Our words reflect much about ourselves. Therefore, Christians need to be especially careful about what they say. We will consider the following basic matters:
- Profane or obscene language
- Coarse jesting
- Speaking unkindly about other people
- Lying or deception
Profane or Obscene Language
First, let’s consider what the Bible says about taking the name of God in vain or the use of profanity with regard to God’s name. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
The third of the Ten Commandments given by God states, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11). The term “vain” is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “having no real value.” Therefore, a person who uses God’s name in vain is treating it as if it is not holy.
Likewise, several passages in Leviticus –including 18:21, 19:12,and 22:32 – provide instruction to not profane the name of God. Webster’s Dictionary defines the term “profane” as treating someone or something with “abuse, irreverence, or contempt.” Thus, profaning the name of God is essentially the same as taking His name in vain.
The foregoing scripture passages suggest that, if we do not want God to hold us guilty for not having proper respect for His name, we need to treat His name with great reverence in every situation. Therefore, not only should we avoid using God’s name as a “curse” word, but also we should be careful to avoid using His name flippantly, such as when we use an expression such as “Oh, God!” to verbalize surprise, awe, or some other reaction to a circumstance. Furthermore, telling jokes – even “clean” jokes – that mention the name of God may be inappropriate, since such jokes arguably treat God’s name flippantly.
With regard to obscene language, Colossians 3:8 instructs Christians to rid themselves of “filthy language out of your mouth,” and Ephesians 5:4 admonishes Christians to avoid “coarse joking,” which The Wycliffe Bible Commentary indicates is vulgar jesting, which is a form of obscene language. Webster’s Dictionary defines the term obscene as “offensive to . . . prevailing notions of modesty or decency; lewd.” (Coarse jesting will be discussed as a separate matter in the next section of this article.)
Ephesians 4:29 tells Christians to “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth.” According to Strong’s Concordance, “corrupt communication” can be defined as “defiling speech.” Such speech involves saying things that contaminate, or make impure, the person who is speaking, whereas I Peter 1:15-16 and other New Testament scriptures teach that Christians should be holy.
Even words that don’t take God’s name in vain and language that isn’t profane or obscene may be inappropriate. In Matthew 12:36, Jesus Christ states, “I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.” Strong’s Concordance of the Bible notes that idle words are thoughtless words. And, Webster’s Dictionary defines “thoughtless” as “lacking concern for others.” Therefore, we can infer that every person will be held accountable for all of the inconsiderate words they speak.
James 1:26 states, “If anyone among you thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.”
Wycliffe Bible Commentary says that the word religious refers to “attendance at worship services and to other observances of religion, such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.” Wycliffe goes on to say, “A man who is scrupulous in these observances but fails to control his speech in everyday life deceives himself, and his religion is vain. . . .”
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible explains what is meant by the terms vain (or useless) religion and not bridling the tongue. According to Henry, “In a vain religion there is much censuring, reviling, and detracting of others. The not bridling the tongue here is chiefly meant of not abstaining from these evils of the tongue.”
It is also necessary to consider the effect on people who hear those who profess to be Christians use language that does not honor God. At the very least, the ability of such professed Christians to favorably influence other people about Christianity is likely to be severely handicapped.
In Psalm 19:14, the psalmist (probably David) states, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” How pleased God would be if each of us desired to honor Him through all the words we speak!
It is sufficiently clear that language that is either profane or obscene is inconsistent with biblical teaching and, therefore, it probably is sinful, particularly if such language is used in reference to God.
Ephesians 5:4 says that “coarse jesting” is “not fitting” (i.e., inappropriate). Does this mean the Bible condemns the telling “off color” (or “dirty”) jokes and stories?
Unger’s Bible Dictionary uses the termsscurrility and ribaldry to explain the meaning of “coarse jesting.” According to Webster’s Dictionary, scurrility refers to the use of abusive language or to “an offensively rude or abusive remark.” Ribaldry is characterized by Webster’s as language or humor that is crude, offensive, or indecent. This includes telling “off color” (or “dirty”) jokes and stories.
With specific regard to Ephesians 5:4, Henry says the context seems to indicate that the passage pertains to “filthy and obscene” discourse. Likewise, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary states, “In the Greek [these words] connote the sort of jesting that is vulgar and unclean.”
Billy Graham states on page 109 of his book entitled The Secret of Happiness, “The Scripture warns about evil communications that corrupt good manners. Off-color jokes and dirty stories have no place in the Christian life.”
Not only is it inappropriate to tell of “off color” jokes, but also the use of dirty language of any kind is inappropriate, especially for Christians.
Speaking Unkindly about Other People
Although Jesus strongly cautioned those whom He was teaching not to call other people fools (Matthew 5:22), He called the scribes and Pharisees whom He encountered “fools” (Matthew 23:15-17). Similarly, the apostle Paul referred to the Galatians as “foolish” (Galatians 3:1). These latter two passages seem to suggest that it is not always wrong to call other people fools.
Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., allege on page 357 of their book entitled When Critics Ask,
[The term “fool”] is used in the context of someone who is “angry” with his brother [not necessarily just an actual brother], indicating a hatred. Neither Jesus nor Paul harbored hatred toward those to whom they applied the term. Thus, their use of the term “fool” does not violate Jesus’ prohibition against calling others a fool.
[T]echnically speaking, Jesus only commanded that a “brother” . . . not be called a “fool,” not an unbeliever. In fact the scriptural description of a fool is one who “has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). In view of this, one can see the seriousness of calling a brother a fool; it is tantamount to calling him an unbeliever. Hence, when He who “knew what was in man” [i.e., Jesus Christ] . . . called unbelievers “fools,” it was a most appropriate description of what they really were.
