How does one determine what is obscene or irreverent talk? I am writing for a friend who feels that certain words that are deemed as obscene by society are actually acceptable—depending on the company you are keeping. In one context such a word would be clearly unacceptable whereas in another it would be accepted, even encouraged, normal speech. It is his contention that, in either case, he would not be sinning. My friend claims to be a Christian.
When I share verses such as 2 Timothy 2:16 (ESV), "But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness," his response is to question who decides what words are inappropriate and which are not. He points out that there is no "list" in the Word for us to be aware of. He also points out that words can change meaning over time. So who is to say what is or isn't appropriate? My desire is that my friend might be led to bow before the throne of our Lord and desire to obey his Word.
Words are spoken by persons, and their meaning cannot completely be abstracted from the intentions of the speaker. Thus it is possible for a foreigner to accidently utter an obscenity without knowing it (if they are merely repeating what they heard on TV, etc.). But this is certainly the exception, because in the vast majority of instances crude and irreverent speech is what consciously comes out of the heart. As Christ says, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander" (Matt. 15:19). The words of the tongue are a potent force indeed, and because it is attached to our darkened hearts, James says the tongue "is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." Certainly what qualifies as a sinful expression of the lips cannot be reduced to the company one keeps—if such were true then what of other transgressions like murder and sexual immorality? Surely your friend would be willing to acknowledge an objective standard for such things as these. Simply because the line between corrupt talk and edifying speech cannot be set in stone ahead of time does not mean there is no such line at all. This is where I might point out the wisdom of the book of Proverbs which has much to say about the proper use of the tongue, and the way in which it categorizes speech not so much under "right and wrong" but under "prudent and foolish," and analyzes the context and consequences of certain words. For example, "An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble" and "From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good, and the work of man's hand comes back to him" (Prov. 12:13-14).
Lastly, I would point out that the context of Ephesians 4:29 ("Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear") is the separation between the way of the Gentiles (vs 17, read: "outsiders") and the way of those in the covenant community. The point that Paul is making is not to allow the agenda and attitude of the "old man" (vs 22) to set the terms for new life in Christ. We are to put on the image of the "new man" in Christ (vs 24)—speech included. If a Christian decides to talk exactly like an unbeliever, one should ask the sobering question whether one has let the salt lose its saltiness (Matt. 5:13).
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