because it's a "minor" that seems to me to be "majored-in" across the board. Even fairly progressive churches think a culturally generated list of "dirty words" is a big deal. Even a lot of "grace-oriented" types can still start acting fairly superstitious about this topic.


  24. John,

    "See the difference?"

    Not really. The use of the word doesn't seem different to me, just that the second example stands out as having lustful intent behind it and would've been as vulgar IMO had the man hollered "look at the back-side on that one." What's vulgar about it is the heart it reveals, not the particular vocalizations that were used.


  25. Guy,

    this whole discussion has shown us all how we can find something to disagree about. Wonder if there has been a split over this?
    Could be tomorrow! Many splits are for differences in understandings of words.

    Descriptive to some is vulgar to others. Go to a farm at fall castration time of young boar hogs, goats, etc. and what you'll hear is not doctors medical named descriptions but every farmers short version of what and how they are doing it and the descriptions given to young men learning how to do it.
    No one is trying to be vulgar, just using terms in all seriousness that were handed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers.

    Can it be considered vulgar, I guess so, but, practically anything can be made so if it's coming from a warped perspective.

  26. John,

    i don't consider the farm-situation you're describing as a use of vulgar language or as a violation of anything Paul condemned.

    But i happen to think the idea that some near-arbitrary list of words are dirty on their own is more or less just superstitious. i think taking Paul to be referring to just a list of four letter words grossly misses his point, and frankly creates a situation where lots of things he meant to condemn become socially acceptable.


  27. I don't know who said it, but I'm reminded of the saying, "Profanity is a sure sign of a lack of imagination and a poor vocubulary."

    We can find plenty of ways to be vulgar, destructive, and crude and never come near a word a grandmother would wrinkle her nose at (a reference I must admit means less these days, as grandmothers are as likely to drop the f-bomb as anyone, at least in these parts). We can be quite creatively sinful without crossing into controversial vocabulary.

  28. This discussion reminds me of an exchange I had with a Christian site that was reviewing an R rated movie and suggesting people go see if for the "good" message that it conveyed. I objected to Christians seeing R movies, much less suggesting people see it. I was informed that we have to be aware of what people in the world are watching and familiar with. Hogwash! and the same goes for using the language that the world uses.

  29. There are perfectly intelligent people with considerably wide vocabularies who still choose to speak in vulgar manners. Ever been to university? Profanity is no indication of intelligence or imagination. Saying that people who use profanity are dumb (poor vocabulary) and lazy (lack of imagination) sounds like plain old prejudice to me. How is it any different than saying that anyone who listens to rap music must be a thug? Or that all black people steal.

    Maybe instead of finding the same old ways to codify prejudice (much like the Pharisees), we could learn to meet people where they are and give them the benefit of the doubt–not assume anything about them based on their sin other than that they need Christ's mercy no more and no less than we do.


  30. I was told the following from a dear brother:

    Several years ago, a member of my team at work chastised me for using profanity. It turns out, I was saying "man" a lot as a word of exclamation. He thought I was saying a vulgar word that rhymes. I decided to pay more attention to stay away from similar phrases.

    A few years later I was in a meeting with my team. During the meeting, I became very angry, talked very emphatically to an outsider attendee including pounding my fist on the table. Afterward, I felt awful and figured I needed to apologize to all and ask the church for prayers. The next day, one of my team members told me I must really be a Christian. She had never seen me so mad before (I'm usually easy going). She then said that most people she knows claim to be a Christian but end up using vulgarity when angry or hurt.

    Our language and vocabulary do matter. .

  31. Guy, it's tongue in cheek, and the point was that whether or not you use four-letter words is no insulation against being profane or vulgar.

    "Maybe instead of finding the same old ways to codify prejudice (much like the Pharisees), we could learn to meet people where they are and give them the benefit of the doubt…"

    I agree, and it goes both ways. You shouldn't judge that those who are against the use of profanity are inherently being Pharisaical, which is simply untrue, and a stale ol' argument with no merit.

