The Christian and Speech (Part 1) Michael Bryant

September 2, 2016

Introduction

Even the casual observer cannot help but notice that American culture has become more tolerant of speech previously considered offensive. Whether on the television, radio, or in books, what constitutes “acceptable” or “appropriate” language has clearly changed.

This shift raises important questions for believers: What kind of speech honors or dishonors God? Also, does Scripture provide any principles to guide the believer in his speech? With these questions in mind, this study will examine the issue of the Christian and his speech.

[Author’s Note: This article, as well as Part 2, relies substantially on John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 487-512. While I find Frame’s presentation helpful, I do not agree with him on every point.]

Relevance

This is an important topic related to Christian discipleship. Jesus himself linked discipleship and speech together (e.g., Matt 5:22-23, 33-37). Furthermore, Paul recognized the significance of speech to the Christian life (e.g., Eph 4:29; 5:4; Col 3:8).[1]

Divine Name

The category “divine name” refers to a name tied to any person of the Trinity, whether God the Father, God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. In our day one may hear people use various forms of a divine name (e.g., “O my God,” “Jesus,” “Christ”). Furthermore, one may use a closely related form of a divine name, such as “gosh,” “geeze,” or “golly.”

Some people use a divine name as a prayer of petition. For instance, in a time of difficulty they may cry out to God or Christ for help, “Oh, God, help me please!”

On other occasions people may use a divine name to express joyful surprise. A young woman who desperately longs for a child may discover that she is pregnant and express great joy by exclaiming, “Oh my God, oh my God, I can’t believe it!” On other occasions people may use God’s name to express anger or resentment against a difficult situation or toward a person who has wronged them. An employee, after hearing that he will soon be laid off from work, may scream, “Jesus Christ, this is terrible! How am I going to pay my bills?”

Determining Acceptable Uses of a Divine Name (Exod 20:7; Matt 5:33-37)

Which of these uses of God’s name mentioned above are acceptable for believers?

No single passage in the Bible answers this question directly. However, several texts provide guidance. The first passage, Exodus 20:7, the third commandment of the Ten Commandments, is a key text.[2] The Hebrew in this verse literally reads, “raise up Yahweh’s name for no good.” Note how two translations have rendered this phrase:

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes his name in vain.” (NASB)

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (NIV)

As can be seen from the two translations provided, the NASB renders the Hebrew, “take up God’s name in vain,” while the NIV translates the phrase, “misuse God’s name.”

The original context of the command referred to taking an oath in a legal setting. Specifically, Exodus 20:7 taught that God’s people were not to employ his name to support a known lie. Stated differently, they were not to appeal to God’s name when they bore false testimony (i.e., perjury).

Along with viewing this as a prohibition against perjury in a legal setting, the Hebrew people understood Exodus 20:7 as forbidding the following activities: 1) making light of God’s name, 2) mocking God’s name, or 3) speaking about God in a disrespectful manner. Thus the “misuse” of God’s name clearly encompassed a broader scope than perjury in a legal setting. Some pious Hebrews even refused to employ the divine name in any form, preferring instead to use words like “heaven” or “the Name” when speaking of God. While one can appreciate their desire to show respect, in truth Scripture nowhere forbids one from using God’s name.[3]

One sees this same concern to show reverence for God’s name in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew, who writes to a Jewish audience, prefers the expression “kingdom of heaven” to “kingdom of God.” (e.g., Matt 5:3, 10, 20) His Jewish readers would have recognized his desire to reverence God’s name.

Another text related to the use of the divine name is Matthew 5:33-37. In this passage Jesus emphasizes the importance of believers showing absolute integrity in regard to their speech. He references a practice in the first century whereby some crafty Jews would make an oath (swear) with no genuine intention of fulfilling it. To provide support for their oath they would swear by something.[4] Normally Jews swore by God’s name. However, to make an oath less binding deceptive people would swear by something other than God’s name, such as “heaven,” “the earth,” or “Jerusalem” (Matt 6:34-35). By basing their oath on something other than God’s divine name, then, they felt that they would not be bound to keep their vow. Nevertheless, Jesus makes clear that in some manner all things are related to God and under his divine authority. Thus, one is not absolved or released from his vow simply because he swears by something other than God.[5]

In light of Exodus 20:7 and Matthew 5:33-37, inappropriate uses of God’s name (or another member of the Trinity) would include the following: 1) employing God’s name to deceive others of one’s true intentions, 2) using God’s name to show (ungodly) anger, 3) employing his name to display resentment, or 4) using God’s name in any manner that shows disrespect or mockery toward him. I recognize that these principles are quite general and open to debate.

