On Christian Life

Should Christians Swear?

My father was a kind man, but he struggled with anger. There was a battle inside him between his vision for how things should be and how they actually were. That’s what bothered him. It wasn’t the angering thing itself but that it represented a failure on his part to make the situation right, to control the world around him.

He never swore at us kids, but my dad was a champion at using swear words when he worked. In fact, when our dad was working on cars or the tractor, my older sister and I would get each other so we could eavesdrop on him while he worked. It was a form of entertainment to see how Dad would cuss up a nonsensical storm. E.g. did you know that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious can become a swear word? When you add some F-bombs and a couple of GDs with a sprinkle of Ss…well, you get the picture.

He would threaten inanimate objects with sputtered curses.

“I’ll kick the <stuff> out of you, you stupid <flipping> engine!”

This was our childhood. Go ahead and laugh. It’s completely ridiculous.

Swearing wasn’t for polite conversation in our house. My dad occasionally dropped a swear word, but he usually was more in control than that. Plus, my mom wielded a sharp look of reproach. Dad knew better.

As I grew, I started experimenting with swearing. I got it honestly after all. It was only a matter of time before I started using swear words like my dad (albeit with less flare and fewer Mary Poppins references). It started with hand gestures, graduated to out-loud words under my breath to myself, and then it finally progressed to casual use with my friends. Swearing was a rite of passage, a marker of my independence from my parents and one more stop in my journey through adolescence.

Now as a husband, father, and church leader, I have had to take an honest look at this topic. I’ve tried to assess what the Bible says, what culture says, what philosophy says, and what my mentors say on the topic, but I always end up on both sides of the aisle.

There are lots approaches to swearing. Some Christians try to replace swear words with less offensive versions. Words like flipping, crap, and butt are used to convey the message without hurting someone’s sense of propriety. But are these just as wrong as the swear words they replace?

The argument against swearing goes like this:

Jesus says that what is in our hearts comes spilling out of our mouths. Matthew 12:34

Jesus also says that it isn’t only murder (or any sinful activity) that’s wrong. The condition of the heart that leads to it is just as sinful. Matthew 5:21-22

James says that if we control our tongues, we are perfect. James 3:2

Therefore, when anger or hate come spilling out of our mouths, it doesn’t matter what our words are we use to express it. We are giving in to our sinful hearts and being led by a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).

So that means that every Cheese and Rice, Shut the Front Door, and Holy Schnikes you utter is just a filler for the real deal. You’re white washing a moldy board. You’re polishing a turd.

In high school I was introduced to another view along the swearing spectrum. Many Christians I knew swore openly. I started noticing it with some of my youth leaders using Ps and Ds. My friends were swearing more openly. As I got into church leadership as an adult, there was nothing off limits. Church leaders openly used whatever word they liked. If a husband picked on his wife in love, the response was an “F you” in reply. If a friend burned another friend, the response was a laughing “How’d you like to get your <stuff> kicked?”

The argument for swearing goes like this:

There are swear words used in the Bible. Paul uses them to emphasize his point. (e.g. “rubbish” – Philippians 3:8 and “by no means” – 11 times throughout Romans).

We are not people under the law but under grace. Romans 6:14

Swearing makes us more accessible to everyday people with the goal of winning them to Christ. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Therefore using words that are considered taboo is acceptable for the Christian.

There are other arguments to be made from both sides.

Swearing sounds ignorant. It’s easy to find another suitable word.

Sometimes a swear word is the most appropriate word to express our thought.

Why is a word considered off limits? Is it just that society says so?

Is it the topic that is taboo and the word just follows? Slang related to bedroom or bathroom behavior has historically been considered inappropriate for polite company.

Swearing isn’t wholesome.

If my heart is free from anger then why is casual swearing wrong?

I’ve gone through phases of casual swearing. In those times I’ve had to guard against letting it slip when I’m speaking in public, when I’m around my family or my kids. It became a constant burden to watch my mouth sometimes and other times be relaxed about it.

There is merit to being accessible to a non-Christian crowd. Ned Flanders from the Simpsons perfectly lampoons the inaccessibility of the ultra-conservative Christian. He’s fraudulently jolly and comes across as puritanical and holier-than-thou. So being real with our speech is a necessity as Christians. But is that a license to swear? Does swearing suddenly get us an audience? In most cases, no.

Where do I stand?

