Recently, my attention was drawn to the subject of strong language. My wife and I have been discussing, and it is an issue that she and I fully agree on (one of the few). So our discussions are not long by any means.
However, I thought it deserved a bit more attention, especially since the blogosphere has jumped on John Piper’s use of a particular word in a sermon. My goal is not to do the same. In fact, I wish to call out some principles related to the topic of word choice but unrelated to the Piper controversy. My aim is to focus on why it would be beneficial not to use language inappropriately.
No doubt you have heard many people quote “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” from Proverbs 18:21. It means that through our oral communication, we can build up or tear down others emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. In other words, it is with my words that I can train my children to know the gospel and respond to it one way or another. It is also with my words that I can emotionally disable my children. Convincing the mind is where the power lies, and convincing is done with words.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. (Proverbs 18:21)
The point is that I must watch my words and thoughts carefully in order to guard myself from reproof and guard others from evil. If I can encourage someone by verbally acknowledging their devotion to God, then I should do so. If I can correct someone by verbally expressing my observances of their sin, then I should do so. However, I must be wise with the way I word my encouragement and correction so that the true meaning is understood and unnecessary offense is avoided.
I was speaking with a friend yesterday about why it is important to not connect heretics to heresies in sermons (with exceptions). He was listening to a sermon addressing false gospels today and the preacher mentioned a few names.
Now, he was not wrong in addressing the subject nor the people involved. The apostle Paul named false teachers with no regret. Still yet, since the names were brought up and the audience was familiar with them, some of the audience drifted from the sermon context to the person identified. They were distracted by the name.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the subject matter or motive behind the sermon. But there was a sense of carelessness with which words were spoken. As preachers, we must be very careful with the words we use so they facilitate the point and not steer from it.
Here in America, certain words are considered inappropriate, although not necessarily vulgar. For example, the word “shoot,” uttered when one has become disappointed or angered, is a synonym for what is socially considered a curse word. So whether a believer or unbeliever uses the word “shoot,” this substitute has been deemed socially acceptable.
But rather than seeking to be socially acceptable, we should be seeking to be beneficial. Paul says “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable” (1 Cor. 10:23). If the use of a word might cause some to detour, then we should use another one – especially in sermons, but also in our daily communication.
Wayne Grudem shared wonderful thoughts in this regard when he brought up the point that our words reflect the gospel and the God we represent. Therefore, we must be careful in our speech. Here are the passages he mentioned:
Titus 2:10 – “Not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”
Ephesians 5:4 – “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
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.”
Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Grudem equated offensive language to not wearing deodorant and having body odor. It may not be morally wrong, but will certainly give needless offense or cause someone to think of something impure. He says in “that way it brings reproach on the church and the gospel.” 1
Far be it from the Christian to bring such reproof! I am reminded of Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees when He said, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Maybe that should soak in before we speak in haste next time.
In word and deed, we must point to the cross and not away from it– no matter the social acceptance.
- Wayne, Grudem. Wayne Grudem on Offensive Language. Desiring God. January 17, 2007.