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Grudem and Piper on Profanity

The issue of profanity in the church is one that continually surprises me. To myself and to many other Reformed types, what is most shocking about the profanity discussion is that we need to have it at all! That we should avoid foul speech seems obvious and beyond dispute. And yet here we are. There is little consensus in the church about this particular issue.

One thing that I find is often missing in discussions on profanity is the connection between the heart and the tongue. We need to realize that the tongue is not an isolated instrument in the body. The tongue or the mouth speaks for the heart. Said otherwise, what proceeds from the mouth is a sure indication of what is in the heart. If a mouth pours forth filth, it is a sure indication that there is also a filthy heart. If a tongue spews forth rebellion, there is rebellion in the heart. If the tongue pours out praise, there is godly joy in the heart. We see this most clearly in the books of Proverbs and James. “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth” (Proverbs 10:20). Note the parallel between the tongue and the heart. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5). So while the issue of profanity so often centers around words, the issue strikes deeper—as deep as the heart.

As you may know, John Piper recently made public an apology for his use of an inappropriate word at the recent Passion07 Conference. Speaking in a breakout session Piper said that sometimes “God kicks our ass.” Needless to say, some people were surprised by this and questioned his decision to use that particular term. I had not heard anything about this situation until Piper addressed it, so I assume that his use of this word was not widely known. I hope that those who questioned him did so in a way that was humble and respectful. I am grateful that (to my knowledge) it was not widely discussed and debated in the blogosphere and beyond.

Piper began his reply by stating “I regret saying it. I am sitting here trying to figure out why I say things like that every now and then. I think it is a mixture of (sinful) audience titillation and (holy) scorn against my own flesh and against the devil, along with the desire to make the battle with Satan and my flesh feel gutsy and real and not middle-class pious. There is a significant difference between saying that God disciplines his children and saying that he ‘kicks our ass’ (the phrase used at Passion)—the effect of the first can produce a yawn and leave students with no sense of how real I mean it. I think ‘He kicks our backside’ would have sufficed. And even better might have been some concrete illustrations of the Lord’s firm spanks.” But while he regrets using the word, he is not entirely sure that it is always necessarily sinful to do so. “If I wanted to take the time, and I felt more defensive than I do, I could probably go to the Bible and find language as offensive as that in the mouth of prophets, and even God when dealing with the grossness of evil. But I doubt that the moment in the breakout session called for something that extreme. Sometimes maybe. I hope the Lord turns it for good.” He shows this again in his closing paragraph where he writes “I think if I had it to do over, I would not say it. On the one hand, I don’t like fanning the flames of those who think it is hip and cool to swear for Jesus. That, it seems to me, is immature. On the other hand, I want those hip people to listen to all I say and write, and I hope that the Lord may get a hold of them and draw them out of immaturity and into the fullness of holiness. But it backfires if one becomes unholy to make people holy. I suspect there was too much of the unholy in my heart at that moment.”

I admire Piper for posting this response and for acknowledging the deeper heart issues of profanity. It was good of him to address this issue and to do so publicly. He could just as easily have done what many other evangelical leaders do and have done and sent this reply only to those who specifically requested it. He could also have feigned surprise that some people were concerned or taken the opportunity to cast doubt on their hearts or their intentions. Instead, he took the humbling step of making the information public, not only apologizing publicly but letting many more people know about the “controversy.”

I was a little bit surprised at Piper’s reply. It did not seem entirely Piper-like (and not only because there was not a single hyphen in the entire three paragraphs). It seemed to me to lack a little bit of the conviction or firmness that Piper is known for. He was willing to say that he felt it was wrong for him to use that word in that circumstance, but less willing to comment on profanity in a more objective sense. It is unusual for him to arrive at something other than a firm conclusion and in this case he seemed uncertain and perhaps unconvinced. Reading between the lines, it seems that Piper has just not considered this issue enough to feel confident making any kind of a declaration.

Enter Wayne Grudem. Grudem wrote a letter to Piper that was subsequently posted on Desiring God’s site, further proof of Piper’s humility. Grudem mentions that he saw Piper’s initial response and says “I’m glad you said that now you regret saying it and thankful that you were willing to say this.” Grudem then offered his opinion on profane words. In so doing he pretty well summarized what I believe but what I have never been able to adequately formulate in my mind!

