But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Ephesians 5:3-4

I’ll admit that I’m rather old fashioned when it comes to the use of obscenity. Oh, I’ve heard plenty of cussing and done a good bit myself, especially when dropping a ten-pound weight on my toe. But I still get unsettled when I hear certain kinds of words on TV or from the lips of children.

hands shown working on Mac laptopGiven what we read in Ephesians 5:4, it appears that the Apostle Paul feels as I do. The Greek imperative in verse 3, which could be literally translated as “must not be named among you,” governs verse 4 as well. Included in the things which must not be named among Christians are “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place.” We are not to engage in what folks I knew in Texas would call “cussin’.”

Why? What get riled up so much about cussin’? Is this one more case of Christians getting riled up about things that really don’t matter? I don’t think so. A few verses earlier in Ephesians, we were warned about letting “unwholesome talk” come out of our mouths. Rather we ought to speak that which “is helpful for building others up” (4:29).

Paul assumes that what we say really matters. Our words have the power to tear down or to build up. They can distract us from what is important or focus our attention on the best things in life. They can cheapen life or enrich it. Thus, obscene and foolish talk isn’t morally neutral. At best, it fills the air with emptiness. At worst, it degrades human life and dishonors those who have been created in God’s image.

Now, it’s true that sometimes we Christians can get overly worked up about cussin’ while failing to attend to other sins, like our pride about never using bad language or our judgmentalism toward those who do. Surely this kind of attitude does not reflect the love of God. But without getting things out of balance we might do well to examine our words, both their purity and their impact. We want every part of us, including our speech, to be an expression of our holiness as God’s special people. Moreover, we want our words to build people up, to encourage and inspire others.

Tomorrow, we’ll think some more about obscenity and related issues. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following.

Something to Think About:

Are there times when you dabble in obscenity or foolish talk? When? Why?

Are there times when you fail to use words to build up people and to honor God?

What might help you to take maximum advantage of the power of your words?

Something to Do:

It would be easy to suggest that you avoid foolish or obscene language, if that happens to be something you tend to do. And maybe this is exactly what God has for you today. But I would also urge you to focus on how you might use your words to build up others, to foster true community. In particular, how might you use your words to build up others in your workplace?

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for giving me the power of speech. By doing this, you have entrusted much to me. Help me, I pray, to use this power well. May I learn to avoid obscene or foolish talk. May I put aside words that tear down or hurt others. Instead, may I use my words to build up, to teach, to inspire, and to love. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
commentary:
“You Shall Not Make Wrongful Use of the Name of the LORD Your God” (Exodus 20:7)

2 Comments

  • Thanks, Mark, for giving attention to the Biblical words in these Ephesians verses. There is much for each of us to ponder as we consider whether or not we need to address any aspect of our conversations in our workplace and homes. I have found myself hoping that you will address the issue of “foolish talk” because that is something I wonder about. “Obscenity” and “course joking” seem fairly easy to define but what qualifies as “foolish talk?” I do not think that “Obscenity” and “foolish talk” are the same thing. I think that “foolish talk” is a common practice but may be thought to be “friendly conversation”. What is the “test” for content of conversation to be “foolish talk” rather than “healthy, normal, friendly conversation”? 1Timothy 6:20 instructs us to “turn away from godless chatter…” Is “godless chatter” similar to or the same as “foolish talk”? Looking forward to your continued wise discussion of these verses.

    • Linda, thanks for this thoughtful comment. I will be doing a little more on this. I may not address your concerns adequately, however. Here’s what I wrote in my commentary on this verse: Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (5: 4). This verse moves from improper sexual activity to improper speech. Verse 4: 29 already warned against “unwholesome talk” that fails to build up others. Verse 5: 4 develops this thought further. The NIV translates the Greek word aischrotēs as “obscenity.” This includes, but may not be limited to, speech that is shameful before others. The next word, mōrologia, confirms that speaking is the focus of this verse. Mōrologia is the talk (logia) of the fool (mōros). “Coarse joking,” eutrapelia, can mean “lively wit” in secular Greek, but it has a negative connotation here. Christians are not to avoid all humor, only the off-color stuff. All of these verbal activities are “out of place” among God’s people. Instead of using words in silly and demeaning ways, we should offer “thanksgiving.” The Greek word eucharistia, thanksgiving, sounds similar to eutrapelia, which may explain the presence of that unusual word in this context. Notice once again the familiar pattern: put off eutrapelia, put on eucharistia.

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