Dear Pastor Harvey,
Passages such as Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 3:8, Matthew 5:33-37, and 1 Corinthians 3:18, among others, warn Christians against using “coarse language.” What words does the Bible list as cuss words?
There are no lists of words in the Bible that a Christian should not use. As you probably know, the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, with a small section in Aramaic. The Bible is meant to go into all cultures and languages, so giving a list of words would be futile because every culture has different words that are considered cuss words in their respective language. Having said that, there are several times where the writers of the Bible actually use words that would have been considered cuss words in their day to make a point. Specific words are not the problem – God is always looking at the heart.
The clearest example is when Paul uses strong and offensive language in Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Here, our modern translations do not do justice to what Paul was really saying when they use the term “rubbish.” Many translators are sensitive about the Greek word σκύβαλα (skoobala), so they soften it in our English Bibles. A translation that would express the fullness of Paul's thought would be “crap," or something even stronger (use your imagination). Skoobala is also used to describe horrible things like half-eaten corpses and manure piles, so its usage here emphasizes the point Paul is making - his high stature in Judaism is disgusting compared to knowing Christ.
Also, Jesus uses utterly shocking language when he calls the Pharisees “you serpents, you brood of vipers” in Matt. 23:29. To emphatically make a point against their hypocrisy, he uses words that would have offended and shocked his audience.
Another example is that of Saul in 1 Samuel 20:30, where he calls Jonathan a son of a “perverse, rebellious woman.” This is a literal translation and not a Hebrew swear word, per se, but in English this phrase is condensed to one word that starts with a “b.” While I am not saying that it is acceptable for us to use this language, we cannot deny that it is in the Bible.
And one of the more shocking examples is found in Ezekiel 16 and 23. Here, God tells Israel multiple times that she played the “whore” by worshipping other gods, and paints this metaphor in graphic detail, saying that the nation’s virgin bosoms (literally “nipples” in Hebrew) were exposed (23:3) and that her lovers in Egypt had penises like donkeys and the semen of horses (23:20).
So, as far as the verses cited in your question go, let’s take a closer look at their context.
Ephesians 4:29: “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.”
Paul warns against any “corrupting talk” coming out of our mouths, and instead urges us to use words that fit the occasion, to give edification. However, I believe there are times when a cuss word may be appropriate to give edification (again, see Philippians 3:8, as well as various other passages). Having said that, this verse is probably not talking about cussing. If you look at the context (4:25-26), we see that it is talking about lying and speaking to somebody in anger, and verse 31 warns against bitterness, anger, slander, etc. Corrupting talk in this context has nothing to do with cuss words, but has to do with words that tear people down. What is interesting is that gossip and slander and angry words are tolerable in many churches, but words that are considered cuss words in English are not.
Colossians 3:8: “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
In this passage, Paul is likewise warning against anger, wrath, malice, slander, gossip, and lying. “Obscene talk” in this verse is most likely referring to speaking about sexual perversions and making light of sin. This is similar to what Ephesians 5:12 says: “For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.“ Col 3:8 probably has nothing to do with cuss words.
Matthew 5:33-37: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn’… And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Jesus is speaking against swearing, but he is talking about taking an oath, which equates to saying "I swear on a stack of Bibles.” Jesus is making the point that you should be true to your word, but he’s not talking about refraining from using culturally taboo words, or impolite language.
1 Cor 8:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
While this verse is discussing food sacrificed to idols, it is possible that refraining from using cuss words so as not to make your “brother stumble” could apply as a secondary application, but probably not. Here’s why: this passage is warning against causing non-Christians or new Christians to stumble, not about mature Christians having their Christian niceties offended.
So here’s the deal: words are neutral, and the context in which we use them determines whether it is sin or not. I’m sure there are words you use that would have been considered taboo or sinful in your parents’ generation, and there are words that they used that would have provoked the same reaction from their parents’ generation. Much of our thinking about cuss words doesn’t come from the Bible, but from a religious culture that came out of the Victorian Era, where politeness was equated with godliness. The Victorians and each of their religious successors chose lists of words that were off limits in their communities and, as I mentioned before, each generation had a different set of words. However, the Bible is our authority, not Christian culture. Throughout the history of the church cuss words were never much of an issue until the era after the reformers. Now let me be clear, I’m not necessarily advocating for cussing, I just want us to see that the “American Christian” position on cussing has more to do with cultural niceties and Victorian ethics than theological or biblical ethics.
There are times where I purposely do and say things that might offend some Christians, not because I intend to hurt them but because I want them to see the difference between religion and the gospel. Sometimes using words that might be taboo in some Christian circles will cause people to think on a deeper level than if "nicer” words are used. However, this must always be done in love and wisdom is crucial for discerning when and where to cuss.
For a blog on what the Bible teaches about crude humor, click here.