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Bible Teaching about Language: Cursing, Profanity, and Obscenity

What speech is proper or improper according to the Bible? Should we use cursing, profanity,  obscenity, or swearing? Does language and the use of our tongues matter? Does God care if we use curse words or obscene or profane speech?"Watch Your Language!" What speech is proper or improper according to the Bible? Should we use cursing, profanity, obscenity, or swearing? 

Does language and the use of our tongues matter? Does God care if we use curse words or obscene or profane speech?

Introduction: The use of profane and obscene speech is an increasing problem.

I once received a newspaper column in which a woman discussed whether parents should allow little children to use swear words. She cited a woman "theologian" who said the Bible nowhere condemns swearing. She concluded there is really nothing wrong with it, unless your children use such language around people who would be offended.

Some people have long used profanity and obscenity privately when they are angry, disgusted, or excited. Some use it for emphasis. Some enjoy suggestive or off-color jokes. With others the practice is just a habit. Unfortunately, this is even true of some professing Christians.

More recently, such speech has become common, not just in private, but also in public and in the mass media. Finding a TV show, movie, or novel that does not use it is nearly impossible, even in so-called "family entertainment." Social media have gone so far as to give such expressions code abbreviations, so people can use profanity without having to type it out! Some professing Christians carelessly copy and distribute on their pages messages that include it.

Perhaps most objectionable of all, many school teachers and textbooks use such language, and reading assignments may be filled with it. When parents complain, often other people never realize how bad the problem really is, because the language is so bad that the media refuses to print actual quotations: the language violates the media's code of decency. And you know it has to be bad when you consider what they do publish!

Some defend such language on grounds of "freedom of speech" and "academic freedom." But even if all this is legal, that does not make it moral or acceptable to God. Public media and especially schools must realize that what they publish tends to mold the character of the audience, especially children. If the media does not affect people's conduct, why do companies spend millions of dollars to advertise there?

The purpose of this study is to examine such language in light of the Bible.

Ephesians 4:29 - Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your moth, but what is good for necessary edification. The Bible definitely does discuss improper speech, including swearing.

But some people place all improper speech in the category of "swearing," but don't realize that much speech is improper for other reasons. Others just assume that everyone knows what kind of language is wrong. The result is that many people who object to improper language do not know how to defend their view from Scripture.

When we look closer, we will find several ways speech may be improper according to God's word. So, notice the Bible teaching about the following types of speech:


Definitions and Examples

"Curse ... An appeal or prayer for evil or injury to befall someone ... To invoke evil, calamity, or injury upon..." (The American Heritage Dictionary, abbreviated AHD)

So, we curse someone anytime we say that we wish harm would happen to them. Examples:

A curse in an ancient idol's temple read: May the god strike X and Y with dumbness and impotence because they caused A to lose his job. (Illustrated Wonders and Discoveries of the Bible, Alan Millard, p154)

"Damn ... to bring condemnation upon; ruin ... to condemn to eternal punishment in hell ..." (Random House College Dictionary, abbreviated RHCD)

"Hell ... the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death ..." (RHCD)

So, we are cursing when we use the above words or similar language that expresses the desire for people to receive harm. Included are such statements as, "I wish he'd drop dead," etc.

Bible Teaching

Luke 6:27,28 - We should love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and bless those who curse us. Christians should love all people, and love requires us to hope they receive what is good for them, not that they be harmed (Rom. 13:8-10).

Romans 12:14,17-21 - Do not curse others, not even those who persecute you, but rather bless them. Do not return evil for evil or seek vengeance, but do good and leave vengeance to God. God will punish those who sin against us, if they do not repent.

Cursing is a violation of love because it wishes harm on others. We should not even curse our enemies, so clearly we may not curse anyone at all. Instead, we should bless, which means to wish for good to come to others.

Our job is simply to warn evildoers what God's word teaches. In doing this, we may properly use some of these Bible words ("curse," "hell," etc.) that describe the punishment God will bring on the wicked. But we must remember that God Himself will curse the wicked in the proper time and manner according to His justice and wisdom. We must let Him handle this.

James 3:9-12 - Since man was made in God's image, to bless God and curse man would be self-contradictory, like a fountain that gives both sweet and bitter water. We must not curse man any more than we may curse God.

What about your lips? Do they send forth both sweet water and bitter?

(See also Psalm 59:12; 109:17,18; 1 Peter 2:21-23; 3:9; Job 31:29,30; Ex. 21:17.)