But what about terms such as “gosh” and “golly” for God or “gee” or “geeze” for Jesus? Scripture gives no clear guidance. Personally, I refrain from these mild uses of the divine name in order to show respect toward God. Granted, they are technically not divine names, but they are closely related.[6]

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that some Christians take a different view. For example, Frame is hesitant to regard these words as sinful. Why? He argues that a word’s meaning is determined by its intended use within a given subculture, not its etymology (i.e., that term from which it derives). Frame contends that people within some subcultures honestly see no link between a divine name (“Jesus”) and a substitute (e.g., “geeze”). They simply use the substitute as an exclamation. How, then, as he argues, can one fault someone for using a substitute when he merely wishes to express his feelings with no real intent to show disrespect toward God?[7] Also, if one rejects “gosh” and “golly,” then logically he should also reject other substitutes such as “shucks” or “fiddlesticks.” Where does one draw the line in regard to substitutes? I acknowledge that Frame makes some good observations, but I personally avoid substitutes sometimes employed for a divine name (e.g., “gosh”).

 Sexual Terms and Expressions

By “sexual terms and expressions” I refer generally to words or expressions that denote something related to human sexuality (e.g., words that denote a body part, the physical act of sex, or the physical attractiveness of a person).

I think a helpful principle to follow is this: a Christian should use sexual terms and expressions in a manner that shows respect for Scripture’s understanding of these categories. For example, one should refrain from using a sexual term or expression in a manner that shows contempt for the biblical presentation of sex within marriage, namely, sex between a husband and wife who are committed to one another in a covenant relationship (Gen 2:24). Thus an unmarried Christian man should not use a sexual term to describe what he would like to do sexually with a woman who is not his wife. Such speech shows contempt for the biblical presentation of marriage, and of course it shows disrespect toward the woman.[8]

Sexual Slang and Vulgar Language

In general believers should refrain from the employment of sexual slang (e.g., Eph 5:3-4; see also Col 3:8). Nevertheless, one cannot absolutely prohibit all uses, for Paul himself employs such language (Gal 5:12, “. . . go the whole way and emasculate themselves”; Phil 3:8, a cruder word for “dung”). However, this statement must be carefully qualified. First, Paul’s uses of such language are rare. Second, and this may sound strange but it is true, they are motivated by a godly perspective and intent (note the contexts of Gal 5:12 and Phil 3:8). I personally refrain from using sexual slang in public and private due to:

1) my larger biblical theology of speech (e.g., Proverbs’ teaching regarding the power of words) and 2) certain practical considerations (e.g., such language may arouse inappropriate sexual ideas/feelings in someone of the opposite sex and lead to a physical relationship, such language may harm one’s witness).

Speech Marked by Ungodly Anger or Contempt for Others

According to Jesus, believers must not show unbiblical anger toward others (Matt 5:22a). Furthermore, human speech rooted in such anger should also be avoided as it is sinful (Matt 5:22b). However, Jesus does not necessarily forbid the use of specific terms (e.g., “fool”), for he (Jesus) describes God himself as calling someone a “fool” (Luke 12:20).

Believers must also avoid speech that is marked by contempt for others. For instance, to hurl offensive words at someone of a different race is sinful, for it shows disdain for one made in God’s divine image (Gen 1:26-27).