  32. James,

    When did i say that all people who oppose the use of a list of words do so on Pharisaical grounds? i don't believe that.

    People who oppose it *on the basis of prejudice or stereotype* are doing something similar to the Pharisees whether they intend to or not.


  33. “Maybe instead of finding the same old ways to codify prejudice (much like the Pharisees), we could learn to meet people where they are and give them the benefit of the doubt…”

    Certainly seems to be saying that you think that's what was going on here in the comments. If that's not what you're intending, that I'm grateful to be corrected, and am glad we can count on you not be among the "Pharisee! J'Accuse!" crowd.

  34. James,

    What i said was:

    "Saying that people who use profanity are dumb (poor vocabulary) and lazy (lack of imagination) sounds like plain old prejudice to me."

    What you will not find in my comments is something equivalent to, "anyone and everyone who opposes the use of a culturally determined list of words is necessarily Pharisaical in doing so."

    i am affirming though that those who claim anyone who uses words from that list is either unintelligent, unimaginative, or both–that's prejudice (and slander, for that matter). i am also affirming that anyone who finds ways to turn their prejudices into ethical norms (thus, not only finding a way to feel morally justified in their prejudice, but turning it into a morally obligatory stance) is being Pharisaical.


  35. Using strong language to emphasize a point is not wrong if the point is true. Do people really think a "pharisee among pharisees" would be a prolific cusser? I would think the opposite would be true,
    Besides, couldn't it be equally sinful to tone down one's speech, in effect trivializing the things we should be and are passionate about?

    It cracks me up to hear criticism of people like Paul (personality), Peter (lack of faith, denying Christ, foot-in-mouth syndrome), and other imperfect Biblical figures. (Now sure they were flawed, but I'm talking about people who come across as though they never identity with their flaws) Really? Really? That's just ………

  36. The problem is that you assume Paul's commands against certain types of speech cover vulgar speech, and that you haven't considered the difference between profanity, vulgarity, and obscenity. Skubalon is indeed vulgar, and rightly translated by the English word shit. Profanity is covered by the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain (pro-fane = before the temple; i.e., concerning sacred things). Obscenity is what Paul is condeming–pornographic and prurient talk about sexual things. Vulgarity is just speech from "low" or "common" people, and objections to it typically have more to say about the objectors (white, middle class, etc.) than about those who use it. Shock and horror at words like shit are Victorian leftovers and have no basis in Scripture.

  37. No,

    Thank you. i have never been able to see any basis other than cultural or social prejudice why just a list of words is 'naughty.'


  38. Come on, guys. Read the Scriptures quoted by Jay above again. You will not find any justification for using profanity, obscenity, or vulgarity. Speak with dignity and class.

  39. Terry,

    My concern isn't so much about using those terms as it is how we use our view of those terms to treat other people who use them. Just as you say, not using them is characterized as having "dignity" and "class." Thus those who use them are undignified, and lack class. Thus they should be looked down on? Thus, they should be treated as undignified? Thus, they should be treated as being of a lower class?

    i know you and your work well enough to know that's not what you intend. But the fact is, moral standards just like this one have been fabricated and then used to make prejudice okay. Foy E. Wallace defended segregation both political and ecclesiastical on the ground that it would give the world a lower opinion of us if we integrated. i've met plenty of people, including members of my own family, who use the idea that "cussing is bad" to look disdainfully upon, scoff at, and avoid people who do. If Jesus had endorsed and employed that as strategy, where would you and i be right now?

    We just assume that some list of words is lumped into profanity and obscenity–note: not the particular meaning in a case, but just the mere use of a word; *that* is what we deem to be included in the categories of 'profane' and 'obscene.' But go dig around. Several of those 'dirty' words were perfectly acceptable in cultures until a foreign imperial power or ruling class came on the scene and dubbed what was native to be 'vulgar.'

