This week there was some controversy over a popular pastor who used an expletive term in his message. He was doing so during a call for Christians to live and speak their Christian convictions about some of the anti-biblical agendas in our current cultural climate. For bible believing Christians, it would be hard to disagree with his concerns about the current sexual revolution and other ideologies. Part of the message is that Christians need to stand strong on our biblical convictions and call immoral and destructive ideologies what they are. We need to be bold about our Christian witness and stand for unpopular biblical truth and morality. Why would we disagree with that?
The problem for me came when there was a very intentional use of an expletive term to communicate this conviction. In fact, time in this pastor’s message was dedicated to the defense of using such a term as he pointed to the example of the Apostle Paul. It was reasoned that Paul used a similar expletive term when in Philippians 3:8 he considered that his Jewish heritage in comparison to Christ was dung/refuse (skybala). The claim is that Paul’s use of this word is the same as us using a similar modern expletive. This requires response. Do the Scriptures require our word choice to emphasize our conviction or the message itself?
We do indeed agree that the Christian’s need to stand strong on conviction no matter the cost.
In Matthew 14 and Mark 6, we read that John the Baptist had clearly stated that Herod Antipas was living in immorality as a supposed Jewish leader who had taken his brother’s wife. This stance not only was the reason that Herod put John in jail, but also the reason for him losing his head. If we read about John’s preaching ministry, we also find that Herod’s immorality was not the focus of his preaching. In Matthew 3:2 we read that John’s predominant message was for people to “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It would seem that in doing so, John, like prophets who had gone before him, was also making it clear how sin was manifest in the people of Israel who were supposed to be God’s people. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how John was speaking about Herod’s immorality, but one thing is for certain, Herod was not the focus of his preaching. His preaching was focused on preparing the way for Jesus and warning those who see themselves as God’s people to turn from their sin or face judgment. If you read the Old Testament prophets, John would probably have sounded much like them. Perhaps this is the reason some thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah. Indeed, he was the Elijah who was expected to prepare the way of the Lord.
Even when John was imprisoned, we don’t hear that John’s main concern was Herod’s immorality. John was much more concerned about whether he had got it right about the Messiah Jesus (Matthew 11). I think this is an important point to see, because we should note that John was in prison not for the preaching of cultural morality but for the preaching of Christ and a gospel that exposes sin in humanity’s need for salvation. Nobody likes hearing they are an immoral sinner. Our Christian conviction often leads to persecution. All this is to say that our Christian conviction is not known by the expletive thrust of our language but by our Christ exalting stance in the gospel no matter the cost. Christ (not our cussing tones) marks our conviction.
Paul’s convictions did not amount to cussing.
In Paul’s descriptions about what he thinks of Jews forcing circumcision on Christians, he makes some very unmistakable statements. He turns the tables on those Jews who once called Gentiles ‘dogs’ by stating that they themselves have become the dogs. He calls them the mutilators of the flesh. Jewish and Rabbinical law keeping does nothing for obtaining favor with God. In fact, reliance on a law that nobody can keep will keep us under God’s wrath. No wonder Paul says that compared to his new life in Christ, his former life was dung. It was his strong conviction to stand against Judaism’s barrier to salvation in Christ. Paul’s use of the term skybala (dung/refuse) in Philippians 3:8 is a very clear reference of comparison that indicates the infinite distance between a life that will keep people under the condemnation of sin and an eternity of glory in reconciliation with God through Christ.
Paul preached his strong gospel conviction to the church in Philippi who were under the threat of those who seemed to be Jewish false teachers preaching false hope. Conveying his Christ-centered conviction, did Paul use cussing to emphasize his point? Well, if he did, he also went against his own teaching to the Ephesians. 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. Translated another way, Paul was saying to the Ephesians that there was to be no talk that would be shameful or embarrassing, no foolish words, or vulgar speech/indecent talk. In any of these instances, Paul would never accept or encourage obscenities in any of his sentences, especially one written as a letter to encourage a church in the joy of Christ (as in his letter to Philippi). It seems clear to me that the word “skybala” was not considered a cuss of Paul’s day. It seems, while earthy, that it was acceptable speech that did not breach his standard of righteous speech.
It seems today that to have strong biblical conviction, we are being told it must come with abrasive demeaning and even expletive language. That language must be public and there seems to be a Christian bullying happening to the degree that if you do not proscribe to this demeanor, you are being soft on truth or weak on conviction. That is far from the truth. I am not going to adopt an unbiblical turn of phrase to describe my conviction against an unbiblical ideology in the culture. I am not going to allow my mission field to be offended at me because of my language rather than my message of Christ. If there is to be any offense taken by my conviction, may it be because I am a John the Baptist pointing to repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sin and escape from the coming judgment.
For the sake of conviction of Christ, may we all be willing to lose our head at the whim of an offended Herod.