 Terms That Have Changed in Meaning (and thus offensiveness) Over Time

Some terms have changed in their meaning with the passing of time. Centuries ago believers did not regard such words as sinful. For instance, the revered King James Version employs a well-known term for “donkey” (e.g., 1 Sam 10:2). Moreover, this translation uses another word (Isa 36:12) that many Christians avoid using today. In regard to such words, believers today should refrain from using them for the following reasons: 1) they genuinely offend people, 2) they are more like the world’s language (today) than the spirit of Scripture’s overall teaching on speech,[9] and 3) they can hinder one’s gospel witness in certain settings (1 Cor 9:19-23).[10]

In this post I have addressed a number of issues related to the Christian and his speech. In Part 2, I will provide some principles for Christians with regard to their speech, as well as some points of application.

 

 NOTES

       [1] Lest one think our study of speech is much to do about nothing, he should remember that speaking inappropriately (blaspheming the Holy Spirit) constitutes an unpardonable sin (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit likely refers to attributing to Satan Christ’s authenticating miracles performed in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, as Carson, “Matthew,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 337, explains, “Jesus charges that those who perceive that his ministry is empowered by the Spirit and then, for whatever reason—whether spite, jealousy, or arrogance—ascribe it to Satan, have put themselves beyond the pale. For them there is no forgiveness, and that is the verdict of the one who has the authority to forgive sins (9:5-8).” How one speaks matters.

       [2] This discussion of Exodus 20:7 follows Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, 454-457.

       [3] In one sense, Jews who sought to show reverence to the Lord by not using his divine name should be commended. However, in another sense their refusal to employ the divine name is regrettable, for they failed to recognize that in sharing his name God revealed himself in a very personal way to his people.  Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 489, writes: “Remarkably, in Scripture, God does share his name with his people. This fact underscores the fundamentally personal character of our relationship with the Supreme Being . . . In revealing his name, he does not relinquish any of his own power or control. But knowing his name enables his people to call upon him (Ps. 20:1; Prov. 18:10), thus availing themselves to his power.” Frame continues, “Certainly Judaism has lost something important when it came to regard Yahweh as too holy to be pronounced . . . Reverence stresses the transcendence of God. We should not forget, however, that the very fact that God has given us his name is a remarkable expression of his immanence, his covenant friendship with us.” (489 n. 3)

       [4] France, Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, 215, explains, “Oaths normally invoked God as the guarantor of the person’s word, and it was this which made it so serious a matter to break them: it was a misuse of God’s name (Exod 20:7), a profanation (Lev 19:2).”

       [5] Carson’s comments, “Matthew,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 187, are helpful, “Jesus insists that whatever a man swears by is related to God in some way, and therefore every oath is implicitly in God’s name; heaven, earth, Jerusalem, even the hairs of the head are all under God’s sway and ownership (v. 36).

       [6] As Frame notes, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 508, “Historically and etymologically, these are substitutes for the divine names, invoked to avoid the possible devastating results of taking God’s name in vain.”

       [7] Nevertheless, Frame is mindful that a believer should take care not to offend the subgroup within which he finds himself. He references 1 Corinthians 9 to support this suggestion. He does not, however, regard substitutes for divine names as sinful.

       [8] Even non-sexual terms may be used in inappropriate ways. Take the word “hot” for example.             In contemporary American culture some use the word “hot” to compliment an attractive woman. However, the term at times expresses a certain degree of condescension as it: 1) regards a woman as a sexual object or 2) judges her solely based upon her “sex appeal.” I realize that a man using the word “hot” may simply wish to say that a woman is attractive, but some employ this term in a manner that demeans a woman’s personhood. A woman is a human person created in God’s image and thus worthy of respect, regardless of her appearance (Gen 1:26-27).

       [9] I am personally not impressed by the so-called “spiritual maturity” of some believers who insist that they have freedom in Christ to employ such language. In my view, their exercise of their “freedom” is more characteristic of the world and its language than anything else. Believers must always ask themselves, “Is my speech more influenced by contemporary culture or by Scripture’s overall teaching on the speech of believers?”

       [10] I have a friend who works in an environment that his hostile to Christianity. In this setting language traditionally understood as cussing is quite common. However, he refrains from such language. His lost co-workers notice this, and it provides an opportunity for him to share the gospel.

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