    Their rejection was based on nothing other than prejudice, biggotry, or political oppression. And now their rejection as 'dirty' has simply persisted through even after the particular prejudice, biggotry, or political oppression out of which they arose is gone. So we just accept such superstitions based on evil motives and attitudes? The point i'm making is that even if the particular circumstances which generated the list of dirty words is gone, that very mentality–a disdain for mere words–can *produce* biggotry, prejudice, and social oppression. That's not an ethic i'm willing to get behind, and i don't believe any of the scriptures Jay quoted were meant to establish such an ethic.


  40. Guy,

    Thanks for the explanation. I know that you're a decent person who is serious and thoughtful about your faith, but I'm just not following your perspective. I don't think I have ever met anyone who even thinks about imperialism or segregation or elitism when they hear or say vulgar words. And it doesn't seem to be a bad thing to speak or act with dignity.

    I don't know if you followed the controversy in the sports world last week after the first episode of "Hard Knocks" aired. The head coach of the NY Jets apparently filled the first installment of the serial documentary with vulgar and obscene language. Another former head coach in the NFL criticized the Jets' coach for his language. I think the criticism was legitimate. Coaches don't need to use demeaning and vulgar language. In fact, I think it takes away from the respect that they could command if they were to exercize a little more self-control.

    It's even more important for Christians to use self-control in their words. They don't merely represent the NFL; they represent Christ. As such, they are not called to be popular, but they are called to be people worthy of respect. It's possible that I could increase my popularity among some people by using vulgar language because it would make them feel more comfortable with their own language, but I could very easily lose their respect for me and for the one I represent to them at the same time.

    I guess I could be accused of elitism, but I honestly don't know how to apply the verses quoted by Jay if they don't call me to a different standard of speech than what I had before I knew Christ.

  41. I've been racking my brain how to respond to this and I'm still at a loss when I have to come up with a response that Christians shouldn't be using vulgar language. I guess I thought it was a given. I guess I'm also an elitist Terry.

  42. Terry,

    First, i think there is a conflation of issues here. There are at least two separate issues (though i think there are more).

    (1) Is it wrong to use vulgar language?
    (2) How should a Christian treat other people who do use vulgar language?

    i have meant in this discussion to focus primarily on (2). And i'm saying i think a certain belief about (1) has led people to sin in the case of (2). And though some people sin in regards to (2), they believe they are justified in their behavior because they believe they are simply adhering to their position regarding (1).

    Consider the Pharisees who scoffed at Jesus because He ate with "tax collectors" and "sinners." The Pharisees had various rigorous standards of purity and ethics for themselves. As a result, they wouldn't associate with or reach out to or get involved with (or however else you wanna put it) those they had deemed "sinners."

    What should we think about these "sinners"? Was it true they were living lives of habitual sin? Well, i think it's likely that these "sinners" were probably a mixed bag of people who (a) perhaps did, in fact, sin habitually, (b) had committed some sin which the Pharisees thought particularly egregious and merited shunning and disdain, (c) had simply failed to abide by various Pharisaical rules.

    Whatever mix of (a), (b), and (c) was true of a "sinner" in any given case, the Pharisees felt entirely morally justified on that basis to treat those people with disdain, isolation, contempt, –as being of a lower class unworthy of respect or love or inclusion. Now that's an extreme description that, for all i know, may have manifested itself mildly on a day-to-day basis, but only became blatant in the particular mentions we get in the gospels. Nevertheless, the Pharisees felt strongly enough about this division between themselves and "sinners" that they disdained Christ for refusing to adhere to that division.

    And my point is this: i think people take an ethical standard like no-cussing and based on that ethical standard behave precisely like the Pharisees did in the above scenario. And so you get people spouting prejudice like "they only talk that way because they're unintelligent," or shaking their head in disdain when someone drives by playing hip hop music on their stereo because there's a cuss word in the song. "i won't go around those people because of the way they talk." "Don't ever use those words around me again." (–and he'll likely never open himself up to you again since he now knows you're too good for language he probably grew up hearing his friends or family use.)

    Don't you think the Pharisees' various standards seemed common sensical to them? Don't you think it seemed intuitive to them that what they were doing was right? But Jesus didn't agree. He called them on their prejudice. And He associated with, spent time with, interacted with, and befriended the very 'kind' of people the Pharisees felt morally justified avoiding and disdaining.

