You may not realize this, but solid Bible-believing Christians have differing opinions on ‘cussing.’ While you’re picking up your jaw off the floor, let me enlighten you. I don’t think any serious Scripture-reader can question the power that words carry, or the onus for Christians to exercise self-control in the language they use. I wrote about this recently in ‘Some Words on Words.’

However, there is some valid discussion out there on the subject of just how this self-control plays itself out in terms of context, motives, and the purpose of our words. We know that the writers of Scripture used strong language in many instances. Ezekiel in the Old Testament and Paul in the New, used words and phrases that would have caused more than a few of their readers to blush.[1] Inspired by the Spirit of God, these human writers used human language that not only had teeth, but also some bite to it.

I recently received this question from someone at the church I pastor: “Is cussing a matter of conscience or a black and white sin issue, because it can’t be both?”

I think it is both. On one level, the use of foul language is a black and white sin issue, but on another level I think it is also a matter of conscience. Let me explain.

Black and White

What is black and white on this issue is that Christians are called by the gospel that saves them to live holy lives unto God. All of life is worship, and an awareness of this (which is part and parcel to Christian regeneration) should lead the Christian to put off certain things in order to put on others. Colossians 3:8 is the major text that handles this, and why I call this aspect of the discussion black and white. In context, Paul is calling the gospel-believer to “seek the things which are above…and put to death the things which are earthly in you.” Basically, put off the old habits, and keep in step with the Spirit of God in you.[2]

All of life is worship; this leads the Christian to put off certain things in order to put on others. Click To Tweet

Colossians 3:8
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

The word in question here is the Greek word translated “obscene talk.” The word is aischrologia, which combines two words: aischros, which means ‘foul-mouthed’ and lego which means ‘to say,’ and coincides with the same root as logos, ‘word.’[3] Different lexicons describe the range of meaning of this term as everything from “speech of a kind that is generally considered in poor taste,”[4] to “obscene, shameful speech involving culturally disapproved themes—‘vulgar speech, obscene speech, dirty talk.”[5]

To put it in plain language—the black and white side of this issue is that Christians shouldn’t have potty mouths.

The Matter of Conscience

But what constitutes a potty mouth? What words should a Christian say or not say?

There is a part of this that isn’t rocket science. Though I respect those who argue that all words are a product of culturally subjective value systems in certain times and places which morph over time, I don’t think that’s the bottom line here. There is a segment within the Christian world that espouses this idea, using this argument as license to unapologetically use foul language like it is going out of style. Though this is a minority position in the church, I think it’s important to recognize that it does exist. Though I respect those who hold this view, I think they are quite wrong and equally immature.

I think the objective truth here is that Christians are called to live a life of worship to God that puts off filthy language. If that target (filthy language) doesn’t exist, how do Christians fulfill that command? If everything is subjective here, how do I live out Colossians 3:8? I think every Christian across the ages has lived in a specific cultural time and place and that within each culture—because of the depravity of humanity—certain words, terms, and phrases have been generally accepted as foul or obscene.

So how is this a matter of conscience?

Scripture gives the plumb line: ‘put off filthy language.’ But we’re aiming at a moving target. Filthy language in 21st century Vancouver, Washington is different than filthy language in 3rd century Rome. Meaning, the actual words are different. As language changes, we need to pray for wisdom, search the Scriptures, and stay humble and accountable in Christian community.

So what’s the list of no-no’s?

If you’re looking for that list—I think you are also missing the point. As is so often the case, the gospel doesn’t give us the easy list of do’s and don’ts—it calls us to walk daily in the Spirit, in Christian community, and never to get so comfortable in our ‘freedom’ that we lose the gospel by using it as an excuse for sinful license. The gospel also calls us to look past appearances and perceptions into the heart of each person speaking. We must ask: What is the motive? What is the context? What is being said here?

The gospel doesn’t give us the easy list of do’s and don’ts—it calls us to walk daily in the Spirit. Click To Tweet


[1] Preston Sprinkle talks about that here:

[2] Galatians 5:16ff carries a similar refrain.

[3] Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

[4] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 29). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 392). New York: United Bible Societies.