Is Cussing Or Cursing A Sin?

Should Christians Be Cussing?

There seems to be a growing trend of Christians embracing cursing, cussing, or swearing (aka profanity) as a very acceptable way of communication in everyday life.

While traditionally cussing has been viewed as a sin that Christians or believers should avoid, many are pushing back on that idea in the name of legalism or relativism. But what do the Scriptures say and how should we respond?

What is cussing?

Cussing is a derivative of “cursing” or “curse” — meaning a profane or obscene oath or word (Merriam-Webster); also known as “swearing.” For the purposes of this discussion, we can extend this definition to include profanity and obscenities as it relates to our choice of “bad” or “unclean” language. In this post, “cussing” will be used to refer to the aforementioned. We will also distinguish “words” as a collection of characters used to form speech vs. “language” as a collection of “words” used to express ideas.

Many Christians in favor of cussing as an acceptable form of communication say that words don’t inherently have any meaning in and of themselves but instead carry the meaning or value that we assign them. They assert that words in effect are neutral and derive their good or bad as defined by the culture.

So why is any single particular word good or bad? Is it all relative? If you say that something I have is nice, why is that considered a compliment vs. an insult? And what about when words change meaning or intent over time? Who gets to decide what words are good or bad?

Cussing/Cursing According To The Scriptures

What exactly do the Scriptures say about cussing?

Ephesians 5.4 AMP: Let there be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse [obscene or vulgar] joking, because such things are not appropriate [for believers]; but instead speak of your thankfulness [to God]. (See also Ephesians 5.4 NIV).

Colossians‬ ‭3.8‬ ‭AMP: But now rid yourselves [completely] of all these things: anger, rage, malice, slander, and obscene (abusive, filthy, vulgar) language from your mouth. ‬‬

Matthew 15:11 AMP: It is not what goes into the mouth of a man that defiles and dishonors him, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles and dishonors him.”

Proverbs 8.13 AMP: “The [reverent] fear and worshipful awe of the Lord includes the hatred of evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way, And the perverted mouth, I hate.

Generally speaking, verses like these address cussing or foul language and obscene talk within the context of an insult or the quality with which we speak to people. Thus, it might be argued that these verses don’t really address specific word choices as being bad but rather how we use the words.

Ephesians 4.29, however, takes a slightly different take: Do not let unwholesome [foul, profane, worthless, vulgar] words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak]. Ephesians 4.29 AMP

Notice the emphasis of warning on word choice here rather than language or speech in general. The King James translation calls it “corrupt communication.” The Greek word used here, sapros, translates as “rotten,” putrid (decaying), bad, unfit for use, corrupted by age, or worthless (literally or morally). The “corrupted by age” identifier here is particularly interesting in that it explains how a word, say through abuse, depreciates over time into something that becomes unacceptable to use — a forbidden word in the culture.

Thus, we can conclude that the Scriptures don’t just address bad language as a form of substance or content (what we talk about, how we talk about, our tone, etc.) but also our very word choice. It would then seem that words are not necessarily neutral but take on meaning from their inception — the purpose for which they were conceived or evolved to be. Words are not created neutral, they are conceived with meaning. And obviously, context does matter, ex. “ass” as in the animal vs. the human body part of an insult.

What Are Cuss Words According To The Bible?

While the Scriptures affirm that words can carry meaning themselves, what are those words specifically, and who gets to decide?

Clearly, the Scriptures don’t give us specific words to avoid. However, people knew what those “rotten” words were that the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesian church.

In general, we also know that the Scriptures tell us to avoid profane, obscene, filthy, and vulgar language — whether sexual or slanderous in nature or just unclean word choice (Ephesians 4.29). But because no actual words are given, that culturally gives us some room to interpret what are unclean words, albeit, with good judgment and historical precedent of words that have become “rotten” (Greek: sapros) within our cultures.

This is complicated to address given that we live in a time where someone somewhere will pretty much find anything to be offended about. Not to mention that it’s increasingly difficult to culturally agree on anything.

It’s impractical to define a concrete list of unclean words with 100% black and white certainty (no gray), however, we can reasonably conclude there are words that are purely crude, unclean, or demeaning that would be very widely understood across cultures as cuss words. The Scriptures affirm that unclean words do exist and from this, we can know that it’s obviously not all words but some selection of them for sure. For why would we have this warning to avoid such words that do not exist?

They Knew Better…

We don’t know for certain why the Apostle Paul didn’t address specific words that were considered unclean or profane. However, we can reasonably conclude that his audience knew what he meant by “unwholesome words” or “corrupt communication;” Those words that had become “rotten” or forbidden. Otherwise, we can expect that he would’ve elaborated on this so that they were without excuse.

