Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
This text has long been a mainstay for me on the topic of profanity. My initial take is that believers should never use profane words, simply because there are so many other colorful terms available that are often more descriptive of whatever state of affairs one is explicating. After all, “the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words” (see here). Surely if one expanded their vocabulary, a more useful and less offensive word could be found that has just as much zest. Only a few episodes watching Downton Abbey and it’s easy to see how high British speak can cut deeply in some of the most polite and seemingly civil ways without one use of a profane term!
“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” — Winston Churchill
Nevertheless, I get it that one occasionally chooses to use a profane term for the sake of emphasis. One might argue the strategic use of a “colorful” term can get the point across in ways no common speak could. But as a manner of speaking, even occasionally, obscene or foul language hardly seems appropriate. I personally believe it is annoying, juvenile, and intellectually immature. And, yes, that belief applies to me, because I’ve certainly been guilty of this peccadillo. I say this because of Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians and to us. Let’s look a bit more closely at his meaning.
First, Louw and Nida’s excellent resource, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, has some insights on the use of the term “unwholesome” (Greek “σαπρός”), when they write:
20.14 σαπρός, ά, όν: pertaining to that which is harmful in view of its being unwholesome and corrupting—‘harmful, unwholesome.’ πᾶς λόγος σαπρὸς ἐκ τοῦ στόματος ὑμῶν μὴ ἐκπορευέσθω ‘let no harmful word go out of your mouth’ Eph 4:29. In Eph 4:29 σαπρός is in contrast with that which is ἀγαθός ‘good’ for building up what is necessary. In such a context ἀγαθός may be interpreted as that which is helpful, and by contrast σαπρός may be understood to mean ‘harmful.’
Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (229). New York: United Bible Societies.
The same term is also used by Jesus when describing a bad tree that cannot bear good fruit (Matt 7:18). The tree is either seriously diseased or of seedling stock, which is to say it does not bud or produce anything. It is useless. Similarly, this term is used of fish that are not fit to consume but instead are to be discarded after the catch (Matt 13:48), likely because of decay or putrid smell. So too profane words or “talk” that comes from our lips. It corrupts our speech (see ESV) rather than clarifies. Profanity unhelpfully constructs our thoughts so others will be encouraged. Clinton Arnold notes:
The image of rottenness suggests that Paul wants believers to develop a kind of “gag reflex” to unhealthy ways of taking that will repulse them and cause them to clean up the way they speak to each other….Ministry to one another includes the practice of speaking encouraging and helpful words.
Ephesians: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (p 305).
Just as our speech with “outsiders” — those who are unbelievers — must be seasoned with salt (Col 4:6) so that it preserves our conversation in ways that are meaningful and gracious, believers must “grace” their brothers and sisters with kind words that build up and are useful. Profane words are to be treated as “junk” words; a waste of breath and sound. Either our words are helpful or they’re hurtful. Not only are profane terms “ugly” (as in a decaying fish), but they are “useless” and to be thrown out.
This would include not only profane terms, but sexually crude talk or unkind speech, just as Paul goes on to say:
Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Interestingly, the prohibition is in the form of a present imperative (μὴ ἐκπορευέσθω), suggesting that it’s always inappropriate to use “unwholesome” or “corrupting” speech. Not only must it stop happening, but it should never happen that believers use profane terms. Put positively, it’s always appropriate to speak with grace. There’s never a time when gracious speech is out of season.
Believers should only and always speak “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29).