    Does that mean that Jesus started sinning in order to be with those people? No. He didn't sin. But He also didn't abide by Pharisaical rules either. The fact is, Jesus was sinless, yet the Pharisees genuinely thought He did some things that were wrong. (Think on that for just a minute. If Jesus were doing His earthly ministry today, doesn't the textual evidence we have suggest that He may do some things even we would be convinced are wrong? –when, in fact, it would be us and our standards that are wrong and in need of challenging?)


    Second, i didn't mean to suggest that a person must necessarily be thinking about elitism/imperialism when showing disdain for the use of vulgar language. i believe that the vulgarity that i'm talking about is historically rooted in such dynamics. But no, i don't think anyone is necessarily consciously aware of such dynamics when they are engaging in them. Someone doesn't have to be thinking about prejudice in order to be acting prejudicially.

    My point was that because the particular vulgarity i'm talking about arose out of such historical roots, that right there causes me to be very averse to it as the proper ethical standard. It's a rule that developed from very unethical ideas and attitudes. People in history have culturally defined what "vulgar" is based on elitism, imperialism, and prejudice. And then someone tells me that thinking-vulgarity-is-wrong is what "good" people do…??? i see that as plainly suspect.


    Third, i'm afraid i have to disagree with you about worrying about being "worthy of respect" or trying to maintain a reputation in the eyes of others. i think that's at base a basic tenet of Phariseeism.

    The Romans' common view of the early church was that Christians were incestuous, cannibalistic, and atheists. Do you think it was wrong for Christians in the first century to refer to each other as "brother" and "sister" because it lost them respect in Roman eyes? Should they have stopped teaching that Jesus said "This is my body" and "This is my blood" in reference to the Lord's Supper in order to gain respect in the eyes of the Romans? Should they have started believing in the Roman gods as well so the Romans wouldn't look down on them as "atheists"?

    Jesus could've had a great deal more respect from the people of His day. Would it have been so bad for Him to just make His disciples wash their hands according to the tradition of the elders? Would it have been so hard for Him to have made sure they prepared enough food so they wouldn't have had to pick heads of grain and break a Pharisaical rule about the Sabbath? On the Sabbath, couldn't Jesus have waited just one more day to heal people so that He would've had more people's respect? Couldn't Jesus have stayed out of so many dinner parties and thus appeared to be worthy of respect by the Pharisees?

    Jesus clearly did not think it was His job to do or be things which people of His day deemed worthy of respect. Rather, i'd say He did what He believed was right whether anyone respected Him for it or not, and continued to do it even when no one thought Him worthy of their respect.

    Like i said, Foy E. Wallace defended segregation in the church on these very grounds. He thought if we integrated, brought blacks and whites into the same congregations to worship and serve together, then the world would look down on the church. The church would lose the respect of the world. The world would think the church was doing something wrong and undignified. However, wrong we, as a culture, now think racial prejudice is, he operated in a day and time when supporting integration was quite unworthy of respect among a great many "respectable" people. Wallace was probably right–many "respectable" people probably would've thought less of the church had the church integrated. But is that what the church should've based their decision on?

    I personally know of two people, a man and woman, both of whom are members of the church. They had a one night stand. The girl was afraid she might be pregnant as a result. She firmly believed that abortion was wrong, and if she turned out to be pregnant, she planned on having the baby. But the man told her he honestly believed that abortion was the *right* thing to do. Why? Because if she continued the pregnancy, everyone would find out what they did, then his friends and family would lose respect for him as a Christian. Now, you might think the man simply wanted to be free of the consequences of his decision. But that same man sat in a Bible class with me only a couple months before all this occurred. The point being made in the class was that we should care about what God thinks, not what other people think. The man spoke up and argued at length that we have to care what people think because it's important to maintain a reputation. He unwittingly yet genuinely thought hypocrisy was better than authenticity.

    i love your blog and the work that you do and i don't mean for a second to suggest that you approve of this man's actions. But i do think his actions were based on and consistent with such ideas of aiming to be worthy of other people's respect. i just don't find such reputation-maintaining as a goal among the early church. In fact, i think Jesus seems to have lived by a radically different philosophy–be true, do what's right, and let the "respect" chips fall where they may.