Definitions and Examples

"Profane ... Showing contempt or irreverence toward God or sacred things..." (AHD). Profanity involves referring to anything holy in a way that mocks or ridicules it, or otherwise fails to show proper respect or reverence for it. (Note that, technically, cursing and profanity do not mean the same. A person may be profane without cursing, and vice-versa.)

Some people profane the names of God (God, Jesus, Christ, Jehovah, Lord) by using them as expressions of anger or disgust or in a light, flippant way. Likewise, others profane sacred things such as: hell, the destiny of the wicked; heaven, the dwelling place of God; or the Scriptures, the word of God.

Another problem is the practice of referring disrespectfully to acts of worship such as prayer, the words of spiritual songs, and various Bible phrases (such as "hallelujah," which means "praise Jehovah"). Sometimes people pervert the teaching of Scripture to make a joke.

Bible Teaching

Ezekiel 22:26 - Priests were guilty of profaning God's holy things, making no distinction between what was holy and what was common. So, to treat holy things as though they are common is to profane them. This passage refers especially to profaning God's word and worship. (See also Lev. 10:10.)

Exodus 20:7 - "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." "Vain" means empty, meaningless, without proper respect and reverence. To refer to God's name in such a way would be profanity.

Leviticus 19:12 - You shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God. Contrary to the article mentioned earlier, Jesus said, "do not swear at all" (Matthew 5:34). And much common speech includes the frivolous swearing that Jesus forbids.

Matthew 6:9 - "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." A name stands for a person. Since God is holy and reverend, so also is His name. To profane God's name by using it as a term of anger or disgust is to disrespect God Himself. [Psalm 111:9]

1 Timothy 1:9-11 - "Profane" conduct is contrary to sound doctrine just like murder, fornication, etc. The word here translated "unholy" also includes the idea of disrespect for holy things. Vine defines it "profane." Moffatt translates it "irreverent."

Romans 1:18 - "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness..." Titus 2:12 adds that the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness. "Ungodly" means "want of reverence, respect ... piety toward God" (Thayer). So profanity is ungodly.

When a person takes the holy name of God or other sacred things, and uses them as nothing more than common expressions of anger and disgust, that person is ungodly and profane. Is your speech profane, or do you show proper respect for God and sacred things?

(See also Lev. 18:21; Luke 1:49.)


Definitions and Examples

"Obscene ... offensive to modesty or decency; indecent; lewd ... causing or intended to cause sexual excitement or lust..." (RHCD).

Often jokes and humor contain sexual suggestions that tend to arouse lust. Some expressions of disgust or anger indecently refer to reproductive acts or to bodily processes of purification or to the private parts of the body involved in these acts.

(Note again that, technically, obscenity is different from cursing and profanity.)

Bible Teaching

Mark 7:20-23; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 13:13,14 - Lasciviousness, like murder or fornication, etc., is a sin that proceeds from the heart and defiles the man. Those who practice it will not inherit the kingdom of God, so we should avoid making provision to fulfill this lust of the flesh.

"Lascivious" means "inclined to lustfulness; wanton; lewd ... arousing or inciting sexual desire ..." (RHCD). Thayer adds: "wanton (acts or) manners, as filthy words, indecent bodily movements, unchaste handling of males and females..."

Note that "lascivious" has the same definition as "obscene." Words or jokes are obscene or lascivious when they tend to cause lustful thoughts or take pleasure in improper sexual desires.

Matthew 5:27,28; 18:6,7; 1 Timothy 2:9,10 - Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her in his heart. Women should not tempt men to commit this sin by dressing or acting in a manner that would be suggestive.

Not only are people wrong if they have an unlawful sexual union, but they are also wrong if they desire to do such or if they take pleasure in thoughts of such (fantasizing). Not only are women wrong if they indecently expose themselves, but men are also wrong if they take pleasure in thoughts of seeing such. Furthermore, jokes or expressions are wrong if they tempt people to have such thoughts. (See also Prov. 6:25; 4:23.)

Ephesians 5:4; Colossians 3:8 - Practices we should avoid include "filthiness" and "jesting" (KJV). Other translations for "filthiness" are "obscenity" (New International Version, Vine) and "indecency" (Goodspeed). Other translations for "jesting" are "coarse jesting" (New American Standard Version, New King James, Vine), "crude joking" (English Standard Version), "suggestive jesting" (Williams).

Words, jokes, or expressions are "obscene" when they are sexually suggestive or when they make a joke or expression of disgust by vulgar reference to things should be kept private. Not only are we wrong if we use such speech, but we are also wrong if we "have pleasure in" those who do so. This would include laughing at or enjoying being entertained by people who use such language (Rom. 1:32; 2 John 9-11; 1 Tim. 5:22; Eph. 5:11).

