The Bible on Unwholesome Talk

no cussing sign from Virginia Beach
This entry is part [part not set] of 3 in the series Cussing and the Bible

As with other discussions about language, this post has words that may offend certain readers. If you’re offended by these words, feel free to skip reading this post and move on to less offensive topics, like dwarf bunnies.

I’ve discussed previously my opinion about biblical prohibitions on “cursing” and “swearing”, which I believe have been retroactively applied outside the original context to now cover things that aren’t complete sentences, much less real curses or oaths.
If I crush my thumb with a hammer and scream “shit”, I’m neither projecting a spiritual wish to cover the hammer in feces nor am I promising to do anything, other than perhaps swinging the hammer more carefully next time.

There’s a third way explicit language comes under attack, empowered by Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. In Ephesians 4:29, he offers some excellent instruction: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”

Some argue that “shit” or even “crap” fall into this unwholesome group, therefore supporting their objection to Christians using these words. Is there some validity to this stance? Let’s break it down.

Sapros and Logos

The phrase “unwholesome word” involves the Greek words sapros and logos.

The first means bad, rotten, or decayed, coming from the verb sēpō, which means to rot. This might make you think of the English word “septic”, something we use to describe underground tanks that contain the aforementioned fecal matter, as well as the medical condition that ensues when bowels have ruptured.

And the word logos, which means simply “word”. It’s important to note that logos is typically focused on the content of a communication more than the fact that the communication exists.

It’s important to note that logos is typically focused on the content of a communication more than the fact that the communication exists.

So far, it’s not looking good for the fecal words. The content of shit is, well, shit. It’s decayed, rotten, and bad, just like sapros. For that matter, poop, doo doo, and number-two are at risk so far. If I stop here, I’ll have to forbid my doctor from ever asking for a stool sample unless I’m to shave an inch off some of the elevated seating in my home. Let’s keep going, though, and see what else the verse has to say.

Agathos and Ei

In the second phrase, the word “good” stands out, juxtaposing the rot of the first phrase. In the NIV, it says “helpful”. The Greek word is agathos, which means good as a positive or moral quality.

Consider this with the transition word “but”. This is the word ei which indicates a conditional statement. In other verses, we see this word translated as “if” or “since”.

The juxtaposition is deliberate, but not in the way one might think as it’s translated in English. What we’re presented with is less of a contrast but more of a concession. The positive moral goodness of agathos purposefully clarifies the broad label of sapros.

This means that the logos—the content of the message—has to be considered. The words themselves aren’t the problem, but the motivation behind them. As with so much else in our Christian walk, it’s more about our internals than the externals.

Applications of This Concession

If my friend tells me to eat shit in a moment of heated anger, there’s something to be said for the unwholesome (sapros) content (logos) of his words.

If my pastor rebukes me, saying I’m treating my wife like a piece of shit, that’s going to get my attention and needs to, and the content (logos) of his message is rather good (agathos).

If a close friend teases me in good fun and says he’s just shitting me, we laugh and move on, with a reinforcement of our camaraderie as a rather good (agathos) element.

In one of these examples, the content is clearly septic, but the other two were in good spirit and even were “good for edification according to the need of the moment” and gave grace to me as the hearer.

And this applies with other words as well. I often rib my wife, calling her a slut. She looks at me and replies, “Yeah, but I’m your slut.” And we’re both uplifted, we’re both a bit more wholesome, more good, more agathos than before the comment.

This verse is primarily an instruction to consider the message being communicated. It’s not a condemnation of some blacklist of evil words.

I often rib my wife, calling her a slut. She looks at me and replies, “Yeah, but I’m your slut.” And we’re both edified.

Teaching on “Unwholesome” Topics

This goes beyond words and into topics, too. After all, the content of a communication is found in the assembly of words, not in the words chosen. And this is an important factor to consider.

We talk about a lot of sexual topics on this site, and we do the same with some of our closest friends. But the message behind this potentially unwholesome (by one definition) topic is, in our opinion, one of edification and grace. This verse actually supports our discourse on this topic, given the nature and purpose of our posts.

So, no, this was another dead-end. The words themselves are far less important than the message. Which makes sense, even if it doesn’t fit within the traditional teaching.

Originally posted 2015-08-17 08:00:18.

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Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.