    Fourth, i'm way overdue for clarifying what i'm after in using the word "vulgar." i'm nearly positive not everyone is using that the same way. i gather that many people take "vulgar" to be a catch-all term for all kinds of language that is morally suspect: taking the Lord's name in vain, sexually explicit talk, hostile, insulting, or slanderous speech.

    i don't mean to be referring to any of those things. i think it is wrong to take the Lord's name in vain or to speak disrespectfully of the sacred. i believe it is wrong to speak lewdly or perversely about sex or anatomy. i think hateful or slanderous speech or name-calling is wrong. In anything i've said thus far, i haven't meant to suggest that i believe any of these are right or okay.

    What i mean to be referencing by "vulgar" is a particular list of *words* that a culture deems "dirty" or "low" or "bad." Again, just for the sake of emphasis, what i mean is *words*–a culturally developed list of particular words.

    Notice, all the kinds of speech i said i think are wrong can be accomplished without using any "four-letter words" at all. Taking the Lord's name in vain, insults and name-calling, lewdly joking about sex–all those can be done with or without the use of any of those "words" that make the 'naughty' list in our culture.

    i don't believe the Scriptures Jay cited are meant to condemn a list of *words.* i believe at base they condemn certain *meanings.* They condemn certain intentions, motives, and meanings (however those meanings may be expressed verbally).

    Suppose you heard a man say with clear anger and hatred in his voice, "Man, she's such a witch." Do you really think that's some how better in Christ's eyes than if he had said, "Man, she's such a b***h"? In such an instance, the attitude, the motive, the intent, the meaning would all be precisely the same. The only difference would be the particular word. There are some people who really believe the statement is somehow morally worse in the eyes of God just because of the word difference. i happen to think the man's speech is equally immoral in both cases.

    If i'm right that the immorality of his speech hinges on his motive/attitude/intent/meaning and not on the particular word he chose, then it's at least possible that a person could use a 'naughty' word without any accompanying evil-motive/attitude/intent/meaning. Because of that possibility, i don't believe that there exists a word or list of words such that the words themselves are inherently or necessarily wrong or immoral.

    And i don't think the passages Jay quotes condemns such a list of words unless you come to the passages *presupposing* that those particular words are inherently or necessarily wrong. Now perhaps we can think of some word that has no conventional meaning that is not immoral. Fine. i have no objections to rejecting it then. But there are people who have grown up finding it perfectly acceptable to refer to their posterior as an "a**" or the mess the dog left on the floor as "s**t," and in so doing they mean to convey nothing different than you do when you say "rear" or "poop" (or whatever word it is you might say), thus they wouldn't come to these passages with that same presupposition.

    i just don't see how people in such cases are doing anything wrong, and i don't see how they're doing anything contrary to the passages Jay quotes. And that's precisely why i don't see that Paul did anything wrong in Phil 3:8 regardless of what word we choose to use to translate it.


  43. Guy,
    I think I understand what you're saying.

    I'm not saying that I disassociate myself from people who use vulgar language. I don't, but I still see it as contrary to the will of God. I don't disassociate myself from atheists, homosexuals, or drug addicts either. But I still believe it to be proper to say that atheism, homosexuality, and drunkeness are contrary to God's will.

    As for respect and dignity, I found those concepts to be featured in the pastoral epistles (especially in the qualities one is to look for in an elder or overseer). However, of course, they are not qualities that trump clear sinfulness. It's not much reputation that I am concerned about; the goal is to be worthy of respect. I want to be worthy of respect whether I receive it or not, because that's the way God wants men to be.

    On most of the points you made concerning language, I agree. However, I think the spirit of those passages still call for Christians to refrain from vulgarity.