The debate cannot be answered by either extreme. Neither complete abstinence from swearing nor the free use of swear words is the solution. Swearing is like owning a handgun. It creates problems when we misuse it. Is it sometimes the best tool for the job? Yes, though most people never need to fire one in defense. Some people choose not to own a gun at all. If that’s you, you’re missing out on a way to defend yourself, but there are clearly other ways. Other gun owners like to spray bullets. If that’s you, you need to be careful of innocent bystanders. You’re bound to shoot the wrong person and you’ll most likely miss your target.

My personal approach: since I couldn’t easily keep it straight whose company I was in I stopped swearing. I would not build a wall between me and another person.

In Ephesians 4, Paul is talking about what our lives as Christians should look like. He says we shouldn’t be liars. He says we can be angry but we should avoid sin. He says we shouldn’t steal but we should rather work hard and give to others. And we should “let no evil talk come out of [our] mouths but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that [our] words may give grace to those who hear”. The word Paul uses for evil is sapros which is the same Greek word Jesus used in Matthew 7 to describe the fruit on a bad tree.

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Sapros means rotten. Paul is telling us not to use rotten words. Do some words taste bad to you? I’ll bet on it. But not everything that tastes bad is rotten. (I wish my kids thought this about vegetables.) Taste is subjective. Rotten is objective. Likewise, not everything that tastes good is healthy (donuts, anyone?). The key to knowing good from rotten fruit is determining whether it’s nourishing, life-giving and wholesome or makes you sick, weak or broken.

As a writer, I’m often challenged to find the right word. Sometimes that word is the one that comes out of my passion for the subject. The word is the message. Other times I have to choose my words carefully. They are the tools of the trade. In the same way, we Christians need to watch our mouths. We should say the kinds of things to our friends that we don’t mind being overheard by our spouses, by our family or by God himself. Choose your words. Don’t be ruled by the habits of the world, but deliberately speak what the Holy Spirit wants said. But if you use a bad word, I promise I don’t mind. Just don’t lose your ¶ὲ®$¶ὲ[+!<ὲ.

What do you think of swearing? Do you think it’s completely unnecessary or even evil? Do you think it’s not a problem and Christians should relax about it? Please comment below and let me know your thoughts.

I am a husband, a father and a follower of Christ. I have been an entrepreneur, a pastor and a politician. Through many hardships I have learned lessons about faith and life. I am also a contributing writer on faithbeyondfear.com. Follow me on Twitter @twelve2nds. If you want to contact me, write me at chipmattis@gmail.com.

46 Comments

  • onelostcoin

    I I love that you show all sides of the argument. I have always felt that it never bothered me one bit of people swore around me, but I know that for myself when I swear it means I’m harboring emotions I need to deal with.

    Jessie
    http://www.onelostcoin.com
    Your story matters.

    • Chip Mattis

      Absolutely! I tried to be fair in my treatment of the arguments for each side. It’s unpleasant for some people, so I want to be fair. Truthfully, I can only say how I behave, and it goes back to what you said, what’s in my heart? Thanks for reading!

  • Bonnie (43BlueDoors)

    I was raised not to swear, but I swear with no guilt now. I do however try to refrain when in the company of people who are offended by it.

    IMO, words are a string of letters to which a specific culture has assigned a meaning. Words themselves are amoral.

    It is what people mean when they speak the words that is good or bad. So as you pointed out. It’s what’s in the heart that matters no matter what words we use to communicate our heart.

    • Chip Mattis

      Great comments! I have similar thoughts. Any word is a cultural construct. But then I’m challenged by the thought of whether there are any words that are off limits. Who sets those limits and are those limits biblical? Since I can’t answer the question sufficiently in my own mind I err on the cautious side. Like I said, I can’t keep my company straight. I just won’t impose my personal rule on others. That’s the definition of legalism. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

    • Chip Mattis

      Yes. It can get uncomfortable for sure. This topic is so tough because most of my good Christian friends swear. I swear sometimes, but I don’t want my kids to swear. I’ve chosen to abstain. Thanks so much for your comments. I’m glad you read it!

  • nancyehead

    A very good discussion presenting all sides. We all learn language as you did–through our ears. And since media work so hard to be “real”, we all hear swearing. I agree with your solution. We can be the people who have a different language from that of the world. But we have to work to overcome the draw of the language of our ears. Great post. Thanks for writing about a topic we too often ignore.

    • Chip Mattis

      Well said! I don’t mind seeming different to people most of the time. Sometimes it’s hard because tv, music, conversation around me all sound a certain way. I’m pulled to conform. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Yvonne

    Certainly got my attention with this post. I am guilty of throwing out cuss words when I get angry. I am working on it and have cut back. I do not think I will ever be 100% free of it. I think the biggest concern for me is how others my be impacted by reactions. I represent Christ in everything I do so I must watch words.

