October 22, 2020

Thoughts on Ephesians 4:29, 5:4

“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.” (Eph. 4:29, ESV)

“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Eph. 5:4, ESV)

In the discussion of “bad language” at the Boar’s Head Tavern and in the IM comments, these two verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians were cited by both ordinary readers and by my critics. I would like to record a few thoughts on these verses, not because I believe they are misunderstood- they are extremely simple- but because I believe they need to be heard and obeyed as Holy Scripture.

First of all, a word about the book of Ephesians. This letter may be the most “perfectly” designed of Paul’s epistles, as it beautifully falls into a “theological” section and a “practical” section of almost equal lengths. There are no personal excursions or defenses, but a carefully crafted presentation of the Christian message and its real-world results.

The oldest copy of this letter does not have a destination incuded, and the added “Ephesus” is likely one destination for one version of what may have been a “template” letter for several churches. There are obvious similarities between Colossians and Ephesians that support this idea.

What is Paul doing in this letter? Certainly he is teaching Gentile churches the foundations of their new allegience and life in Jesus Messiah. In a shorter version, he is laying out some of the same material as he covers in Romans, but the emphasis in Ephesians is plainly on a new community, a new people created by and in Jesus Christ, and how that community lives. Paul sees the roots of this new people of God in the work and person of Jesus Christ. It is an identification with Jesus, a living-out of the meaning of Jesus, and the indwelling power of Jesus that creates a new and different person in the world.

Paul does this by discussing the roots of the Christian’s life in God’s saving work before and in time. He elucidates and retells the story of the Gospel, particularly what it means to be made alive in Christ. He reminds his readers of the community God has been making throughout history, and how the unity of those who belong to Jesus create a new Israel that are the people God has always been working toward.

In the second half of the letter, Paul addresses what this community and this life looks like in the world. Paul takes note of the general character of Christian ethics, the communal aspect, the relational aspect and, of course, the individual aspect. The “new life/new person” in Jesus is raised from death and forgiven. His/Her loyalties are to Christ and his/her identity is in the church of which Christ is the head.

This life is lived out in spiritual battle. The spiritual entities that control this world set themselves against the Christian, so in our lives, families and relationships we live out a battle. It is a battle where Christ is victor, but where our choices and actions have real meaning and significance for the glory of Christ and our loyalty to him.

This is the context where we find the two verses above. Paul’s concern for a personal ethic that reflects our unity with Christ and our new life in him comes down to the kind of words that we use. Following the teaching of Jesus, Paul teaches that out of the heart comes the words we use, and this is an evidence of the presence of Christ, or of sinful rebellion against God.

This context does not, however, settle all the questions that occur in seeking to apply these verses to our lives. It is, in fact, the case that the simplicity of the passages may cause us to believe there are no elements that need interpretation. This would be a mistake.

Quite often, a simple passage- say, “God is love”- is easily abused because of its simplicity or clarity. ” To say God is love is not to say all that is true about God. There is much in scripture that clarifies, contextualizes and gives depth to that statement. In fact, there are whole sections of the Bible that would challenge us to read such a statement carefully, and not simple “take the bait and run” as far as possible with the simple definition.

Even a beginning Bible student becomes quickly aware that God’s love is holy love; that God’s love is not antithetical to his wrath; that a God of love ordains and permits events that appear “unloving” to the secular eye.

It would be possible to take the statement “God is love,” and argue that in its very simplicity, it trumps all other statements about God and that anyone who does not apply “God is love” to the strongest possible degree in all contexts is betraying scripture. This would, of course, be a serious misunderstanding of how scripture is to be used and could lead to very distorted applications of the passage.

I would suggest that this example ought to be kept in mind because of the simplicity of the passages before us. A similar error is, I believe, lurking in the wings.

It is also true that the simplicity and clarity of these passages much be understood alongside two other contexts: the language of scripture itself, and the uses of language in a particular cultural setting.

The first context- Paul’s own language- confronts us with the fact that Paul was, on occasion, capable of language that was strong and crude.

