My desire for alliteration and titular brevity and cuteness may have derailed my post yesterday, and it bothers me. I wrote to make an important point and the discussion has missed the mark. Discussions tend to do that.
I made the point that we need to follow Paul’s example and treat our human righteousness, our human culture, our human heritage – all that Paul refers to in Philippians 3 – as “dung.” I referenced Dr. Wallace’s excellent piece that placed the word skubala on the shock scale somewhere between the word crap and the more shocking s-word.
Of course, the discussion raged not on the topic of my post, but on the ethics of “cussing.” We’ve seen some preachers in recent days who used profanity from the pulpit and claimed it was okay. And, as I said in the comments, I actually misused the word “profanity” in my title because I was alliterating. “Paul’s Profanity.” Paul’s Shocking Vocabulary Choice just didn’t have the same punch. I try not to write for sensationalism, but sometimes when I’m titling, I go astray.
Anyway, I thought a brief follow-up post might be helpful.
Some referenced two other verses which seem to conflict with the idea that Paul might be using a “vulgarity” of some sort here. I’m not going to do deep exegesis or word studies here, but I have done some study in the past. I would give three words here.
- You can always find someone who says what you want to hear if you read enough. Exegesis and word study is not about finding someone who says what you want to hear and then saying, “Aha!” but seeking to get the best consensus of the best scholars and seeking to figure out the real meaning of the text – even if that is difficult for us to hear or causes us to reevaluate our assumptions.
- In all of these verses, context is key – as always.
Examples of “Vivid” Language
There are several places where Paul uses “vivid” language – where translations actually have to smooth over the meaning because if we gave a literal translation it would shock our people. This is in the best tradition of the Old Testament, where many scriptures are so brutally vivid (vulgar?) that a literal translation would get me in trouble just reading it in my pulpit!
- There are some passages in Proverbs 5 and in other places that speak of married sex in a way that might make many blush. I’m not sure what it says that we are more prudish than the scriptures themselves, but most of us would not read these scriptures out loud in church or we would teach them as allegories!
- Isaiah 64:6 is pretty harsh. “All our righteousness is as filthy rags.” The Hebrew lexicons I’ve looked at are pretty unanimous. Isaiah (speaking under prophetic inspiration) is describing a rag stained by a woman’s period. This was considered unclean and unholy – a powerful visual symbol of the Israelites’ attempts at righteousness.
- In prophetic passages, God describes Israel’s idolatrous “whoring” in ways that this pastor is not comfortable reading to the congregation!
Let’s take a brief look at two passages where Paul spoke harshly.
1. In Philippians 3:7-8, Paul called his Jewish heritage “dung” – according to Daniel Wallace, the shocking word skubala. We can argue the precise meaning of the word, but it seems it was not a word that generally used in polite conversation and might make many uncomfortable.
Perhaps “crap” might be the best analogy. If I said, “I consider it crap” it would not be an out and out vulgarity but it would certainly make my congregation sit up and take notice that I’d said something unusual.
2. Of course, Paul’s harshest words (judged by this man anyway) may have been in Galatians 5:12, when he speaks about the circumcision party which was fixated on the act of cutting off the foreskin. Paul says, “I wish they would emasculate themselves.” Wow! Uncross your legs, gentlemen. “If they are so concerned about peritome (circumcision – ‘cutting around’) I wish they’d just go all the way and cut it off!” That’s tough. I’ve been involved in some blogging brouhahas but I’ve never told someone to emasculate himself.
So, there are times when harsh, vivid, physically brutal language is used in the Bible. Bodily functions are described at times in ways that our modern sensibilities find offensive.
What about THAT Passage?
There are three passages that people tend to point to in giving the other side. Yesterday, people said my interpretation of Philippians 3 couldn’t possibly be right because Paul would be violating his own words in two other passages. I contend that is only because they are misinterpreting Paul’s words in the other passages.
1. Ephesians 5:4 “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
Here, Paul seems to be condemning exactly what Paul would have been doing in Philippians 3 (and Galatians as well). But, context is king. In verse 3, Paul warns against sexual immorality and impurity (and covetousness). In verse 5, he says that those who are guilty of those sins have no inheritance in the kingdom, and goes on in verse 6 to define them as recipients of God’s wrath. Here we have a context sandwich! The filthiness, foolishness, and crudity of verse 4 is likely to focus on sexually explicit and immoral joking.
- The word “filthiness” means shameful and often has a sexual connotation. Here it seems to have such – it speaks of moral filth.
- Foolish means empty of value, without positive moral effect. Paul’s words, while vivid, even crude, were not foolish.
- Crude joking seems to be referring to “risque wit” or ribaldry.
What is passage targets is crude sexual joking. It does not conflict with Paul using vivid language, such as he did in either the Philippians or Galatians passage.
