Some pastors today favor the “shock value of sermons…sometimes with an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure,” reports Christianity Today. Other pastors prefer to preach widely-advertised sermons, with innuendo-laden titles. Often, the sermon itself fails to disappoint the tickling ears. One well-known pastor earned the moniker, “Cussing Pastor” for his colorful language in the pulpit. It brings up a question that we’ve got to consider. Should pastors use salty language?
So, what constitutes “salty language?” Notice how Ed Young starts off this two-minute video. It will give you an idea. No, Ed Young is not endorsing verbal salt-shaker pastors. In fact, he gives a strong statement against the proverbial sailor-like verbiage that some young, hip pastors use. Hear what he says:
So, I’m wondering “why?” What gives Young the right to wag his finger and say “fie on you, pastor” for busting out a “crap,” “damn,” or “frickin” now and then? Why shouldn’t we? After all, didn’t Jesus use some pretty powerful statements against hypocritical religious leaders? And Paul? Didn’t he use some punch-’em-in-the-face remarks, too? I’m a pastor. Why shouldn’t I? And, come on, we need to be real, right? A guy who hides his typical blue-streak-cussing demeanor just because he’s behind a wooden box called a pulpit is being hypocritical, is he not? What’s more, we need to speak the language of our generation. If my indie-rock loving congregation tunes me out when I use words like “expiation,” then I’m gonna use some words that they’ll really understand. Besides, sermons are supposed to be memorable, so I’m going to utilize an unforgettable vocabulary. Besides, I’ve seen some YouTube clips where “Driscoll did it!” or “Piper did it!” and I even read that “Luther did it!”
Are those good arguments?
I’d say we need some answers…real ones.
The Pastor is an Example, not a Reflection of the Culture
There tends to be a lot of chaffing over the whole concept of worldliness. It’s a pleasant feeling to minimize what’s “like the world,” so we can be as much like the world as we want to be. But let’s face it. Some of the baser aspects of this culture–viz., bad language–aren’t fit for Christians, let a lone pastors. Romans 12:2 remains true: “Do not be conformed to this world.” What’s more, pastors are meant to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). It should go without saying that they should be good examples, not examples of how to incorporate off-color slang and scatological humor into a sermon.
The Pastor Is Commanded to be Kind and Tenderhearted
Pastors, like all Christians, are commanded to be kind and tenderhearted. In the verse where this command is found (Eph 4:32), Paul doesn’t provide any footnotes with examples of kind and tenderhearted words. If he did, they would be in Greek. More than likely, you don’t speak Koine Greek. So, it’s left up to the Christians in each culture to apply “kind and tenderhearted” to contemporary language. Speaking kindly and tenderheartedly means that there will be certain ways of speaking that we do not use with other believers. It is safe to say that salty language, harsh invective, and course words are off-limits when speaking “to one another,” even in the pulpit.
The Pastor Should Take His Cues from How the Bible Uses Strong Language
The Bible uses strong language. No doubt. So, for the pastor with a penchant for shock-tactic language should realize that the Bible is sparing, selective, and careful in its use of such powerful statements. The Bible infrequently uses strong language. Pastors should do the same. Sparing. Selective. Careful.
The Pastor Does Not Need to be Cool; He Needs to Be Like Christ
Some pastors just crave coolness. A few rips in the jeans, an Ed Hardy tee, and maybe a dog chain with a stylized cross, and wham the pastor is now relevant. Bogus. You can read more about true relevance here, and here, and here. Unfortunately, in the effort to be cool, some pastors careen over the edge into uncouth language. That’s not what a pastor is to do. Our example is Christ. Pastors are to called unto holiness (1 Peter 1:15-16 2:5), not coolness. Thus, there is no need to incorporate the argot of the “rated R for language” group.
The Pastor Should Proclaim God’s Words, Which are Powerful by Themselves
Using shocking or vulgar language is the recourse of a pastor who doesn’t believe that the Spirit is powerful enough or that God’s Word is clear enough on its own. The Word of God has inherent power through the Holy Spirit to pierce hearts and penetrate minds (Heb 4:12, Jeremiah 23:29). Keep in mind as well that words like “hell” and “damn” and their euphemistic derivatives are serious theological concepts, not adjectives to describe a rough day at work or bad traffic on the way home. God doesn’t need (or want) you to punch out His words with the refuse-laden terms from Family Guy. That kind of loose-cannon style denigrates God’s dignity and ruins your reputation. Rather, He wants you to be pure, faithful, and bold in the proclamation of His Word–which is just fine by itself. True preaching is simply laying out what the text says.
The Pastor Must Not Offend Other Christians
The Bible makes it clear that it’s better to never eat meat again than to cause a brother or sister to stumble (1 Cor. 8:13). Obviously, pastors need not squirm with anxiety in an effort to pander to everyone’s qualms. There’s a difference between people-pleasing (which the Bible forbids) and conscience-wrecking (which the Bible also forbids). That being said, pastors must apply to their preaching the Bible’s prohibition on riding roughshod over other people’s consciences. Don’t offend believers, especially the sheep in your congregation, just because you have an area of so-called “liberty.” Paul’s case study in 1 Corinthians 8 is meat-eating, so let’s apply that: “Therefore, if [cussing] makes my brother stumble, I will never [cuss], lest I make my brother stumble.”
The Pastor Is to be Characterized and Committed to “Sound Words”
In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul has a few key lessons for Pastor Timothy. One of them is about “sound words” (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13). Paul stresses to Timothy the importance of speaking “sound words” that come from faith and love. “Sound words” refer first to the doctrinal quality of the preacher’s message. The manner of these sound words, however, must be “in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” This is an umbrella-concept when it comes to preaching style, but it seems to preclude the use of off-color lingo. At the very least, it is important for a pastor to refrain from language that characterizes his ministry with the opprobrium of being foul-mouthed.
One popular Christian blog (which, incidentally, has one of those “ahem?” words in its title) contains this statement from one of its writers: “I think we need to be careful when we start challenging other church leaders to do it the way we do it,” referring to his right to use salty language. I would say, I think we need to be careful when we start using salty language, because this isn’t about saying, “Hey, be like me and only say squeaky-clean words.” This is about “Well, what does the Bible say about my language, my ministry, and the way to do it right?”
We don’t need to start parsing our profanity, defining what is and what is not questionable. If its questionable, it’s questionable. Does the Bible use strong language? Thankfully, yes. Does it follow that pastors, too, have a right to use strong language? Thankfully, yes–but keep in mind that 1) the Bible is inspired; pastors are not. 2) the object of such biblical vitriol was always rank heresy, 3) the expressions used were not crude gutter-terms, and 4) the Bible also stipulates that filthiness, foolish talking, and crude joking are off limits (Eph 5:4). “Strong language” doesn’t necessarily mean that the pastor needs to use all the h-words, d-words, s-words, f-words, and other four-letter words that he can muster.
If you want to keep cussing – please take this in the respectful and reverent spirit in which it is given – ministry is not for you. Pastors are not shock jocks. They are men, called by God, commissioned by the Holy Spirit, and committed to the example of Christ. Cut out the bad language.