The Bible doesn't contain a list of words that "Thou shall not speak." So who decides what is a swear?
There is a three letter word that starts with the letter "a". In the 1500's this word was a totally appropriate and clean word that meant donkey. Today, this is considered a swear word in our culture. What about crap? Is that an inappropriate word? My generation finds nothing wrong with it. I would guess about half of my parents' generation would consider it rude and a bit vulgar. Yet, my Italian grandmother would slap me with a wooden spoon if I ever said it! Swear words are not biblically defined, but culturally. The A-word has gone from clean to vulgar while "crap" has gone from vulgar to clean.
There is more to this issue than just the words in question. At the very least, we have to admit that the words themselves are not what are sinful
But doesn't the Bible tell us not to swear?
The Bible does tell us not to swear in the sense of making a vow or promise or oath in passages like Matthew 5:33-37. However, this is not the kind of swearing we are talking about.
Ephesians 4:29 says, "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." This passage is often used to prohibit swearing. I'm not convinced. It prohibits unwholesome talk. What does that mean? We see what it means by reading the opposite of it in the same verse. Instead of unwholesome talk we are to say encouraging things that will be helpful and beneficial to others. It seems then, that unwholesome talk is speaking about things that are hurtful, tear others down, and are detrimental to the listener.
Can swear words fall into those categories? Certianly. However, so can clean words. This passage is about how you use your words, not which words you use.
Ephesians 5:4 says, "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving." This is another passage often used to prohibit swearing. Some of your translations like NIV will have the word "obscenity" in place of "filthiness". However, as I've looked into the Greek it doesn't seem this way. These words are banning the following things. "Filthiness" is banning discussion of things that are not clean or that are morally corrupt and the Greek word has sexual connotations. "Foolish talk" is a word that generally refers to worldly wisdom and bans us from spreading the foolish opinions and values of the world. "Crude joking" refers to making light of immoral and sinful things and this word also has some sexual connotations.
Take a look at the context of this verse as well. In verse 3, Paul bans sexual immorality, impurity (which is sexual), and covetousness (likely to be taken as lust or coveting after someone sexually). In verse 5, Paul is right back to condemning sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness. Based on the sexual context before and after it and the strong sexual connotations that the words in verse 4 already have, it seems they are to be taken in a sexual light. I believe that in Ephesians 5:4, Paul is not banning swearing. He is banning us from speaking about sexually immoral things, joking about them, and spreading the world's ideas about sex.
The verses we turn to in order to ban swear words are just not quite talking about what we think they are. The Bible doesn't come right out and ban us from using words that our culture calls inappropriate or vulgar.
Wait, is that a swear word in the Bible?!
The Bible itself uses pretty vulgar words. Our unfaithfulness to God is called "whoring" time and time again. In the opening of Galatians, Paul deals with false teachers who taught that circumcision was a requirement for salvation. He says he wishes they would go all the way and emasculate themselves! Ezekiel discusses lewd things and even references genitalia in quite crude ways (Ezekiel 23, especially verse 20). Isaiah 64:6 says that our righteousness is like filthy rags. This phrase is more accurately translated into English as bloody tampons. In Philippians 3:8, Paul compares his own righteousness to rubbish. The word for rubbish was a vulgar Greek word for feces and is probably better translated into English as the S-word.
God's Word uses harsh and vulgar language sometimes. I believe it uses this language to describe bad and sinful things in a way that will grab the attention of those slow to listen and the hard-hearted. The Bible does this infrequently, but it does, nevertheless do it.
Permissible, but Beneficial?
Are you telling me that I am free to swear? Well, you need to honor your parents if you are a child or are living under their roof. You also need to respect the wishes of your teachers, bosses, and other authorities. But if all of those conditions are met and you're not violating the Ephesians passages? Yes, my official opinion is that you are free to swear. However, just because you are free to, doesn't mean you should.
"Everything is permissible for me"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"--but I will not be mastered by anything. - 1 Corinthians 6:12
Swearing can become a hard habit to turn on and off. While you may be free to use a swear word, you need to be careful not to form a habit you can't control. I think we can all agree that there are certain times you do not want those words coming out of your mouth. Be careful not to form a habit you can't deal with.
..."Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others." - 1 Corinthians 10:23-24
Swearing may be permissible, but is it beneficial? Consider the following things before you even utter a swear word. Will you offend the people around you? Are there children or teens around who are not allowed to swear? Are you willing to give up your freedom to swear to prevent them from having problems? Are you with people who believe that swearing is indeed a sin? Like Paul tells the Corinthian Christians not to eat the idol-meat for the sake of Christians they are with, I would tell you not to swear around them for their sake. (see 1 Cor 10:27-29)
Represent Christ Well
2 Corinthians 5:20 tells us that "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us." We need to take that seriously. Think about a US Ambassador going to another country for an international meeting. While there, he swears like crazy everywhere he goes. Videos of him swearing pop up on YouTube from people's cell phones. He's never mean or hurtful, he just swears a lot. He goes to the international meeting and handles the business exactly as he was asked by US leaders and does does everything well in that regard. Has he done his job? I would say no. His job was about more than the meeting. His job was to represent the President, the US, and its citizens well. Instead, he has made us a laughing stock and tarnished our reputation.
Swearing may be permissible by the letter of the law, but be careful. Christians are to represent Christ. As a Christian, non-believers are forming their opinions about Jesus, your church, the Bible, the gospel, and more by what they see you say and do. Let's be honest. Even if I have convincedyou the Bible doesn't say swearing is always a sin, there are many people who think poorly of swearing. We, as Christians trying to represent our King well, should be careful with what we say and do. That may often mean giving up some of our freedoms, such as using a swear word, to make sure the name of Jesus is lifted high and above reproach.
I don't think swear words are in and of themselves sinful. We must never use any words to hurt others, tear them down, or to their detriment. We must abstain from speaking of and joking about sinful things, especially sexually immoral things. All of our speech should be used to benefit those who hear us. We must honor our parents and those in authority over us in this regard. We must be considerate not to offend others who do not like swear words, are not allowed to swear, or believe swearing is sinful.
However, as in the Bible, there may be occasions when using a swear word is a strong way to get the point across to someone who needs to get it. Like the Bible, this will be infrequent, but these situations will arise.
We must remember at all times that we are representing Christ to a watching world. It may be necessary to give up our freedom in this area to give Jesus a good reputation.
Personally, I doubt most of you will ever hear me swear because with all of the potential trouble, I just don't find it worth it.
Thoughts? Comments? Don't forget to vote for next Thursday's topic.