The issue of whether Christians should watch movies that have profanity (alternately “cursing,” “swearing,” “foul language,” etc.) comes to the surface from time to time when a movie or show reaches mainstream popularity. The latest Avengers superhero movie is the most recent to bring the question back into the spotlight, and so I decided to share my study of the issue in this article.

I’ve gone back and forth on the issue over the years myself, and I have to say this has been one of the most difficult articles I can remember writing. I’m still not entirely convinced about the conclusion I reached, but to the best of my knowledge right now I believe it’s the correct one.

What makes it so difficult? There is a level of ambiguity here that makes this discussion challenging. Some might say there actually isn’t any ambiguity and there’s no room for disagreement, but I believe they’d be hard pressed to come up with clearly defined, widely agreed upon answers to these two difficulties.

First, the Bible doesn’t address the issue as much as we might think.

Going into this I wanted a non-negotiable, “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” verse, but the deeper you dig the more you see that there is neither a biblical definition for what all should be considered profane language nor a verse that outlines what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to hearing and speaking such words. Of course, there is Exodus 20:7 (“You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain”), and there are plenty of verses focused on our speech, but as far as a clear boundary or definition of foul language, we’re left to make arguments form less clear verses like Ephesians 4:29.

Ephesians 4:29 is often the first verse referenced to make a case against cursing, and it might be tangentially applicable, but in its direct context that’s not really what Paul is addressing. In context the word is immediately contrasted in the second half of the verse with that which “may impart grace to the hearers.” Paired with the three verses that follow, the thrust of the passage is far more concerned with rooting out language that hurts others and tears them down and replacing it with grace-giving speech.

Just down the page a bit we come to Ephesians 5:4, another prominently used Scripture on the matter. There we see filthiness, silly talk, and coarse jesting (NASB) condemned. BDAG defines filthiness as “behavior that flouts social and moral standards, shamefulness, obscenity.”[1] Silly talk is “that type of speech which betrays a person as foolish,”[2] similar to what Paul warned Timothy against in 2 Timothy 2:23. Coarse jesting is precisely what it sounds like – crude, vulgar humor and turns of phrase. Of these only the first could be connected to foul language, and even then only loosely as it’s a broad idea.

To add to the confusion, some biblical language scholars make the case that a few inspired authors used language that we might find uncomfortable and that would have been considered profane or vulgar in their cultures, most notably the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:8. (Here are links to the technical arguments for and against.) If they’re right (and I’m not necessarily convinced they are), then it could be said that such words even had value in cases where extreme emphasis was needed.

And, to add even more to the confusion, there is even less to be found on the concept of hearing foul language (and there is a difference, as verses about considering those who hear our speech aren’t necessarily applicable to a discussion of what we hear.) We’re certainly warned about the company we keep (Psalm 1:1, 1 Corinthians 15:33, among many others), but to make a hard-and-fast rule about whether we’re allowed to hear profanity, or in which contexts it’s acceptable to hear some and in which ones it isn’t (say, workplace vs. movies), or how much we’re allowed to hear before the line has been crossed would require reading our own convictions into the text.

Second, our definitions vary from person to person.

  • How much is too much? Some Christians are comfortable watching movies with a pretty noticeable amount of language. Others are comfortable seeing those that have smaller amounts. Still others are comfortable with options that contain “soft cussing” where the milder, euphemistic forms are used. And, there are those who won’t watch movies or shows with any language whatsoever. Who’s right? How much is too much? When is the line crossed?
  • In which contexts is it acceptable to hear foul language? It’s nearly inescapable in our time, from the workplace to the store to the stadium to the theater and (perhaps especially) to the internet. Sometimes we have full control over the situation and can leave or put it to a stop, and sometimes we don’t. In some cases we have an opportunity to evangelize the person using the language, perhaps giving more of a reason to endure it. In others we won’t.
  • What is the complete list of words that shouldn’t be heard? What is foul language? Growing up certain words were forbidden in my household. It came as a shock to hear some of my church friends freely say such words without thinking twice. At the same time there were words that I used frequently that they had been taught not to say. While there are some obvious words that would make just about everyone’s list, the overall standard varies from home to home and person to person, making it hard to create a universal law.

And, it should be noted our definitions vary precisely because there isn’t a direct biblical explanation of the matter. If we don’t have a consensus on what is a curse word and what isn’t, and we don’t have a consensus on how much a Christian can hear or when and where they can hear it, it becomes an arbitrary task to then try to create a law that applies to all Christians. Aside from being arbitrary, the law is also one that would need to sort out all kinds of complex details with unclear answers. Shouldn’t these issues give us pause before binding our personal conviction on someone else?

A brief caution to each end of the spectrum to close:

This isn’t to say that the issue is of no consequence and we’re totally free to do whatever we want with no thought toward our walk with God. We must never compartmentalize our Christianity. Christ is Lord over everything in the Christian’s life, and that includes our entertainment choices. That’s a point that should never be taken lightly. In all things we must aim our lives to please Him by being conformed to His image day by day. What that means on every specific detail in each of our lives can be hard to always say for certain, but the principle must not be forgotten.

On the other end of the spectrum, the human heart’s pull toward legalism must constantly be resisted. We want hard-and-fast rules when sometimes the issue isn’t that clear. Even in writing this I keep finding myself pulled to make the case that Christians shouldn’t watch movies at all. Why? Because I like clearly drawn lines, and when they aren’t there, I try to draw them myself. And that’s not alright.

We aim to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent. Sometimes the most challenging part of that is to actually let the Bible be silent. We can only go where the text leads us.Some issues really are matters of opinion in the Romans 14 sense, and that’s alright. Sometimes God leaves things to our individual consciences, and I believe that’s what He has done here.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Agree, disagree, or fall somewhere in the middle? Let us know in the comments.

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 29). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.