    • Chip Mattis

      I totally agree. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely free from swearing. I get angry like everyone and I tend to resort to oldest habits when I’m least in control. That’s the process of becoming like Jesus but living in a fallen world. We strive, we make progress, then we lose a step or 2 because we’re still fallen people. Thanks for reading, Yvonne.

  • hgeorge

    In the community where I grew up, one would be looked down on to use the big swear words, but then again, the milder forms were okay like gosh. Because it was not a part of my upbringing, I tend to frown at it.

    • Chip Mattis

      I think I had a similar experience. Most of the churches I have ever been a part of would feel that way. I’ve just seen over the last 15 years or so that we’re relaxing about it as a Church. Is that right? Time will tell. I can only do my best until Jesus makes it clear. Thanks for reading and for your comments.

      • Bonnie (43BlueDoors)

        Exactly, live by your convictions and let others live by theirs. After all God is the one who gave us the choice to love Her him or not. Who am I to question that choice, unless of course it is harmful the others like murder, then I might try to stop that 😉

        • Chip Mattis

          Thanks for reading and commenting, Bonnie! I agree that we should have grace for one another’s convictions. I just have to be careful not to be tolerant of unbiblical ideas. Where I think there’s grey, there’s grace for our differences. Where it’s black and white, I want to hold firm to biblical truth. In this case, I see lots of grey, but what is clear is that our words have power and Christians should be in control of their tongues.

  • Emily Saxe | To Unearth

    Wow, love your perspective from both sides here. While I do swear on (very rare) occasion, I tend to fall in the category of not. I’ve had a debate with a friend who said swearing isn’t bad because society puts the definition on a word (like how some words are swear words in different cultures but not in the US). But I loved your point that it’s not the word, it’s the heart behind the word. The Bible says “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of heart be pleasing in your sight, Oh Lord.” I find it hard to believe that swearing is pleasing to God. So that’s my personal view on it. 🙂

    • Chip Mattis

      Yes! That’s exactly where I land. I don’t judge those who do casually, unless it looks like they have an issue. It’s kind of like drinking. If a friend and I are having a beer, then his beer turns into 6 beers I get concerned. It’s all about what we intend with our words. We should please God no matter what we’re saying. Thanks for commenting! Your perspective is great.

  • Marcie Cramsey

    Such a tough topic, Chip. One I have discussed with my adult children many times. I think it depends on the words used and the context whether a curse word is acceptable or not. There are some words, such as taking God’s name in vain that I have a hard time approving. However, I can see where some words might be appropriate in certain situations. For example, I love the move “Freedom Writers” and it is full of language, but in the context of where it took place, the movie would feel fake without it. The teacher, herself, uses the language of the students; it was her way of relating to them on their turf. I guess we all need to use wise judgment and consider who we might be putting a stumbling block if we do use distasteful language. Great post, makes one think. 🙂

    • Chip Mattis

      That’s an excellent point, Marcie. I didn’t even address the extent to which we consume content that is full of swearing. I agree that if we sanitized music, books, blogs, movies, etc we would miss out on authenticity. I tend to be ok with most swearing in media, but then I wonder how that affects me. I’m sure the conversation will continue with my kids. Thanks so much for commenting and reading!

  • rocksolidfaithacademy

    I liked how you presented both sides of the argument. Personally, I don’t swear. I feel like there are lots of different ways we can express ourselves than resorting to using swear words. In answering your posted quested, I don’t think we need to be of the world to win souls for Christ. Its being different that stands out more than trying to fit in to what everybody does. As much as I try, I can’t seem to picture Jesus dropping expletives and if we are trying to emulate the character of Christ, I think we should follow suit. Going a bit deeper in the chapter you referenced, Matthew 5:33-37, there is a section where Jesus speaks out against oaths and swearing.

    Shanique
    https://www.rocksolidfaith.ca/

    • Chip Mattis

      Good call! Yes, I agree that Jesus would probably not use swear words. Why would he? He was an effective communicator. Do we get some more attention to what we’re saying when we swear? Maybe. But no one can convince me I can’t say it differently. I just might not be a good enough communicator to do so. Thanks for reading!

  • Jeanne Takenaka

    Chip, what a thought-provoking post! I really appreciate how you’ve shared both sides of this topic. As a teen, I swore all the time . . .including dropping a word in front of my mom. Once. For me, I felt like God was telling me I needed to clean up my mouth, and, over time, I did so. I try not to swear because I believe there are more gracious ways to express my feelings and thoughts. I don’t judge people who do swear.