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Phil. 3:8-9, ESV)

Paul’s use of a well known word for excrement has inspired all sorts of creative explanatory readings. For example…

Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant, dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ.” (Phil. 3:8, MESSAGE)

There is no doubt that Paul’s language here is not what most people who read our verses from Ephesians immediately think about as acceptable to Paul’s standard. Particularly, we ought to note that Paul is formally teaching, and not just engaging in informal banter.

Perhaps the easiest explanation is that Paul is wrong to speak this way. Can Paul be inconsistent to his own stated ideal? Certainly, but we can also be wrong about how these verses are applied. This is a signal that extremely literal views of these verses may be mistaken.

Another example: Galatians 5:12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (ESV)

Or, Galatians 5:12 Why don’t these agitators, obsessive as they are about circumcision, go all the way and castrate themselves! (The Message)

Again, this is not the kind of language that would be used in any sermon in any church without considerable alarm and repercussions. It is not what we consider to be “nice,” and it is offensive to many people. Once again, Paul is formally teaching.

Paul was surely aware of the offensiveness of these terms when he wrote them, as he was when he told the Corinthians he might need to come to them with a stick; as Jesus did when he compared the religious leaders of his time to vipers and rotting corpses; as Isaiah did when he said the righteous person should remember their righteousness was as used menstural clotes to God.

(I think it is worse mentioning that my experience as a teacher tells me that what you read in print is generally a highly “improved” version of ordinary, common speech, so that if we find these terms in Paul’s letters, it is entirely reasonable to assume such ways of speaking were much more common in Paul’s ordinary speech and less formal settings. I think Luther- whose formal and informal speech are both recorded for us- is a good parallel.)

This is our first context, and we are immediately reminded that Paul himself would be the primary example of what he meant we he wrote these verses to the Ephesians. He frequently told his churches to imitate him. It is safe to assume that if we imitate Paul’s language in scripture, we would be close to the meaning and proper application of these verses.

That leads us to our second context, which is the use of language itself in varying contexts. Several things ought to be noted.

First of all, the verse appear to be hyperbolic in some degree, as can be seen by the generous number of abolute negatives throughout the verses. (“No…”) Hyperbole is a truthful presentation, but hyperbolic statements depend on a certain “reality” adjustment that is assumed in the mind of the hearer. Overly literal approaches to hyperbole result in misreadings and misapplications.

For example, I might say to my class “There will be no talking during the test.” I can be completely truthful about that rule and still allow various kinds of talking, with various kinds of responses on my part.

Another example: “No one in this class will come to class without a having read the chapter.” This use of the hyberbolic negative sets us a situation where the students will decide how to respond. I will be under the responsibility to understand what is going on in the life experience of my students, and I will further be responsible for deciding to what extent I meant exactly what I said.

In these cases, it’s clear that the hyperbolic negative can be an invitation to right speech, or it can be a rigid standard. I believe it is an invitation to right speech, but everything else the Bible and common sense have to tell us about the right use of language.

Secondly, both verses contain a phrase that makes it clear that the hearers are to be aware of the kind of situation that calls for the language commanded. Notice the phrases “...as fits the occasion…” and “…which are out of place…” These are important phrases.

In both cases, the hearers are told that they should be aware of the occasion and the place in which speech is occuring, and shape their words in a way that is right for the occasion and place. This is not a “rules” approach as much as an approach that allows maturity, judgement and wisdom to enter the picture. These phrases are not an invitation to make a list of right and wrong words, but an invitation to say the right things at the right time.

Thirdly, both passages make the point that the problem is wrong speech replacing right speech. In one case, upbuilding/grace is called for; in another, thanksgiving. This is important for understanding what Paul means, for it places the verses into a particular kind of situation where Christians are clearly called upon to use a particular kind of language, and other kids of language are inappropriate.

At this point, someone is entitled to ask if I am actually saying that there is a place for “filthy,” “corrupt,” or “crude” speech? Isn’t Paul plain? My answer is this: There is no doubt that any number of words may be judged quite differently in various contexts, and I do not believe all those contexts are being addressed in the verses cited. Specific conditions are being cited; situations where a particular kind of gracious speech is appropriate and other kinds of crude or dirty words are inappropriate.

