Before we meet for our November 25 ABF, I thought it would be helpful to address some of the issues we were discussing with regard to the Third Commandment (taking the name of the Lord “in vain”). First, the “take-away” from Nov 11 was not that Christians are simply free to use profanity as they choose. Of course we are never to literally “take His name in vain” by name. That is clearly a violation, properly defined. Profanity is more or less equivalent to vulgarity, sometimes called “gutter language” or “dirty words.” The Third Commandment does not directly address this kind of language. Does it address it indirectly? I am a little hesitant (though John Frame argues it does cover such language), At any rate, I don’t need the Commandment to get to vulgar language. I can go to Ephesians 5: 4 and 4: 29.
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.” (ESV)
The words “filthiness” and “foolish talk” and “crude joking” appear broad enough to cover vulgarity. These are eliminated to make room for thanksgiving—a more appropriate public expression of who we are in Christ (not that we should even be thinking these words in our minds, ideally). I suppose one way to think about it is: Why would you want to express such words when you can thank the Lord for His goodness and mercy and love.
Ephesians 4: 29:
“Let no unwholesome [rotten] word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (NASB)
This verse as well seems to be broad enough to cover profanity. “Unwholesome” would seem to describe that kind of language pretty well. Couple that with its replacement—words good for edification and words that give grace—and I think the case is fairly clear for believers, even without the Third Commandment.
A third verse that is relevant to this issue, Colossians 3: 8:
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” (ESV, emphasis added)
This verse appears to clinch the case against profanity. The translation from the Greek conveys the original contextual meaning perfectly and the term conveys a sense that overlaps considerably with the idea of profanity. Putting all three verses together, there is a very strong case to be made that for Christians, profanity should be avoided.
Do these verses apply to non-believers? And is it possible for a Christian to use profanity in some defined context that makes it acceptable, if not ideal? Ephesians 5: 4 and 4: 29 do not cover non-believers. Nor are they literally taking of God’s name (which we as believers bear in a particular way) in vain. No matter how distressed one might be by vulgar language, in the interest of the Christian witness, we might want to think twice about “calling” someone on its use in most—but not all-situations. I make exceptions for children and I make a general exception in settings that call for decorum and civility. Those exceptions would even cover non-believers, but for different reasons than for believers. In addition, I would think we would want to elevate the level of discourse in general in society. However, in some cases, if a non-Christians utters vulgar word, I am not inclined to censure him. Our encounter may or may not become an opportunity for the gospel. If the subject of the vulgarity arises, all well and good. It could lead us to a fruitful conversation.
As to believers, the question is, is the use of profanity/vulgarity a sin in any and every context? A straightforward interpretation of the relevant verses would forbid the use of what is defined as profanity. But then we face the question: What constitutes profanity? Is it societally and in some cases contextually defined? Can we separate the original meaning or sense of a word from its later metamorphosis? If a society as a whole had changed the sense of a word(s), would that make a difference? So for example, if the original meaning attached to the word has been lost and the current usage is not in the context of vulgar speech, is it permissible? Is it possible that the entire population would have lost the original sense? If not, offense could still be taken, and the word would be deemed profane.
In the end also, we need to bear in mind not only the negative aspect of prohibitions, but the positive element. Our “substitute” for profanity is “not nothing.” It is talk that edifies, that glorifies God, that is wise and gracious. When we are occupied with right thinking and in speaking edifying words, we will not have profane words in our minds or on our lips as often or at all.