    Both of my teen boys developed a swearing habit in their sixth grade years. For them it was a form of power and of looking cool in front of their peers. And then it became a habit. I guess I look at swearing through the lens of how we are supposed to speak words that are salt and that edify others. I rarely hear swear words used in that way. 🙂

    • Chip Mattis

      Oh! That’s good! Whatever is salty and edifying. I agree. Swearing is rarely, if ever, edifying. In fact, I’ve never heard the argument that swearing is necessary when expressing joy and pleasure. It’s only ever the opposite. Swearing is the tool of anger. Although, casual use negates that. I don’t know. It’s too big a topic for me to solve!

  • karentfriday

    Thought-provoking post, Chip. But it doesn’t provoke me to swear. 😉 This is an age-old debate. You make all great points and show that there are two really opposite extremes. My husband is a lead pastor and we’ve been in ministry for over thirty years. I’m a women’s ministry leader, speaker, writer and blogger. So we do have to come to terms with where we stand as Christian leaders.

    I’m in this camp, “Choose your words. Don’t be ruled by the habits of the world, but deliberately speak what the Holy Spirit wants said.” So as to not offend or cause a weaker brother or sister or non-follower of Christ to stumble, I prefer to be careful with my words, season them with grace, and ask the Lord to help me control not only what comes out of my mouth, but also what’s in my heart.

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! I appreciate it. I think the point of my post was to help those Christians who swear to think about why they do, not in judgment (because I swear on occasion) but because I believe we can do better and should do better. With your experience in ministry, your platform as an example to hundreds or even thousands of disciples, it’s crucial to live a life worth emulating.

  • Boma

    They told us if we couldn’t say it before Jesus, then we shouldn’t say it all; He is after all, with us always. Thanks for sharing, Chip. Blessings to you.

  • stephaniemgammon

    This was entertaining and enlightening. It was fun to watch you be your own argument’s devil’s advocate.

    Back to the beginning though, this line really hit me: It wasn’t the angering thing itself but that it represented a failure on his part to make the situation right, to control the world around him.

    I know the post was about swearing but I loved this deep point. It’s not about that moment/thing/situation is it? It’s about our inability to control our ideal.

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks, Stephanie! You’re absolutely right. I ended up getting a call from a friend about this post. He works as a police officer where swearing is ubiquitous. As we talked about it, we both agree, wherever you land on it, it’s your heart that matters. My dad was supremely insecure and he never dealt with that in a healthy way. Thanks for reading and for your comments.

  • Milton Goh

    To me, I don’t want to swear because it may become a stumbling block between me and the people that I communicate with. If believers hear me swear and are emboldened to do the same, it may hurt their weak conscience if they do it while feeling guilty.

    As much as possible, by the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, I want my words to impart grace, and like you said “Let no evil talk” come out of my mouth.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks for your thoughts! I agree. Swearing like everyone else doesn’t always make us stand out, and it could lead to someone else having issues. Maybe there’s a context where it makes sense but I have experienced it only rarely. Thanks for reading!

  • Alynda Long

    Hi Chip! Thanks for writing about this topic. I grew up in a home where swearing was done everyday by all of the adults around me. They were pretty creative and could use them as almost all parts of speech. I saw that other families weren’t that way and I felt shame for it. That didn’t keep me from doing it though. When I was in middle school, I started cursing up a storm to seem cool to other kids. It stuck for a REALLY LONG TIME. I could usually turn it on and off depending on the situation, but looking back, I cringe. Only during the past five years or so, I’ve started thinking it isn’t God’s greatest plan for me to use curse words. Someone once told me that if we have to use curse words in our writing then our other words aren’t strong enough. Find another modifier. Look deeper. I’ve tried carrying that over into my verbal/conversational communications too. Blessings to you!

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks for sharing, Alynda! I totally know what you’re talking about. From the time I was young it was my mouth that got me in trouble and I also cringe at things I’ve said. Thankfully there’s grace. It’s hard sometimes to find the right word. I want to do what’s easy and natural, but I check myself before I wreck myself. I’m a work in progress but I’m getting there. Thanks for your thoughts. We’re in this together.

  • Edna Davidsen

    Dear Chip!

    I like your blog post title? Why? Because it signals a potential conflict. Conflicts are great material for writing great blog posts.

    The reason this topic has the interest (especially of non-believers) is that they respect Christians and Christianity – otherwise this would not be an issue for them.