  44. Well, there's one reason to have words for excrement. Excrement exists. So words for it exist.

    From that reality, metaphors follow. In every language, useless things are compared to excrement. It's a stinky waste product that we're glad to leave behind us. And we're not alone. Cows walk away from it, too. Cats bury it. If you really want to get the point across that something is nasty and useless and best kept out of the room, using excrement as a metaphor does the job nicely.

    So it's just a very human thing to do: using a vivid, pungent metaphor to get an idea across.

    Yes, this conversation "majors in minors" but that's because it focused on minors at the outset. Go back and look at most of the those passages used to condemn "vulgarity." I don't see much there about this kind of thing at all.

    The passages have a lot to say about deceit, malicious gossip, and slander. it should also be noted that "cursing", used colloquially in the USA to mean any kind of potentially offensive expression, refers in the Bible to actual cursing. One calls down divine condemnation on a person. That's not the same thing as simply telling someone to cut the crap–which is sometimes the best counsel you can give a person.

    The passages that do seem to address the subject of coarse language or earthy expression don't say that a wise person will never, ever use these as resources for expressing an idea. They just say that this kind of thing won't be a habit. It won't be characteristic of a wise person's conversation. And it isn't. It isn't characteristic of Paul's. Or even Ezekiel's (my personal nomination for biblical Exhibit A on the subject of vivid depicition of bodily excretions).

    One other point: the English word "profane" as used in the KJV meant "not sacred". It was not a synonym for "vulgar" as it often is today. Its meaning was closer to the modern word "secular." Something to keep in mind when reading even a modern translation, as the influence of KJV wording remains profound.

    Now let's major in the majors. Here are two questions that ought to help get big issues back in the picture.

    1. How often are people willing to cut Paul a lot of slack in the area of earthy self-expression that they would never cut for an atheist neighbour, just because Paul is perceived to be "our guy" and "on the team"?

    2. How many people get all bothered about a naughty word, but indulge whole conversations filled with slander, malicious gossip, character assassination, and deceit?

  45. terry,

    i'm not sure what respect means apart from a certain esteem or repute in the eyes of others. What do you mean by "respect" if not these things?

    There can't be anything in the pastoral epistles that would condemn the actions of Christ. If Christ is sinless, then surely He can't be guilty of anything the pastoral epistles might suggest is sinful. Yet Christ broke social rules in His own time–rules that led those around Him to judge Him as having done something wrong or immoral, and, in some cases, rules which didn't ask Him to do anything sinful in itself. Surely then being "worthy of respect" can't be incompatible with such behavior.

    On my main point though, i certainly don't think a person who believes the use of vulgarity is condemned *necessarily* acts prejudicially towards those who do. What stands out to me as important, far more important than whether vulgarity is wrong or not, is that such prejudice as i'm describing often accompanies that belief as a stowaway and is never questioned but accepted under the guise of righteousness. And from what i understand of Jesus interaction with the Pharisees, that is a far weightier ethical issue than whether or not someone uses a 'naughty' word.

    Just curious–what do you think of passages like 1Kings 16:11 KJV?


  46. Guy,
    I don't dispute your definition of "respect." It looks correct to me. I believe that the Bible calls us to lead lives worthy of respect. The problem is that we can lead such lives (as Christ did–even when he was controversial and confrontational), but people may not respect us. I'm not opposed to controversy or confrontation (if I do it with the right motives and attitude). I've even learned to be tolerant of people who misunderstand and malign me. (I can't tell you how many times I've been called "racist" because I'm pro-life. I'm always amused, because if they only knew, they would be embarrassed beyond words.) I want to live a life worthy of respect whether respect is given to me or not.

    You can correct me if I'm wrong, but it has occurred to me that the reason we are butting heads over this issue may be because of our personal experiences. I mentioned that I gave up foul language when I became a Christian. It was a little difficult, but it was a real product of repentance. I truly believed it to be offensive to God and something that did not reflect the glory of his character in my life. On the other hand, you may have seen a number of very ungodly people who do not cuss, but who don't want to associate with others they consider inferior because of their language. I don't want to be like that, either. And I don't want to encourage that kind of attitude. But I just can't agree that vulgar language is neutral (or that it is irrelevant).

