What Words are we Allowed to Say?


About a year ago I polled some people that I know.  I polled preachers and elders, Christians and non-Christians, old and young, male and female.  The poll consisted of one question and it was this:

What type of communication does the most damage to the church?

  • Foul Language (bad or offensive words)
  • Gossip (talking about other people’s business)
  • Cruelty (saying mean things to or about others)
  • Negativity (always complaining: politics, worship, others, etc.)

The results were interesting, but kind of expected.  Some people said gossip, some cruelty and others negativity.  Not a single person said that the church is most harmed by “foul language.”

Now, if you’re anything like me, you have probably heard gossip, cruelty, and persistent negativity.  If you’re anything like me you’ve probably engaged in it yourself.  These are pretty hard to avoid.  Even at church.  Who hasn’t heard a “prayer request,” which is just an easy way to open the door to gossip?  Who doesn’t think that Ted is an unscrupulous jerk?  Really, when does negativity not arise in the form of “constructive criticism” about the government, a boring preacher, or a clueless song leader?

But very, very rarely have I ever heard one of the main “bad words” uttered at the church building (I did hear an F-bomb dropped in the middle of a Bible class once).  If you did hear a loud profanity, it would no doubt be followed by a long, loud, united, congregational gasp at the shock and horror of it all.  But the others forms of sinful speech, the more damaging ones, often seem to roll by unnoticed.

The Love of Lists:

Why would we be more shocked and appalled at the thing that probably does much less damage?  It’s difficult to know for certain, but it might have something to do with a list.

It’s easy to avoid things when they are on a list of “Dont’s.”  If you give me a list of 5-50 words (depending on the list maker) I’m not allowed to say, then I can just memorize those words, find synonyms, make the appropriate substitutions, and communicate normally.  Lists make things easy.  And with “bad words,” it’s easy to make a list.

We love making lists of rights and wrongs.  Need to become a Christian?  I got a list for you right here!  Need a sermon?  Here are your 3 points.  Want to know what words to avoid? Here is your list of “bad words” and here is your longer, more detailed list of “euphemisms.”  The problematic part is that definitive lists are rarely given in Scripture (although it’s great when they are!).  But there is no Biblical list of “bad words.”  So we use our brains, reasoning, our culture, and the MPAA and we list it up!  A lot of profanity is pretty obvious and simple to identify.

It’s much more difficult to make a “gossip list.”  Gossip, slander, and negativity just flow naturally along the twists and turns of a conversation.  You are in it before you ever saw it coming.  We struggle with things that are not on lists. It requires too much “paying attention.”

Make your own List:

So what are we to do?  When it comes to language, keep your list.  There is nothing wrong with a good list.  Keep it and abide by it.  But realize that there are other lists also and not all of them will match up perfectly.  When you talk, you should really try to be considerate of other people’s lists.  In fact, be more concerned with their list than your own.

If some Christians say something on your list of “no-no words”, realize they might see things differently, not be offended by that word, or even know that it is offensive.  As time and culture changes, so does language and communication.  Youths often use words that the elderly might not like (usually because they are vulgar or inappropriate) and the elderly often use words that offend youths (usually something seen as racist or extremely impolite).  Realize that different times and cultures have used words differently, and not everyone will have discovered your exact list.  Just try to be conscientious, polite, and forgiving.

A Suggested List:

But, for more dangerous topics like gossip, cruelty, and negativity, ask yourself the following “list” of questions before you speak:

Am I using someone else’s name?  Why am I using their name?  Would I say this if they were standing right next to me?  Would they want me to say this? Would I want someone to say this about me?  Would I want others to know that I said this? Do I really know what I am talking about?  Do I have any proof of what I am about so say?  Even if I have proof, is it necessary to say it?  Is it my business?  Is it the business of the person I’m talking to? Is it nice?  Is it uplifting?  Is it positive?  Will it reflect well on the church? On others? On the Bible?  On Jesus? On God?  Is it worded gracefully as though seasoned with salt?

You might be thinking, “that list is far too long.  It would take forever to sit quietly and think of answers to all of those questions.  If we take your advice we will all be sitting quietly and hardly ever saying anything!”

True. And what a wonderful world it would be.

James 1:19: “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”