“Filthy” words may be always wrong, or they may be meaningless or even appropriate…depending entirely on whether I am at my Grandmother’s dinner table, writing down an English assignment on profanity or reacting to child abuse occuring in my presence.

What I will not say is that Christian language is a matter of simply not saying some words that exist in someone’s mental list, but saying whatever you want otherwise using acceptable words. It is what the words accomplish or affect that is the emphasis of these passages. Words here are a stewardship; an opportunity to do what is right. Paul is not laying down a legalistic “trap” for someone saying “damn.”

I am relatively unconcerned about language used in situations where it does no harm and is acceptable, or has no a negative effect. If such were the case, Paul would have simply said don’t use certain words…period. Instead, he says to not use wrong words in harmful ways.

Are there “filthy,” “corrupt” and “foolish” words? Let’s use Paul’s example of “dog dung.” In many sutuations, this would be a highly offensive term. In Paul’s use of it, it was the right word. I believe there are words that are “filthy,” etc in most usages. But even these words may have a use in a different context that is not offensive.

So I would suggest that Paul is not seeking to make his readers into “language police,” but to encourage them to use language in ways that are consistent with the teaching of the epistle and the Christian life.

Finally, Paul is obviously making each one of us responsible for how we use language. To the extent that we would use a word in private that we would not use in public, we bear responsibility. There ought to be standards for public speech in the Christian community, and I understand that Christians will differ on what those standards ought to be. I was ridiculed for suggesting that it is not incongruent with public Christian speech to have a PG-13 rule in an internet tavern. This is decision where Christians would differ, and as Romans 14 says, we each will stand before God to give an account.

Jesus said that words would be part of the subject of judgment. The Pharisees’ use of words were part of the why Jesus condemned them. Jesus used specific words as examples of wrongful use of language. James, the Lord’s brother, has serious teaching on the use of language (the tongue) for all Christians.

There is no way to make Paul’s teaching to say less than what it says. To the extent that the world, or the church, hears what we say, our language must be appropriate. A verbal libertine is as bad as any other libertine.

At the same time, I do not believe Paul’s words were meant to produce people who recoil in offense at common vernacular or the normal language of informal conversation among friends. I do believe that when a word of thanksgiving, upbuilding and grace is called for, the Christian should know what to say, and what to never say.


  1. Michael, thank you for taking the time to address your thoughts on these verses. Even though I’m not completely convinced of your conclusions, at least you took the time to spell it out, and I do appreciate that. I, personally, would have preferred to see this as the first article in the whole discussion, rather than the third or fourth, or whatever it is. But that’s just me.

  2. I don’t want to go down the road of Internet Monk having to be a blog where a detailed exposition is put up in front of every opinion. I appreciate that many of my readers would probably like to hear more Bible teaching, but I just don’t feel like being a an “internet expositor” is my vocation. But trust me, the Bible is the main thing for me, and if I didn’t believe I was living out the meaning of the scriptures, I wouldn’t write anything I write.

  3. That’s why I concluded with “…that’s just me.” You can structure your blog anyway you see fit. That’s your choice. I just think it weakens the argument to put forth hypothetical research (in the other post where you suggest an impractical — for most of us — research experiment, and then state your expected conclusions as evidence for your point), or to paint extreme positions (which are basically straw men, in my opinion) of a topic, or to use joking references to Luther, etc., and not even discuss the topic in depth from a biblical standpoint until it’s brought up by others repeatedly.

    For the record, it’s not that I “want to hear more Bible teaching”. It’s just that I don’t always see the correlation between biblical teaching and what you put forth as facts the way you see them. I’m not nearly as interested in what you think Luther would do, or what you think 200 people would say about Osteen because those ideas are all hypothetical.