Is your speech pure, or is it characterized by obscenities and filthiness?

Substitution of Altered Forms (Euphemisms)

Definitions and Examples

"Euphemism ... the substitution of a mild, indirect or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt..." (RHCD).

People who are angry or upset, will sometimes use altered forms of a word in place of the curse, profanity, or obscenity. Yet the substitute means the same, is used the same way, sounds similar, and is obviously an altered form of the objectionable word.

"dem" (found rarely in British literature) - "Is he in heaven or is he in hell, that demmed elusive pimpernel? (Scarlet Pimpernel). The word sounds similar, is used the same, and is obviously an altered form of "damn." If the curse word is wrong, is the substitute right?

"Gosh ... euphemistic alteration of God" (RHCD & AHD).

"Golly ... euphemistic alteration of God" (RHCD & AHD).

"Darn ... to curse; damn" (RHCD). "Alteration of DAMN" (AHD). (Sometimes combined with "gosh" as "gosh darn")

"Gee ... euphemism for Jesus" (RHCD). "Alteration of Jesus" (AHD).

"Doggone ... to damn" (RHCD & AHD).

"Heck ... euphemistic alteration of hell" (RHCD). "Hell" (AHD).

"OMG ... Initialism of "oh my God" (Wiktionary); "abbreviation - oh my God" (Merriam Webster online)

Bible Teaching

The point is not that all expressions of surprise are wrong, nor that all euphemisms are wrong. Not all euphemisms are substitutes for bad words. We often substitute words that mean the same as perfectly good words. We may say someone "passed away" instead of saying he died. If it is not wrong to say he died, why would it be wrong to say he passed away?

But if the substitute means the same as a bad word, is used in the same way, even sounds similar and is obviously just an alteration of a bad word, then how can it be right to use the substitute in place of the bad word? Why wouldn't all the Bible principles that condemn the improper word likewise condemn the substitute?

Someone may respond, "But that's not what I mean when I use those words." Granted, some people may not think about the meaning and so may use them without realizing what they mean. But what about our influence on people who do know what they mean?

Matthew 18:6,7; 1 Timothy 4:12 - Christians must always consider the way our conduct affects others (especially young people and new converts), so we do not tempt them to sin. Many people do know the meaning of these words, and many of the words sound so much like their original meaning that they are easily recognizable with just a little thought.

1 Corinthians 8 - Paul discussed the practice of pagans who used banquets in their temples as a form of worship to their idols. Eating meat that had been sacrificed to the idol was as act of worship. A person who knew the truth may think the idol is just a hunk of metal, but the meat is good food. So he can eat the meat in the temple, and to him it is just food.

But to people who are accustomed to idolatry, that act is worship to the idol. If a person sees a Christian eating that meat in the temple, he reasonably concludes that the Christian is doing the same thing everyone around him is doing: worshiping the idol. So he eats too; but he does it as worship to the idol, which would be sinful. Note vv 9-13 - The Christian has become guilty of sin because he influenced someone else to sin.

Compare this to the use of these substitute words. Like the man eating the meat in the idol's temple, you may think you don't mean it that way. But this is what the words mean, and they are so similar to the bad words that it is quite reasonable to make the connection. So a young person, non-Christian, or weak Christian, may hear you use the words; so he picks up the expression, as people often do. But he knows what they mean and he concludes it must be OK to use them this way, because you do it. So, because of your influence, he uses them knowing what they mean, or violating his conscience or his parents' authority . The principle is the same as eating the meat in the idol's temple.

Matthew 12:36,37 - Remember, we will be judged even for our idle words - those we think are the least significant.


Christians should consider carefully the effect of our words, especially in times of anger, frustration, or surprise. Here are some questions we should ask to help us apply the lessons we have considered:

1) Do I have my temper under control? In a calmer moment, after second thoughts, would I think it proper to use this word or joke? (Ephesians 4:26; James 1:19,20)

2) Will this hinder my influence for Christ?

3) Does it bother my conscience to say this? (Rom. 14:23)

4) Will this be beneficial to those who hear, or will it draw them away from Christ? (Eph. 4:29; Colossians 4:5,6)

5) Do my words express love for others? Do I truly desire them to receive what is good for them?

6) Does my speech show proper respect for the name of God and all that is holy?

7) Are my thoughts and motives pure? Am I causing myself or others to dwell on thoughts a Christian should not take pleasure in? (Phil. 4:8)

8) Would Jesus say this? (1 Peter 2:21-24)

Is Jesus pleased with your speech? Is He pleased with your life?

(C) Copyright 1984, 1994, 2013,David E. Pratte;
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