Similar to then as it is today, we also know with reasonable certainty those words within the culture that are deemed unwholesome, unclean, profane, or forbidden. Surely we can find some words that are somewhat of a gray area or debatable, but we almost universally culturally know what these words are that the Scriptures allow us some interpretation for our times.

What Our Language Should Be

In the Scriptures to follow, I’ve mostly referenced the Amplified (AMP) translation out of preference for its clarity of meaning. The corresponding links provide a parallel comparison against the New International Version (NIV) translation for further analysis against the more popular translation.

Ephesians 4.29 AMP: Do not let unwholesome [foul, profane, worthless, vulgar] words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak].

The writer of Ephesians, Paul, reminds us that our words and language should be that which builds up others. Not that which tears others down or offends them.

Colossians 4.5-6 AMP: Conduct yourself with wisdom in your interactions with outsiders (non-believers), make the most of each opportunity [treating it as something precious]. Let your speech at all times be gracious and pleasant, seasoned with salt, so that you will know how to answer each one [who questions you].

Whether language or conduct (because language is a form of conduct), our conduct should reflect Who we represent — God.

Ephesians 5.8-20 NIV: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light…

We are to live and strive to be bearers of the Light (Matthew 5.14-16).

Psalms‬ ‭19.14‬ ‭AMP: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable and pleasing in Your sight, O LORD, my [firm, immovable] rock and my Redeemer.

Our language (and our heart behind it) should be that which pleases the heart of God.

Protecting Our Witness

‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭9.22‬ ‭AMP‬‬: To the weak I became [as the] weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means [in any and every way] save some [by leading them to faith in Jesus Christ].

Our witness (how we appear to the world, believers and unbelievers alike) is always on display through our lifestyle. We are in fact the fragrance of God (2 Corinthians 2.14-15). That’s an incredibly weighty responsibility — one that we must steward with care about how we speak and conduct ourselves at all times.

Is Cussing Only Sinful If We’re Personally Convicted?

It’s true that violating our conscience is a sin (Romans 14.23). Believers often cite Romans 14 as an example of truth (or what is sin for you/me) being based on one’s personal convictions. They often conclude that, whether it’s cussing or any other taboo issue, whether or not it’s a sin is really a matter of what you’re personally convicted by. But is it?

Romans 14.21-23 NIV: It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

The writer of Romans, Paul, is speaking to Christians who are arguing about whether or not something (food in this case) is a sin — based on the dietary Jewish customs. However, since Jesus had already declared such foods ceremonially clean (Mark 7.19), the “sin” they were debating about was not truly a sin, to begin with. But because the new converts thought that eating such foods was a sin, this caused them to struggle against their conscience — which they are now being warned against doing.

“So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God…” (Romans 14.22 NIV) is not a blank check to determine what is or isn’t sin based on what we’re personally convicted by. God is the standard that decides if something is ultimately right or wrong (a sin). Our personal conviction cannot make something to be acceptable that God has already declared unacceptable (sin). For example, murder is a sin, to begin with; after which, whether or not we’re personally convicted by murder is irrelevant. Personal conviction only takes precedence if it’s not already something that God deems sinful. This idea that actual sins are only “a sin for you and not for me if I’m not convicted by it,” is not scriptural.

When evaluating whether something is right or wrong as a matter of personal conviction, we must first filter our view through what God says through the Scriptures about the matter.

The Larger Issue

While the debate for some will continue about whether cussing is acceptable for the believer to engage in, there’s a larger dilemma to consider.

The danger in us dismissing cussing as legalistic or justifying this to be okay as a follower of Christ is really encouraging us to lack self-control and engage in sin. Whether big or small, we should never be encouraging people to sin. Nor should we be sanctifying something that shouldn’t be. Rather than practicing self-control (Galatians 5.22-23, Proverbs 25.28, 2 Timothy 1.7), it seems that we’d rather give ourselves permission to live how we want by redefining and justifying what’s sin and what’s not.

If Christ came to deliver us from sin, we should be mindful of the things and practices that potentially draw us back into it. Having self-control over our language and words is a reasonable and necessary effort to that end.

With Freedom Comes Responsibility… And Self-Control

Evidence of God’s presence in our lives comes as a fruit of the spirit — self-control (Galatians 5.22-23). Just because we have the free will to do something doesn’t mean that we should. In fact, it could be an abuse of our freedom. For we know that all things that are allowable are not beneficial, advantageous, or spiritually appropriate (1 Corinthians 6.12; 10.23).