    You’re always entitled to your opinion, and obviously, I have the freedom to not read. But I do find your writing thought-provoking, which is why I continue to read. Unfortunately for you, I guess, the thoughts that get provoked are usually of the sort of “How did he get from point A to point C?” 😉

    At any rate, Michael, have a Merry Christmas!

    steve 🙂

  4. I appreciate the comments, Steve. Good Christmas to you as well.

    >not even discuss the topic in depth from a biblical standpoint until it’s brought up by others repeatedly.

    One of the experiences I’ve had in my life that has shaped me as a writer and communicator is being provoked by what someone says, and then taking my Bible home and studying till I get some sense of what I believe.

    We had a pretty good go at it at a TR blog recently about the idea that bloggers are “shepherds” to their “flocks.” I completely reject that notion. If a blogger wants to present himself as Bible teacher, pope, pastor, etc. that’s fine, but its not me. I say this is “Pirate Radio for the Thinking Christian” and I mean it. I am agent provocateur in the evangelical blogosphere.

    I think my job is to think out loud, follow hunches, give the subjective response, follow the feeling to its source, find the unheard voice, etc.

    The people who have the most trouble with what I do 1) assume I am taking the role of an official reformed teacher. In all kindness, that’s insane. 2) have problems with satire and humor. I teach elements of literature, and I tell my students tht using any element runs a risk with those who don’t relate to that element. I have lots of people who see no humor in my writing, whereas the entire Luther pouring beer on a prissy pastor is nothing more than a humourous exaggeration.

    When I do stop and go into the scriptures, it is usually because a specific text has become the crux of a discussion. I don’t consider myself to be a great exegete, though I know and use greek and I use scholarly tools. My main emphasis is on Biblical backgrounds and a right approach to the whole book/Bible.

    peace. MS

  5. The people who have the most trouble with what I do 1) assume I am taking the role of an official reformed teacher. In all kindness, that’s insane. 2) have problems with satire and humor.

    Ironically, I do not fit either of those categories. My problem is that I sometimes refer to general characteristics and it is often assumed I am referring to one particular instance.

    So, the misunderstanding goes both ways! 😉

    Thanks for the civil discussion. It brightened up this lazy day off before the final Christmas production tonight!!

    steve 🙂

  6. Mike,

    What is your position on the use of foul language by Christians? Do you believe it is harmful to their testimony?

  7. I don’t know what exactly you mean by foul. There is a lot of disagreement on what constitutes offensive language. The Bible uses many examples of foul language such as Paul’s use of “skebola” in Philippians.

    But if there is general agreement on what language is offensive, then a Christians use of that language in some situations would be offensive, and possibly detrimental to his/her “testimony.” It depends on all kinds of factors. It isn’t a simple thing.

    A “testimony” is about Jesus Christ, not about what a good person I am. My tetimony is that I am not a good person, but I have a great savior.

    But, for example, I would never use bad language with my students or co-workers, if I could possibly avoid it.

  8. Thanks for the response, Mike. After I became a Christian, I resolved to avoid cuss words (we all know what they are) as well as taking the Lord’s name in vain. Having grown up in a rather typical Catholic household in which profanity flowed generously, especially from my father, I am well-acquainted with the kind of language that would make a sailor blush. As a general rule, I just avoid all the words my dad used when he got made about something. 🙂 So far it’s worked pretty well.

  9. Two verses – two contexts
    Pulling out my trusty on-line study tools I looked up each verse along with the 3-4 verses on either side. The immediate thing that hit me was that there are two different contexts here and these contexts define the words under discussion.

    Eph 4:29 talks about edifying the body. Sometimes to edify the body you might have to look the men’s group in their metaphorical eye and say “God is not interested in half-hearted, half-assed attempts at playing church” or even the more blunt “Do you folks even give a damn about the bible?” (That one I said to the High School Sunday School class on fine morning.) They are “coarse” words but like dung sometimes they happen.