2. Colossians 3:8 “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
This is, again, a passage where context carries the meaning. The last in a series of five words, “obscene talk” seems to carry the same meaning as the admonition in Ephesians 5:4. “No sexually explicit or improper talk.” But in context here, there seems to be a different meaning – one that almost all the standard commentaries agree on. The other four words all refer to the outworkings of anger and malice, and there seems to be an escalation. This word seems to be the final word in that series, and is generally believed to be best interpreted as “abusive speech” – words that demean, deride, or devalue a person.
In other words – bloggers. (Sorry.)
In context, this is not a command against anything Paul said in Philippians or Galatians, but against harsh, unloving words that tear down instead of building up the body of Christ.
3. Of course, there’s Exodus 20:7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
This is what profanity really is. Using the “s-word” is not profanity (or some of the other four-letter words we wash our kids mouths out for saying). Profanity is taking that which is holy and making it unholy – profaning the holy. There’s nothing holy about human excrement. The name of God is holy and using it in an empty way is profanity. Saying, “God damn” is profanity because only God has the right to judge and condemn. Saying, “Go to hell” is profanity for the same reason. Judgment and condemnation belong to God not me. So, profanity is the usage of the holy in a common way, it is the devaluing of the sacred.
Technically, we should never confuse VULGARITY and PROFANITY. They are separate things and separate issues.
Conclusion: About the Christian Tongue
1. Profanity is Verboten!
Absolutely, 100%, no question, no wiggle room. Using God’s name in an empty, vain way is sin. Actually, it’s another post, but saying, “God told me” when it’s my own idea – that’s using God’s name in vain. Should a Christian use profanity-saccharin? You know? Gosh, golly. Darn it! I don’t know. I’d have been spanked as a kid if I did, but as I’ve grown older I have gotten a bad case of potty mouth and a darn it or two escapes my tongue now and again. Heck, I’ve even said Shucks from time to time. It would probably be best for all of us to leave these words be, because using God’s name in an vain manner is sin.
What is fascinating, is that we get more upset at the use of VULGARITY than we do at minor profanity. If there’s a movie with “O my God” throughout, we think little of it, but if s-bombs and f-bombs are dropped, we turn it off. What does that say?
2. Sexually explicit humor is out of place.
Clearly, Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:4, and the literal meaning in Colossians 3:8 (though I’ve argued for a different interpretation), make it clear that sex is holy between a husband and a wife. It is not wrong to talk about sex in a responsible way, but course joking, empty sexual humor – that is wrong.
One side note here – sexual humor is one of the things that breaks down the walls between men and women and eventually can lead to inappropriate relationships and affairs. If we will avoid crude talk it will help us avoid adultery.
But, crude sexual joking has no place for the Christian.
3. Vivid, descriptive language is not always sin.
Paul made wise use of vivid, even (arguably) vulgar language in the two passages I referenced earlier. The prophets did the same. It was done for spiritual reasons – to convey truth. It is worth noting that it was not done just to draw attention or to “be cool.” It was done to make an important point.
And the reason it worked, it seems, is because it was so out of place. If Paul used a vulgarity all the time, it meant nothing. But if he suddenly used vivid language when he needed to make a point and it was unusual, it was all the more effective.
Dave’s Guidelines for Preachers (take ’em for what they’re worth)
1. Err on the side of caution. There’s usually a tactful way to make a point. If I’m preaching Philippians 3:8, I probably say something like, “Paul is speaking of that stuff farmers spread on their fields to make the crops grow…you know that stuff that makes Siouxland stink.” I can get the idea across without vulgarity. I think we need to KNOW what Paul said, but we usually do better to err on the side of NOT being vulgar in the pulpit.
2. Never use profanity. God’s name is holy.
3. Never use sexually-explicit, or even sexually-suggestive humor, from the pulpit or in casual conversation. Your conversation with women, and with others in your church should be pure, holy, chaste, and a host of other synonyms.
I remember one time my preacher dad said something at a church gathering that was (accidently) horribly sexually inappropriate. The place burst out in embarrassed laughter and he stood there trying to suck the words back into his mouth! But there was not a single person there who thought for a second that dad said it on purpose. Why? Because he’d never made a sexually suggestive joke. He joked all the time, but never dirty jokes. Never sexually-based jokes. When it happened, every person there knew it was an accident!
That’s how your conversation should be.
(Oh, by the way, it was absolutely hilarious. I wish it had been videotaped.)
4. If you use “vivid” or other “descriptive” references – like Paul’s in Philippians or Galatians, make sure they are HOLY.
- They must be for godly reasons – to make an important point that cannot adequately be made in other ways.
- It must not be to gain attention for yourself or make yourself look cool.
- It must be necessary. If there’s another way to make the point, make the point.
- Go only as far as you have to go – exercise self-control.
- Make it the EXCEPTION, not the RULE.