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.
Ephesians 4:29, NIV
This text has long been a help for me on the topic of profanity. My initial take is that believers should never use profane words. Moreover, 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” (source). My experience shows that an expanded vocabulary helps propel a discussion forward and open up communication, whereas hearing another’s emphatic emotional convictions on a subject shuts down deeper thinking and inhibits considering alternative angles. Surely if one expanded their vocabulary, a more useful and less offensive term 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 an occasional use of a profane term may seem necessary 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, potentially offensive, obscene, or foul language hardly seems appropriate. I personally find that the incessant use of profanity is annoying, juvenile, and intellectually immature. I say this because of Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians and to us. Let’s look a bit more closely at Ephesians 4:29.
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 functionally 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 Eph 4:29, ESV) rather than clarifies. 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 uncommitted to the Christian faith — must be seasoned with salt so that it preserves our conversation in ways that are meaningful and gracious (Col 4:6), believers must “grace” others with kind words that build up and are useful. Profane words are to be treated as “junk” words; a waste of breath and sound. 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 later says in Eph 5:4.
Incidentally, some might argue that Paul’s use of the vulgar term for fecal matter “dung” (σκύβαλα) in Phil 3:8 is a counterpoint to using profane words. As the context makes clear, the point is this: Any and every human achievement is to be counted as rubbish and refuse compared to an intimate relationship with Jesus. We are more than compensated for the loss of everything when united to Christ and his character. Seems to me Phil 3:8 hardly qualifies for justifying the regular use of profanity (with thanks to my friend Cynthia Westfall for reminding me of this passage).
One final point regarding Eph 4:29. This 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 regularly use profane terms. In other words, if profanity is currently part of our common exchange with others, then we must stop it. If one is considering adding this form of speaking to their repertoire, then don’t even think of it! Stated positively, it’s always appropriate to speak with grace. There’s never a time when gracious speech is out of season.
Believers should always and only speak “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29).
What do you say?