    Eph 5:4 is in the context of moral living. The coarse jesting and filthy talk that is spoken against is referring to dirty jokes and speech that is sexual in nature but out of context. Years ago a co-worker and I had a conversation about how to have good marriages. He said, “now this might be a little crude, but sometimes you just need to tell your wife she has a great ass.” I blinked and laughed and agreed. However, if I was to go to his wife and say “you have a great ass” I would rightly get my teeth slapped right out of my head. First by her, then by him and then by my wife! There are things I will say to my wife in our marriage bed that I would NEVER say in front of anyone else. Not because the words are bad but because to use the words in public would devalue my wife. Words spoken in passion to your wife that bring life and joy in one context would bring embarrassment and pain in another context and would run afoul of the scriptural admonition that God (not Paul) gave us in Eph 5:4

    I think it is good to note that, depending on your view of the inspiration of scripture, it wasn’t Paul who wrote about dung or asking his opponents to castrate themselves, it was God. It was God who said our “righteousness is like menstrual rags”. Was God wrong to “cuss” or use coarse language? No, because His use fulfilled Eph 4:29. He had to make it clear what He thought of certain behaviors by using language that was fitting for the occasion. Even the Song of Solomon doesn’t violate Eph 5:4 because a) He drops a cloak of metaphor of some of the more juicy parts and b) He knew that there would be those in later times that would call God’s gift of sex dirty. Therefore, He had to insert a passionate love poem into His Word.

    The last several discussions have covered a lot of ground from do we let the “nannies” dictate church life, to the emasculation of the church, to a Christian version of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven words you can’t say on TV.” I haven’t always agreed with everything said but I have spent a delightful couple of hours over the last week being forced to look at what I believe and decide what is culture and what is God.

    May the blessings brought by the babe in manager be with your and your family not just this day but every day.

  10. Brian Pendell says

    Question for Imonk:

    I note with interest your phrase

    “In these cases, it’s clear that the hyperbolic negative can be an invitation to right speech, or it can be a rigid standard. I believe it is an invitation to right speech”

    I have to ask:

    It seems to me that Jesus frequently uses the hyperbolic in his speeches, and it shows up
    elsewhere as well.

    Can the principle of hyperbolic negative ALSO be extended to OTHER other portions of scripture, such as “if your eye offends you pluck it out”?

    That when the author or speaker made this statement, he did NOT mean it literally but
    instead meant it as a hyperbolic call to right living?

    If this is so, then a follow-up: When do we know where to draw the line with this principle?
    How do we know when a commandment or statement is NOT intended as hyperbola but is instead
    meant as literal, rock-solid application, as certain as the law of gravity?

    And PLEASE don’t answer by saying “common sense”. In the first place, I have none.
    Common sense is often merely remembered tradition, and we saw how far that got the
    Pharisees. In any case, what is “common sense” to us 21st century Americans may not have
    been “common sense” at all to 1st-century Jews.

    Many thanks for any help you can give.


    Brian P.

  11. chrisstiles says

    I think the underlying problem with this issue (and many others) is that large part of the church has taken on board the middle class/petite bourgeouis lifestyle and then reinterpreted it as Christian morality. Some things are good, but not when we equate them to holiness.

    DawsonL you are right in what you say about the above passages – but that isn’t quite what Michael is talking about. Consider that if a new translation of the bible was to be published with those very words translated literally the moral guardians in the church would be up in arms regardless of the motivation.

  12. >When do we know where to draw the line with this principle?
    How do we know when a commandment or statement is NOT intended as hyperbola but is instead
    meant as literal, rock-solid application, as certain as the law of gravity?

    I am not sure what you are getting at.

    1) Hyperbole is everywhere in communication and you use “common” rules of interpretation to sort through them all the time. When someone says “I’m starving to death,” we all usually can decode that.
    2) Hyperbole comes in two forms: obvious and subtle.
    Cutting off your hand is obvious, unless one is a Muslim or Eric Rudolph’s brother 🙂
    “Let no crude comment be spoked” is subtle. I agree. That is what I said it was an invitation, and that means there are no rules.
    3) I don’t see the Bible or the teaching of Jesus as a new set of rules a la the Pharisees. So yes we do have to follow our conscience, examples of others, common sense reading of the Bible, evident Reason (Luther’s word.) That’s all quite normal.
    4) I happen to believe the “gauge out you eye” text is an invitation to not look at women as merelyu sexual objects. I don’t think it is a rule.

    sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

  13. Brian Pendell says

    “1) Hyperbole is everywhere in communication and you use “common” rules of interpretation to sort through them all the time. When someone says “I’m starving to death,” we all usually can decode that.”

