Moody Bible Institute on Emerging Church
Virtual Conversations and Monastic Islands

Offensive language: I Think My Mother Taught Me

Images-1WARNING: If cussing and offensive language piss you off, excuse my King James, please do not read on because I WILL refer to words that are deeply offensive and yet must be mentioned if we are to have a serious and objective look at the subject of offensive language and the emerging church movement.

Interesting conversation going on this week at Monday Morning Insight. Charles Swindoll has been dropped from VCY radio station for using 'vulgar" language [including buns, heck, crap, balls] I think it was the "crap" word that got him in trouble.

Todd says . . .
"VCY alerted IFL that day that the word, “crap” is crude, uncalled for and offensive and should not to be used in a Christian’s vocabulary, let alone come from a pulpit and broadcast all over the country. VCY stated to IFL that this term Chuck used did not pass the test of Ephesians 4:29." Ingrid responded and is being backed up by Ken who is quoting Tozer and the finger wagging is happening all over.

BTW - Chuck Swindoll was my pastor in the eighties when i lived in Orange County. My wife was a missionary sent from EFC in Fullerton and we were married in that church. He is a good man and if he says "crap", then i would assume that the era of crap being a swear word has ended and people need to get used to it.

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Same with "ass". In January this year, John Piper got called out for saying that God "kicks our ass". He explained later that "backside" would have sufficed, and there was much conversation [see links on Justin Taylor's blog and Wayne Grudem's response]. But, honestly, no explanation was needed. I think saying "ASS" should not ASSault anyone and is not ASinine in the slightest. But that depends who is ASking. The word is no longer offensive except to a tiny minority of people . . who are probably ASleep in ASpen. The word might even be an ASSet to poets who need to AScribe strong* words to ASSociates.

is an ASterisk.

Its usually the emerging church that gets slammed for bad language and cussing. The most famous is Mark Driscoll who was called "The Cussing Pastor" in a book by Donald Miller and chastised by John Macarthur in his Grunge Christianity?. As I said a few days ago, Mark Driscoll is NOT offensive to the people in his congregation. Every culture and geographic location is unique and finding a universal code of non-offensive language is impossible.

Actually, the international emerging scene uses far more 'swear' words than the American. One reason for this is that English is often a second language and certain words, learned from watching Eddie Murphy movies, dont have the same impact. Ohhhh . . the things I have heard . . .

You probably have too. Not so much in emerging church evangelism, as the critics charge. Nothing trendy about cussing at all. But if your church has ever hosted an open mike night and 20 artists are plumbing the depths of their souls and expressing the results with language that fits . . . well . . you hear stuff that your mother never said. Once I was in a church meeting in Texas and a new Christian read some poetry that verbaized his repentance from a recent slip up. We all listened intently as he tearfully read out his confession, in a really loud voice, "God . . . I am sooo sorry. I feel like I have been f___d over by the devil".

What would you do if that happened in your church?

Words change. I am sure Charles Spurgeon would not talk about "nigger entertainments" as he did in a 1891 Sword and Trowel publication. And the translators of the King James Bible would probably not employ the word "piss" (1 Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8) for "urinate" or "to relieve oneself". The word "sucks", it was pointed out by Justin on in 2005, is no longer a deeply offensive word. Words change, just like cultures change. And applying outdated templates is not always appropriate.

But some words ARE offensive to a lot of people and the Scriptures have much to say about the way we speak and the words we choose. Heres how I see it. Heres the skinny.

Words change and their impact changes. As I already said. I see swear words as belonging to three distinct historical periods and forgive me if they are becoming cliche in these conversations.

1. In Premodern times, the most offensive words were excommunicatory in nature.
Offensive words were religious terms that threatened punishment and damnation. Its still the same in French. My French speaking friends tell me the most offensive words in their language are still along those lines of religious cursing and calling someone a "devil" In English, the words "damn" and "hell" used to have a harsh edge but have softened over time. The names of God and Christ and Joseph/Mary are often called up to create offense. In fact, the word "cuss" is related to "curse" which has religious overtones, as does the word "swear".
At Sunday School, i was told not to use words like "Geez Whiz", and "Jeepers" because they were toned down versions of swear words. There were lots of these words - "Gosh", "golly" . . ."struth" which means 'God's truth' and is still popular in Australia.
My mother was brought up in a very strict Presbyterian home and was forbidden to swear. She and her sisters said "Amster-naughtyword" instead of Amsterdam.
BUT . .. she was allowed to repeat the refrain "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe . . " That was not offensive in her day.

2. In Modern times, which is where many people still live, words that cause most offense affront our personal and private sensibilities.
These offensive words [explicit?] are normally associated with private body parts, bodily functions of a toilet nature, and sexual relations. The shift began in the 1800's in USA, when restrictions on language focused on sexuality. It is this era that many older people still use as a standard of the most offensive swear words. For example, as a child, I was not allowed to say "bum" or "crap" or "piss". Obviously, harsher words than these were also forbidden.