Of course, many people use even more derogatory terminology in reference to other people. Ephesians 4:31 states that “evil speaking,” which includes derogatory comments, is one of the behaviors that should not be part of a Christian’s lifestyle. Likewise, Titus 3:2 provides the instruction “to speak evil of no one.” (In its translation of both passages, the NIV Bible uses the term slander.)
Whereas the last two scripture passages focus on avoiding negative behavior in our speaking, Colossians 4:6a focuses on showing positive behavior in our speaking. This passage says, “Let your speech always be with grace. . . .” (The term grace in this passage can be defined as thoughtfulness towards other people.) The point of all three of these scriptures is that we should avoid speaking unkindly about other people.
Any form of unkind language about other people is contrary to biblical teaching as to how Christians should conduct themselves. However, this does not mean that it is inappropriate for Christians to criticize the actions of other people.
With regard to the first three basic matters that we have discussed in this article, Billy Graham asserts on page 111 of his book entitled The Secret of Happiness, “Cursing, telling smutty stories, smearing the good name of another, and referring irreverently to God and the Scriptures may be considered as coming under the expression corrupt speech. Our speech is to be clean, pure, and wholesome.”
Lying or Deception
Exodus 20:16, states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” This is the ninth of the Ten Commandments. (Of course, false witness is just one type of lying.)
Leviticus 19:11 instructs the Hebrews not to “lie to one another.”
Psalm 31:18 specifically condemns lies against righteous people, stating, “Let the lying lips be put to silence, which speak insolent things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous.”
Proverbs 6:16-17, 19 declares that among the things that the Lord hates and that are an abomination to Him are “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who speaks lies.”
Proverbs 12:22a indicates that lying is hated by God, as follows: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.”
Ephesians 4:24-25 tells Christians to “put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness. Therefore, putting away lying, each one speak truth with his neighbor. . . .”
Colossians 3:9 instructs Christians, “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds.”
Although the previously cited scriptures indicate that lying is wrong, the Bible does not condemn several incidents recorded in the Bible that involve lies or deception to protect someone’s life. For example, although Genesis 20 indicates that Abraham, a man known for his strong faith in God, lied or was deceptive when he failed to tell King Abimelech that Sarah was his wife, the Bible does not say that what Abraham did was wrong. Therefore, it seems that the Bible tacitly approved of such actions.
However, just because the Bible does not condemn those specific incidents does not mean that it condones them. Throughout the Old Testament, many incidents are reported without comment as to their propriety.
Gleason L. Archer, on page 175 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, says, “Even though Scripture records the dishonesty of men, this does not necessarily mean that it approves. . . .” In other words, the Bible often just reports what occurred, without editorializing.
But, what about Exodus 1:15-21? In this passage, two Hebrew midwives were instructed by the king of Egypt to kill Hebrew male children as they were helping to deliver them. Because the two women feared God, they did not obey the Egyptian king. When the king asked them why they had not done as he told them to do, they apparently lied when they told him that the Hebrew women were giving birth before they arrived to assist with the childbirths. And, God subsequently “dealt well with the midwives.” This passage certainly seems to support the belief that it is not always sinful to lie, at least when attempting to protect others from serious harm.
Another example of a person who lied to protect others is found in Joshua 2:1-21. This passage tells how a prostitute named Rahab lied to protect two Hebrew spies who had come to her house to stay while they were scouting the land, especially the city of Jericho where she resided. Despite the fact that she lied, James 2:25 indicates that she was justified (i.e., considered righteous) for her actions.
With regard to both of these incidents, it should be noted that neither the lying by the midwives nor the lying by Rahab is condoned in the Bible. Both incidents are examples of God honoring people because their efforts to protect others reflected their faith in Him. In other words, although their lying may have been wrong, they were justified by trying to act in accord with God’s will.
Telling a lie with the intention of protecting someone’s life, whether their own or someone else’s, reflects a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide protection or to otherwise use the situation for His glory. For instance, the Bible clearly does not condone the three denials (i.e., lies) by the Apostle Peter that he was an associate of Jesus Christ. It is doubtful that telling a lie or being deceptive is ever the best means of accomplishing God’s will and bringing glory to Him.
What about lies that are intended to keep someone else from being hurt by the truth? The Bible does not provide specific guidance about this matter, since it does not attempt to distinguish between various types of lies, except perhaps in the Ninth Commandment. Furthermore, a lie that is intended to keep someone else from being hurt by the truth may actually be contrary to the preference of the person whom the lie is supposed to protect. For example, what if a person with a terminal illness is told that he (or she) can expect to recover in coming months? The terminally ill person may want to know the seriousness of their situation, so they will have ample opportunity to do what they consider important during the time that remains for them.
Not telling the whole truth when doing so might be detrimental to someone who is very ill can result in similar consequences. However, there does not seem to be a biblical basis for believing that not telling the whole truth under such circumstances is a sin.
But, aren’t so-called “white lies” exceptions to what the Bible teaches about lying? As we previously stated, the Bible does not make distinctions between the various types of lies. Also, the risk exists that even “white lies” will escalate into more serious lies. Furthermore, what may be perceived as a “white lie” by some people may be regarded as a more serious lie by others. Therefore, even “white lies” should be avoided.
In any case, lying and deception are wrong if they are done to the detriment of other people. However, it is not clear if lying or deception is wrong if done with the sincere intention of trying to keep other people from being hurt.
Language that is either profane or obscene is inconsistent with biblical teaching and, therefore, it probably is sinful, particularly if such language is used in reference to God. And, it is inappropriate, especially for Christians, not only to tell “off color” jokes, but also to use filthy language of any kind,. In addition, any form of unkind language about other people is contrary to biblical teaching regarding how Christians should conduct themselves. Furthermore, lying and deception are wrong if they are done to the detriment of other people.