Is cussing necessarily a sin?


The short answer is "no, not necessarily." Here's the long answer:

I think the language issue is largely one of wisdom. Passages like Proverbs 10:31; Matthew 15:11; Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 3:8; and James 3 certainly show us the importance of our speech and its content, but I don't think they are clear enough to suggest that some words may never be used to convey that content. I think these verses are best explained as exhortations to use our speech in profitable manners which glorify God. But the actual words we use to accomplish that may vary from setting to setting. At some times, profanity is the proper way to communicate clearly and to glorify God. I'll provide a true example, with the hopes that it does not offend you too deeply:

My friend and fellow seminarian was witnessing on the street to some of the Goth crowd who were into Wicca. Their own language was vulgar, but they did not perceive it as vulgar. In presenting the gospel to them, in an attempt to communicate to them on a level that they could really understand, my friend pointed out the fact to them that since the Fall, the world has been "totally f**ked up." Their response was a contemplative and agreeing "yeah." In my judgment, this falls under the category of being all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:19-22).

On a very important level, a word is just a word. It is society's perception of that word that makes it vulgar, or rather, the perception of a portion of society. Parts of society consider some words "impolite," "profane" or "vulgar" regardless of the content they convey, but other parts of society do not consider these same words to be vulgar. In fact, "vulgar" does not describe a word as "bad" or "evil," but rather "common" or "low class." "Profane" does not mean "evil" or "gross," but simply "worldly" or "non-sacred." The "bad words" are the ones that cultured society does not use, but which lower class people (or by association, the "bad people") do use.

Over time, in our society these words began to cause negative reactions in some people because they considered them to be offensive. However, there is nothing magical/spiritual in the sounds or meanings of the words themselves that caused this association. Rather, it was the contexts in which these words were generally used. For nearly every profane word usage, there is another non-profane way to say the same thing that does not cause the same negative reactions in those who are more sensitive to profanity. But this does not mean that the words themselves are somehow evil sounds.

Perhaps the most important factor that makes me lean "in favor" of profanity is the fact that the Bible itself uses language in ways that may be considered profane, and it nowhere explicitly prohibits the use of indelicate language. Examples of "vulgar" language in the Bible are impossible to "prove," but are also impossible to "disprove." The evidence, however, seems to favor vulgarity. Here are a few samples:

╖ Paul's use of the word skubala (Phil. 3:8), rarely translated with more vulgarity than "garbage," is probably profane. Literally, it is one of the words for "dung," and it appears in ancient graffiti (a good sign that it is profane).

╖ In 2 Chronicles 10:10, the young men tell Rehoboam to tell Jeroboam that his "little finger" is thicker than his father's loins were. In that text, "little finger" is probably a euphemism for his penis. Notice that when he actually confronts Jeroboam, Rehoboam omits that phrase. This editing probably indicates that the phrase was inappropriate (therefore not spoken to Jeroboam's face), yet we do find it in the Bible.

╖ Ezekiel 23:20 describes in quite lewd terms the genitalia and seminal emissions of those engaged in adultery (this is metaphoric use of vulgar language). In fact, the whole chapter tends in this direction.

╖ 2 Kings 18:27 provides an example of vulgar language that would be hard to deny — eating and drinking your own body excrement is offensive in virtually any culture.

╖ Tsoach, which is one of the words used in 2 Kings 18:27, also appears in Isaiah 28:8 with potentially offensive meaning, and both words from 2 Kings 18:27 (tsoach and shen) also appear in the parallel to that verse in Isaiah 36:12. Tshoach also appears in Ezekiel 4:12 in what is meant to be a shocking context.

And what are we to do with actual English speaking cultures or sub-cultures wherein no language is taboo? In their "dialects," these words do not carry the same offensive meaning that they do in the Christian, polite, or high societies. To complicate the picture even further, those in higher echelons of Western society use vulgar language. How do we now determine what is inappropriate language? What is the standard? Do we stick by cultural taboos? If so, from what do they derive authority?

Yes, we can broadly apply ideas such as "give no offense to anyone" (1 Cor. 10:32), which is really about eating food sacrificed to idols. But even in that context, the point is that there are appropriate times to do the "offensive" thing. We can also appeal to passages like Ephesians 4:29: "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth." But again, the Bible does not tell us that certain words fall into this category. Rather, the point seems to be the effect or intention of the words, not whether or not those words are acceptable to sensitive or polite society.

Now, I say this as someone who formerly used profanity extensively, but who now feels uncomfortable even to hear it used. I don't use that language because in my current society people don't appreciate it, and they take it as greatly offensive. I am among those who don't use it, so I don't use it. However, if my situation were reversed, it might be less offensive to use it than to appear "better than" the people whose company I was keeping.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.