I’m not sure if this will be helpful but I’ve thought of such language as a question of having a reputation for “cleanness” in our speech, as in the rest of life, out of concern for how that reflects on the gospel and on God whom we represent.

A number of different words can denote the same thing but have different connotations, some of them recognized as “unclean” or “offensive” by the culture.

Examples:

  • urination: taking a leak, pee, “p–”
  • defication: poop, “cr—”, “sh—”
  • sexual intercourse: sleeping with someone, “f–”
  • rear end: backside, “a—”

He then turns to Scripture, and I was grateful to see that he avoids any kind of clumsy legalism or tearing Scripture out of context. Instead he makes an argument based on the Christian’s reputation for cleanliness:

Speaking of these things and using different words for them is not contrary to any biblical command (and so it is different from taking the Lord’s name in vain, which is explicitly forbidden), but we are also commanded to maintain a reputation for cleanliness:
  • ESV Titus 2:10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.
  • ESV 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.
  • ESV 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.
  • ESV 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.

And then he gets to the crux of the matter: “Using the words commonly thought to be offensive in the culture seems to me to be sort of the verbal equivalent of not wearing deodorant and having body odor, or of going around with spilled food on our shirts all the time. Someone might argue that not wearing deodorant or wearing dirty clothes are not morally wrong things in themselves, but my response is that they do give needless offense and cause others to think of us as somewhat impure or unclean. So, I think, does using words commonly thought to be ‘obscene’ or ‘offensive’ or ‘vulgar’ in the culture generally. Plus it encourages others to act in the same way. So in that way it brings reproach on the church and the gospel.”

I don’t think there is much more I could add to Grudem’s response. I agree entirely that we can bring reproach on the church and the gospel in many ways. We can do so in a wide variety of ways, such as by being unclean and as Grudem says, this can be physical or verbal. As Christians we need to ensure that we do not give others cause to think of us as impure and unclean.

Grudem’s next paragraph was interesting to me since he dealt with Piper’s comment that the Bible often uses “dirty” language. This is an issue I have wrestled with in the past as friends and acquaintances have sought to convince me that not only does the Bible not prohibit vulgar speech, but that it actually promotes it. The common argument revolves around Paul’s use of the word “skubalon.”

As for your comment about finding language “as offensive as that” in the Bible, I’m not sure. It’s difficult for us to be sure about the connotations of words in an ancient culture. When I was in seminary I remember another student arguing that Paul’s use of skubalon in Philippians 3:8 (For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ) was just like using “sh—” today. I thought that sounded right. But later I found that the word has a broader range of meaning and I’m not sure it had the offensive overtones that “sh—” does today in English. (BDAG: useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage [in var. senses, ‘excrement, manure, garbage, kitchen scraps’]). In translating the ESV we rendered that term in Phil. 3:8 as “rubbish,” not as a more offensive word. I think that was a good decision.

The “skubalon” argument has long struck me as being akin to the “Junia” argument regarding the role of men and women in the church. It is a classic case of arguing from the narrow to the wide—of taking what is vague and using it to overrule what is clear. Now I do not want to accuse John Piper of making this argument. Rather, I am simply commenting on Grudem’s refutation of it. Sometimes we use the Bible to really change and impact us, and other times we use the Bible to reinforce what we really want to be true. I consider the “skubalon” argument to be just that, an attempt to permit what we know is wrong. And in so doing we override the commands that are clear (which is to say, the commands that Grudem listed above). This is not to say that we cannot consider “skubalon” in our discussion, but simply that we should not argue from the use of a single word about which we know little.

Grudem closes simply “All this is to say I think you were right to express regret for saying what you said.” And I am with Grudem. I think Piper was right to express regret and hope he will consider Grudem’s further argument. I know there is a lot more that could be said on this issue and am convinced that Grudem could write a 1,000-page book on the topic! And yet I think his concise argument is a very good one and well worth pondering.

Exchanges such as this make me so proud to be a Christian and to be a family member with and a brother to these two men. I love the way Christians seek to think so deeply about important issues and to live their lives in a way that is consistent with a higher, better standard. I love to see how others seek to pursue godliness and to help others to pursue godliness. I love it when Christians treat each other as family members, gently rebuking, correcting, encouraging and edifying. God is gracious to make us not just friends, not just colleagues or associates, but family members. And God is gracious to have gifted us with brothers like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, men who would be humbled that the church may be edified.