    Well, yes … but what was obvious hyperbole to one person is literal to another.

    For example .. I’m a software engineer. I once had a manager tell me we were going to re-write a multi-thousand line project twice in two different languages in the space of six months. I laughed, because the idea is absurd, especially when you’re under a tight deadline. But he was NOT joking. He was absolutely serious. And it was done.

    In a world where pointy-haired bosses exist, treating someone’s word as less than literal can be disastrous.

    And that’s between two 21st century Americans in the same profession. When we’re talking a two-thousand year gap between two different cultures … it may be even greater.

    Lemme give you a concrete example … I read the
    Dec 27th entry on this web page


    Of a situation in Saudi Arabia where a man, as punishment for gouging out another man’s eye with a screwdriver, has been sentenced to have his own surgically removed. An eye literally for an eye.

    What I find interesting is the comments attached
    to the section .. this one on a portion of the Jewish which has the “eye for eye” command

    “The entire section of the Torah that has the ‘eye for an eye’ section deals with monetary compensation for physical damages. The opening of the section is: “And if men contend, and one smite the other with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keep his bed; if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.”

    So the loss to the attacking party isn’t their eye – it is the monetary value of the loss of whatever limb was lost. It is a system for calculating personal injury damages. That is the way the Talmud and Mishna long interpreted that clause and it makes sense with a careful and in context reading of the text ”

    In other words, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life” is not literal. It merely is a hyperbolic way of referring to financial compensation. Now, I would have thought from my reading that it WAS literal .. that a person WAS entitled to an “eye for an eye”, unless they were willing to accept some alternate form of compensation.

    Well, if true, one has to ask just how much of the Bible one SHOULD take literally, if any? The bit about “thou shalt not commit adultery”? Well, clearly that’s a bit of exaggeration … no one REALLY cares if that happens. The bit about no witchcraft? Well that’s really over-rated … and there are “Christian Wiccans” who will be glad to tell you that.

    See, here’s my issue: I am a literalist. I tend to take the Bible as written unless I have really serious cause to do otherwise. I am coming to the conclusion that this is not the best approach, because Jesus wasn’t always a very literal person when he was speaking.

    So, recognizing that this approach is inadequate, the next question is, how do we avoid the trap of writing off every bit of the Bible we find uncomfortable as “hyperbole” or “metaphor” or “out of historical context”?

    I do my best to base my life and my beliefs on the Bible. But if I’m not careful, I run the risk of making the Bible a thinly-veiled disguise for my own personal ideas gained who-knows-where. Accepting the bits I like and carefully excusing or airbrushing away the bits I don’t until my faith has little or nothing in common with Christianity as actually taught by Jesus.

    I guess that’s the issue I’m struggling with:

    Not wanting to be a literalist but afraid to get too serious about hyperbolic or metaphorical interpretations, for fear of going down the higher criticism route of making the Bible into a meaningless text from which I draw whatever meaning I want. Make sense?


    Brian P.

  14. I’d start by admitting that the Bible wasn’t written by western technological minds and their bias toward literalism, rationalism and modernism.

    Then I would get an intro to the Bible that takes seriously the fact that the Bible IS LITERATURE. Yes, that subject we all hated in school. Yes! We need to study literary elements and poetry, not physics, in order to get the Bible’s way of talking to us.

    Then read Leland Ryken’s little book, How to Read the Bible as Literature (or Study. I forget.)

    Then use scholars and commentaries by people who have studied the original languages in detail for their non-literal nuances. For their ways of using speech. Colluqialisms. Euphimisms. Idioms. Etc.

    Then realize that preachers with no knowledge of these things may be sincere when they say they are going to give you the “literal” meaning of the Bible, but chances are you are simply getting their modernistic, rational, western, American biases.

  15. Brian Pendell says

    Thanks much!


    Brian P.