    Concerning the KJV, I understand your point. And it's a good one. You won the argument on that one. The only caveat that I would add is that offensive language changes over the centuries. For example, calling my son the N-word may have been acceptable a few centuries ago. But it would not be acceptable to me today.

    Finally, I want to thank you for a good discussion on this issue. We have strongly disagreed with each other, but I appreciate the kindness and respect you have shown toward me. It would have been easy for you to have slandered me or made cutting remarks toward me, but you have treated me very decently. I appreciate it. It's one reason I also like reading your blog.

  47. Terry,

    Maybe i'd been misunderstanding you–it sounds like with "worthy of respect" talk in this and your last comment, you mean to say we ought to do what's truly right regardless of what others think. i certainly have no qualms with that at all. The only thing i meant to pick at is who gets to determine what is "worthy of respect." i don't think it's me, or the world, or even "respectable people." i think Christ gets to define that category.

    i think you're right–i've seen too many people in Sunday suits who never said a bad word in their life who still wouldn't touch a "sinner" with a ten foot pole. In my experience anyway, a lot of church culture is rank with that kind of prejudice and hypocrisy. i'm sad to say i played right along with it all for many years. Took me a long time to begin (yeah, i've only begun–plenty of personal heart-work left to do in this area) to see what a hypocrite i was all the while considering my various manifestations of hypocrisy to be righteous living. i hope i haven't given the impression that i think cussing or not cussing is a big deal that we should all worry about. i really don't. i hope i also haven't come across as suggesting that Christians should all start cussing. That's not what i think either. That's certainly not my point either. it's this underlying prejudice/hypocrisy issue that i think is a "major" worthy of examination and discussion.

    i think i understand what you mean too about repentance–you clearly see the language we're discussing as part of your old lifestyle you left behind, eh? i can certainly see why, say, an alcoholic who becomes a Christian might consider it evil to be in pubs–he associates that place with his former life. i think for the sake of his health and faith he should stay out of pubs; and i think his refusal to go to pubs would demonstrate his commitment and fidelity to his faith. But i don't think it's necessarily sinful to be in one (or to have a drink while you're there for that matter).

    i certainly haven't meant to "butt heads" with you. i haven't meant to speak sharply enough to create any sense of antagonism. i very much admire the work you do in Tulsa and like to visit your blog.

    In fact! i forgot to tell you, i was just talking about you the other day. i ran into an old friend in Target the other day whose father was my youth minister. She said he currently works for Hope Harbor as a counselor, but is now interested in starting a ministry similar to Contact. i think he wants to start it in Claremore though–not sure about that one. Bill Whaley is his name. Have you met him?


  48. I see the point being how God sees this language and not how we see it.

    At an around the table group prayer once I heard a man praying on his knees asking to be strong like P to withstand what he was about to go through.
    He said Paul had the strength he admired and needed himself as Paul was one tough M—-er F—–!

    That sure raised some heads and eyes, but I feel God knew where he came from that was approved street talk and overlooked the crudeness of it.

    I've heard many crude descriptions but the thoughts were honestly from the heart. It was the heart praying, not the brain or mouth.

    Was that prayer heard?

    Might of caused a few laughs upstairs like it did to us upon telling it later, but, heard and answered just the same.

    Are we more righteous than God? How about judgmental?

  49. Thanks Guy. Yes, that's what I was meaning by my use of "worthy of respect." I'm sorry about being unclear.

    I don't recognize Bill's name, but that doesn't mean I've never met him. My memory can be bad at times.

  50. Huh? Do you realize how ridiculous your reasoning is here? Please do us all a favor and please educate yourself before responding.

  51. You folks are still not answering the question…who determines what is vulgar? Do none of you think for yourself anymore?

  52. James, if perhaps you were to study a bit of Josephus, the records of Tacitus and Julian of Rome you might have a better understanding of this issue.