3. In our Post-modern times, as the voices of the margin dwellers and powerless have been given consideration and brought to the center, it is exclusionary language that causes most offence. Marginalizing people due to their race, gender, disability or status is about the most offensive thing you can say. Once I accidently used the word "girl" instead of "woman" - the uproar was global and the judgement swift. People still remind me of it. Mark Driscoll has also been rebuked by emerging church folk for comments that sounded misogynist. This makes him an interesting subject, as someone who has managed to offend people in at least two camps.

But I have never heard Mark Driscoll say "Nigger" like Spurgeon did . . . and I am guessing he never will. And Spurgeon wouldn't either in today's world. Despite his reputation as the cussing pastor, I dont think Driscoll is motivated to offend people. I might be wrong but I think he is more concerned with expressing the fulness and impact of what he wants to say in the everday language of his people. Are'nt we all?

Just a month ago, hip-hop producer Russell Simmons recommended eliminating "extreme curse words" from the recording industry.
Which words? They were "nigger, "bitch" and "ho". Note the absense of sexual or bodily function type cuss words. These days, no one loses their job for saying "crap" but if you say "Nigger" in USA or "Ching" in Australia or "Coconut" in NZ or "Paki" in UK then your entire career might be on the line.

In the USA a lawsuit was brought against a Southwest Airlines Flight attendant in 2003 for using this rhyme, even without saying the n___ word. What she said was "Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, pick a seat, we gotta go".
Its the same refrain I used to repeat when counting.

I think my mother taught me.

[hey mum - dont worry . . you didnt know any better]

In the UK, a paper published on offensive language called 'Delete Expletives' [pdf] found the word "nigger" had the most movement - going from eleveth position in 1998 to fifth in 2000. In the same time period, the word "Paki" went from seventeenth to tenth. "Paki" in USA hardly registers as a swear word at all.

Delete 300

So, I guess I am saying that words still offend but those words are in a state of flux and their impact is related to what is happening in society.

And God's word is still just as applicable today as it has always been. Apart from one of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) telling us not to use the LORD's name in an empty manner [ie, without thought or meaning, or 'in vain'], there are two passages from the Scriptures that stick in my mind:

1. Jesus warned his listeners against calling anyone "Raca" or empty-head.(Matthew 5:22). This is the kind of exclusionary and demeaning insult that makes up the harshest offensive language today in these postmodern, postcolonial times. The equivalent of "Raca" will be different in every language. "estupido" in Spanish is a very harsh word but in English it isnt very offensive. But there are plenty of insulting words that rip people's esteem to shreds and the command of Jesus remains. Lets not tear each other down with these kinds of words. Love builds up and it never destroys. Love is the language of the Kingdom and the Kingdom is more about power than words (1 Cor 4:20) so we shouldn't get too hung up with wrangling (good Texas word) over words.

2. "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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice." Eph 4:29-31
Again, lets use words to build people up. Lets NOT use our words or our blogs for slandering others or expressing our anger. Give your anger to God and let him deal with it. Words can tear down or build up. Lets build each other up and not grieve the Holy Spirit.

Carla Rolfe has some viral-worthy advice on this and anyone who gets intoxicated with criticising and ripping down should pay attention:

"If someone is currently blessing you or has been a blessing in your walk, take the time to tell them. Call them if you can, or email them, or send a card. Find a nice way to lift their hearts and know that they have indeed blessed you and strengthened you." Go bless someone, Reflections on the Times

And when it comes to choosing words to express oneself, I try to keep in mind my audience. If i am invited to preach at a traditional church and there is a lot of grey hair in the front rows, I figure their list of bad words is from an earlier historical period than mine and the language I choose will hopefully fit the situation and will not cause offense. Why offend when we have a message to get across? But its not always easy to express oneself fully to multiple generations.

And if the person i am listening to uses a word that offends me, I will be quick to believe the best (1 Cor 13) and assume that they have walked a different path, and what i consider offensive may not necessarily be the same standard by which they judge their words. But there is still a place for rebuke and correction.

Anyway . .


Want to help me out?
This little blog post is just crying out to be a 3 point ditty for some Baptist pastor to repeat. But I cant find a word for the second point, nor the desire to find it. Maybe you can. Make sure it starts with "ex-".

My wife just came home and after showing her my blog post, she told me of some related news. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) just today has officially removed any reference to the male blackbird as C___K. The reason was that their website was getting blocked by profanity filters. The word c.o.c.k will now be spelled with 4 asterisks - ****

If Beavis and Butthead were here, one of them would say "He he he huh he . . . he said ASterisk . . . huh huh he he!"