    I agree with you when you say: “The debate cannot be answered by either extreme”. My add to this would be, that no debate can give answers by the extremes, because the answers do not speak to modern people.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    Blessing!
    Edna Davidsen

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks, Edna! I appreciate that a lot. I think many subjects can’t be adequately answered by either extreme. When Scripture isn’t clear I try to hold it loosely. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Amber

    The thing that comes to mind regarding this topic is the scripture Matthew 12:34. It says “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” As an adolescent, I found myself cussing. Initially, I would have defended it as a fitting in thing. However, looking back on it I realized that for me those words were a reflection of the anger I had built up in my heart. At the smallest inconvenience, I would automatically escalate to the need of such a harsh word accompanied by an angry attitude. When I began praying for that issue of anger, I noticed that the more that I began to overcome my anger, those words weren’t the first thing to flood my mind. They still aren’t, thank goodness. I have found that I can be relevant to others that are not Christians by just being transparent with them. By no means do I think we need to be like Ned Flanders making Christianity seem unattainable. We can show how we respond to those moments of difficulty and move past them. Such a great, thought provoking post!

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks for your comments, Amber! I have experienced the same thing. When I swear freely it has tended to be during times when I’m most distant from God and the ones I love. It has been a symptom of a larger problem. I still struggle with it occasionally, but instead of focusing on not swearing, I focus on being with and pleasing God. Then the swearing fades. Good call on Matthew 12. And thanks for reading.

  • Lynn J Simpson

    Like all here, I love how you represented both sides of the topic. I do see those that don’t swear as respectful, professional, and gracious. I know the only time I seem to swear is in anger which means I’m not living in my Christ likeness. I know non-Christians that choose not to swear and Christians that do. Examining our heart for the reason why we are swearing is important, I think.

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks, Lynn! I appreciate you reading and commenting. I tried to be fair to both sides because I haven’t really solved it. I don’t think the Bible is clear on the topic of swear words. It is clear on anger, and I know my heart. I need to control my tongue better, so I don’t swear. I’m with you in that. I want to look like Jesus.

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks! I think my wife and I are similar, but I’m a little more accepting. She is much more conservative on this than I am. It bothers her immensely. Another good reason for me not to risk getting into the habit. Thanks for reading!

  • Jeanna

    This is such a timely post for me. I tend to believe that Christians should not swear. Recently, I have noticed posts on social media by others in our congregation that had a curse word (liked by the pastor’s wife too!), and another time I had a conversation with someone in the church lobby who “dropped a word” during our conversation. In both instances, they were people who have positions in the church (though not necessarily paid positions). James 3:10 comes to mind, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”

    I agree with James and I try to choose my words carefully. I think I will also choose the next church I attend carefully. 😉

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeanna. It’s a tough one. I’m sure you chose your church for the right reasons. We all do our best in that. Swearing openly could indicate other issues, but in my experience, having a candidate conversation with those that do to understand why they swear could be really fruitful for you and them. Maybe they’ve just gotten into a bad habit and don’t want to.
      I tend to err on the conservative side, but I can’t expect everyone to follow my personal rules. You’re doing so great to be aware enough of yourself and your convictions. Take those thoughts captive and tame the tongue. Feel free to subscribe and keep reading!

  • Sheila Dougal

    I really enjoyed this piece! I grew up in a household where using “bad” words was severely punished. And so I’m just not a natural cusser. But my husband grew up in a house where cussing was like having Diet Coke. It was totally normal. Your thoughts here got me thinking about the judgement I have put on my husband because he cusses. Thanks for provoking some intentional thought about this.

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks, Sheila! I really appreciate your comments. I really want people to think about this topic, or any topic for that matter, in a way they might not have considered before. Some see swearing as open and shut, through Bible is clear, there’s no need for discussion. Others see it as a cultural evolution the Church is making. Whatever side a person is on I hope they have considered what others think but mostly what God thinks. Thanks so much for reading.

  • Norrie

    Quite an interesting discussion!
    Admittedly, i swear. Often. I never however swear out of anger, or direct it at people. I don’t even know how it started.

    I think swear words have degrees of sweariness, and the end of the day they are just words and a lot of meaning comes from tone of voice and the intent of the speaker. Sometimes completely normal words become swearwords as well.

    Funnily enough, lot of people don’t even realize i swear, because i just don’t use these words to express anger.

    • Chip Mattis

      Thanks for sharing, Norrie! I appreciate your comments. I agree that swear words are words, but words do have meaning. Even though I swear occasionally, I have to be aware of why. What was once done in anger leads to casual use. Is that a condition of my heart that I’m desensitized to what should be avoided or is it a relaxing of my high standards for my speech and it doesn’t really matter? I’ve gone back and forth, but here’s my question for you. How wholesome is your speech and do your words reflect Christ always? There’s always room for growth in how I speak. Have a great day and please, keep reading!

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