Not only must we protect our witness as followers of Christ, but we must be good stewards of the freedom given to us.

‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭8.9‬ ‭AMP‬‬: Only be careful that this liberty of yours [this power to choose] does not somehow become a stumbling block [that is, a temptation to sin] to the weak [in conscience].

Certainly, we’ll have to give an account of how we use our freedoms (James 2.12). When it comes to the issue of cussing, we also have to consider how our participation in this affects the other believers around us. We must be cautious about creating environments that would cause other believers to be tempted and/or engage in sin. Engaging in cussing can send the message to other believers that this is okay.

Every freedom that God has given us to experience, He does so with limitations and restraints. Even the very creation that He gives us dominion over, we are to steward and adopt His ways of doing so and enjoying it. Why would our words and language be exempt from some kind of self-control and sanctification? Our words and the language they form matter. And we’re always accountable before the Lord (James 4.17).

It’s here in the Book of James where we learn that the tongue is a great measure or indicator of maturity. We produce what we are and we speak out of who we are.

What if…

What if I’m alone when I decide to cuss and thus I’m not causing anyone to stumble or creating offense? If I’m cussing in private alone, am I still sinning before God? Or what if I’m around other people that aren’t offended by cussing?

Even if we’re not offending or tempting someone else to sin that’s in our presence, God always looks at the quality of heart from which our character flows, in public as well as in private. It all matters to God and so do our words (Ephesians 4.29). In fact, what we do in private is just as important if not more than what we do in public. And, we’re always public before an omnipresent God (Luke 12.3, Matthew 6.4).

The Weight Of Our Words

God is the Ultimate One who puts a premium on words (John 1.1-2). In fact, He even sent His Word to dwell among us (John 1.14). To God, words have very important weight and value — words are powerful.

The power of the tongue comes from our Creator and He intends for us to use it responsibly (James 3.1-12). If we treated every word as important as God does, we would be mindful of our word choice and the value we place upon them.

What Do We Stand To Gain?

Personally, I think the issue of cussing or not is less of an issue of legalism and more of an issue of not wanting to be told what to do or wanting to live our lives our own way. Admittedly, I don’t fully understand the relentless obsession with wanting to use or express these few words from our English vocabulary that are considered profane.

Just as easily as we can use those, we can just as easily avoid them — especially when our witness is at stake. There are so many words to choose from to express ourselves. Why are we fixated on having biblical permission to use the few words that are culturally deemed profane? Is it really about thwarting legalism? Or does forbidden fruit just taste good?

As a former habitual cusser myself, there’s practically no day that goes by that I don’t want to say how I really feel with the words that I’ve turned away from. Admittedly, sometimes I straddle that line and even cross it in my angriest of moments. And though it’s not easy to bridle my tongue, I know that the Scriptures implore us to do so. So, I exercise great restraint and self-control because I’m cognizantly aware that my life is not my own.

Who Gets To Decide What’s A Cuss Word? And According To Whose Culture?

While what’s exactly considered profane can vary, most of our cultures agree about what is profane within reason and it’s a very short list compared to the entire lexicon available to us. We would do good to shun the mere appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5.22) rather than always looking at what we can get away with.

There’s no way we’d use our words to bless AND curse unless we gave ourselves a pass on the value and weight on some words and not others.Phonz Phillips

While words and their meaning can vary from culture to culture, Ephesians 4.29 warns us about being knowledgeable of such “corrupt” words and their contexts. “Ass” for example is literally written in the Bible in the context of referring to a donkey. But we know that this has taken on new meaning in today’s culture specifically within the context of referring to a body part or as an insult. Being aware and sensitive to the cultural meanings of our words doesn’t mean we have to memorize every profane word relative to each culture, but when we come into the knowledge of it, we should govern ourselves accordingly (James 4.17).

What It Comes Down To

Though it’s impractical to definitely identify an exact list of profane words and sayings as being sinful, at the very least, we can reasonably conclude that such involvement with such language should be avoided for the follower of Christ: Out of deference to our witness, our role as salt and light of the Earth, and as one that bears the fruit of the Spirit — self-control. The dangers of not restraining our tongue have great cascading consequences (James 3.2-11).

What do we stand to lose by exercising restraint from words that are largely considered profane? It’s really not a tall ask. But what do we stand to gain? Our total allegiance to Christ, including our language, should never be put on the altar of personal freedoms. When we know better, God expects us to do and be better.

References & Other Resources

I want to acknowledge some of the great work and perspectives on this topic.