I was recently asked what I thought about pastors that cuss in the pulpit. I thought I’d give my thoughts here.
First, most of the passages that talk about curses or swearing have to do with oaths and vows, or blessings and cursings. They have nothing to do with swear words as we normally think of them.
Second, we need more balance in our thinking. I have been frustrated for a while by Christians who rate movies by nothing other than the number of cuss words the film contains as if there is nothing else we need to be concerned about. (They also will count the number of acts of violence and similar explicit sins). But more important to me is the worldview that is present. This is harder to pick up on, but because of that it is also more dangerous. A movie may promote a thoroughgoing nihilistic worldview, but if there are no swear words it is given a thumbs-up by these Christian film critics. A movie that speaks in a deep and difficult way to the nature of mankind is booed because of some swear words while a film that speaks of faith in a way that undermines the true gospel is praised as a must see. We should be more discerning than that.
The passages listed below deal more directly with the issue, but even here the prohibition is broader than mere swear words. Corrupting speech or filthy speech can be done without using any of the four-letter words. Crude joking and obscene talk can occur quite readily without using the banned word list we normally think of. When it comes to cussing probably the closest thing to it in scripture is as follows:
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.”
Ephesians 5:3 “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
Colossians 3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.
I imagine that there is far more foolish talk that occurs in churches than obscene, yet both are forbidden. Neither is helpful to the proclamation of the word, so I would avoid both. I fear that just like our view of movies, we place far too much stock in the explicit when it is the core of the ministry that matters most. Ironically, I think this imbalance is due, in part, to having too low a view of sin. Because we only think of the explicit kind of sin as sins we have an imbalance in our thinking. Obviously pastors should not be sinning in the pulpit, but I believe that every person in every church (pastors included) sin every Sunday during the service. All of it is wrong. We ought to give the same weight to something as scripture gives to it.
Third, cussing is culturally defined. What passes for “harsh” speech is audience dependent. Some are more easily offended than others. Churches in the inner city will be different from churches in rural settings. What is taboo to one generation may be free game to the next. All the “sex” sermons that are so popular in American churches today would be completely out of place to an older generation or in a more conservative culture (like much of the middle east). The words of the prophets and Paul and Peter and Jesus are far more offensive that what our culture is used to. In fact I think we are too easily offended.We need to not play the victim so readily. I think we, as Christians especially, should be able to put up with some cussing. This does not mean that I approve of pastors cussing; they of all people should be above reproach. So consider this a two-tier approach:
To the pastor: Stop being a cause of stumbling in some. Conduct yourself in a way that will most glorify God. Since most cussing is done in flippant circumstances it does not correlate well to Paul in Gal 5:1 since the gospel was at stake in that letter or Jesus’ rebukes because the Pharisees were shutting the kingdom of heaven to their listeners. These were serious issues that require strong words. It is hard to see how that cussing glorifies God when it is done in light-hearted situations that do not demand strong words.
To the church member: Don’t be so picky. There are far weightier things that pastors do wrong that are often overlooked because they are not “explicit.” If your pastor has these weighty things in place, then grant him grace in this area and encourage him (encourage, don’t nag) to do better. Far better to be in a doctrinally solid church that ministers well to its members and is active in its community with the gospel and ministries of mercy where the pastor cusses than to be in some shallow do nothing church. No church will be perfect, choose in a biblically balanced manner.