Cussing and Discussing Eph 5:3-4

There has been some discussion about cussing, and an appeal to Eph 5:3-4 has been made.

After attempting to summarize the types of cases put forth by his opponents, the author makes the following appeal:

But notice what Paul himself said about lewd and off-color language. He classifies it as impurity in Ephesians 5:3-6, where he treats indecent language as one of several worldly substitutes for love. The Greek term Paul uses is akatharsia, a word that refers to every kind of filth and pollution—”uncleanness” in the KJV. Paul is talking about real spiritual uncleanness, not ceremonial defilement, but moral filth.

And when he gives some specific examples of akatharsia in verse 4, all of them have to do with the misuse of language: “obscenity,” “foolish talk,” and “coarse jesting.” He is talking about the words we use, the things we talk about, and the spirit of our conversation. He covers all the bases.

The rest of the author’s post focuses on “filthiness . . . foolish talk . . . coarse jesting,” and how it is that contemporary pop culture reflects such things and that Christians should not. It advocates being “intentionally counter-cultural” amongst a culture that insists on such things as risqué wit and the like.

There is much that we can agree with from that article. However, there are some things that should be clarified and challenged. We should consider Eph 5:3-4 ourselves to determine if the above appeal is valid.

Ephesians 5:3-4

In Eph 5:3, akatharsia is listed after porneia. Sexual immorality and every moral corruption or greediness must not even be named among the believers, as it is fitting for saints. The next list, found in v. 4, isn’t clarifying akatharsia as has been suggested by some. The next list is actually an extension of the first list of things not be identified among the believers. So far, sexual immorality and general corrupted morality and greediness are not to be named among the believers. Additionally, neither is aischrotes, morologia, or eutrapelia.

Let’s break it down. The following items are not to be named among you: porneia, akatharsia, pleonexia, aischrotes, morologia, or eutrapelia. The first three are part A. Part A is not to be named among them. It is fitting for believers not to mention these things. The second three are part B. Part B does not belong, so they are not to be named among them. What belongs? Thanksgiving belongs and is fitting for believers.

Defining our Terms

Akatharsia = [BDAG] In general has to do with something that is not clean; figuratively it marks the moral corruption of someone or something. This word is used in connection with sexual sins, as it is in Eph 5:3. It is used earlier in Eph 4:19 to describe the Gentiles who had been given over to moral corruption. It’s a broad term and does not mean filthy language; it deals with one’s cleanliness, either literally (dirty) or figuratively (morally corrupt). [LSJ] In a moral sense, it means “depravity,” and it’s cognates describe that which is morally impure or that which contains impurities.

Aischrotes = [BDAG] Concerning behavior that flouts social and moral standards; it pertains to that which is socially or morally unacceptable. This word is the abstract form of the concrete cognate aischrologia. This cognate refers to speech that is generally considered to be of a poor quality or taste. The cognate could be rendered “obscene speech” while aischrotes would be “obscenity.” [LSJ] This word means “ugliness” in terms of one’s appearance, but in terms of behavior it means “filthy conduct.” It is used as a euphemism for fellatio (Scholia Aristophanes Ranae, 1308), so the word itself as well as its cognates have strong ties to sexual conduct.

Morologia = [BDAG] Foolish or silly talk. Its cognate moria is used generally for worldly wisdom. [LSJ] Silly talk. Its cognates refer to silly tales and simply speaking foolishly.

Eutrapelia = [BDAG] Literally, “good turn,” has to do with wittiness, but in Ephesians it is a bad sense along the lines of crude jokes. [LSJ] It typically means to have “ready wit” or “liveliness.” Only in Ephesians does it have a bad sense similar to the word bomolochia (coarse jesting, buffoonery, ribaldry). Its cognates refer to the ability to easily turn with an answer; jesting; tricky, dishonest.

Cursory Refutation

Against what some have stated, the ones from part B are not examples of akatharsia from part A. There is no support linguistically or contextually for substantiating the claim that aischrotes, morologia, and eutrapelia are examples of akatharsia. Furthermore, against what has also been suggested, aischrotes, morologia, and eutrapelia do not convey anything specific regarding the words we use or the spirit of the conversation. These words do, however, describe for us the things that are not to be named or identified among us, which is another way of saying what we are not to include amongst ourselves. In other words, along with sexual immorality, general moral corruption, and greediness, also not to be identified among the believers is aischrotes, morologia, and eutrapelia, because such things do not belong.

What Others Have Said

[Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians, 306-307] Porneia [and akatharsia] and pleonexia are not even to be named, not to mention performed, among the believers. In addition, neither is aischrotes, morologia, nor eutrapelia even to be named among them. Morologia has to do with language “that lacks wisdom or a godly perspective on life,” while eutrapelia in a negative context “refers to coarse humor, sexual innuendoes, or even dirty jokes.”

Note: Witherington does not make a connection between akatharsia and the latter three items in Eph 5:3-4. However, he completely passes over akatharsia in favor of discussing porneia and pleonexia; similarly, he only mentions aischrotes in passing and doesn’t say anything else except that it means “obscenity” and it is similar to aischrologia, a cognate that is found in the Colossian counterpart, 3:8.

[Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, 160-163] Aischrotes is taken completely independently from all that precedes and all that follows it. These six items are taken as shameful sins that are not even to be talked about never mind jested.

Note: Barclay does not make a connection between akatharsia and the latter three items in Eph 5:3-4. He doesn’t give a detailed explanation of each item, but rather he sums them up under a section regarding the seriousness of jesting that which ought not even be talked about.

[Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 191-193] Sex is no joking matter. Believers should not jest about it, but rather, they should show thanksgiving for it. As for aischrotes, morologia, and eutrapelia, all three refer to a dirty mind and dirty conversation.

[MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 311-312] Talking about such things as porneia, akatharsia, and pleonexia is the equivalent to encouraging them. Aischrotes, morologia, and eutrapelia are also equivalent towards encouraging improper behavior, and therefore they do not belong.

Note: MacDonald does not make a connection between akatharsia and the latter three items not to be named. However, she does not devote much conversation at all to akatharsia or the other three except to say that akatharsia is usually listed along with porneia in other vice lists from the Greco-Roman world and she defines each of the latter three, placing emphasis on eutrapelia as that which demonstrates one’s superiority over another through the display of wit.

[O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 359-361] In connection with porneia, akatharsia can refer to sexual impurity more broadly, but the way it is used here with pasa indicates it is even broader. But the presence of both of these vices would demonstrate the immoral state of the old life. Combined also with pleonexia, believers should not even mention or think about these things. Pleonexia can refer to greed, but in this context it likely indicates “that insatiable desire to have more, even the coveting of someone else’s body for selfish gratification.” The first three items in this list cover sexual immorality more broadly. The second three concern speech that takes sexual sin lightly. In sum, these three terms regarding speech “refer to a dirty mind expressing itself in vulgar conversation.”

See also Hoehner, Ephesians, 651-657; Lincoln, Ephesians, 321-324; Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 560-562; Snodgrass, Ephesians, 268-269.

Of all these commentators, Hoehner is the only one who takes the items in Eph 5:3-4 in a more broad or general sense, so that they do not all refer to sex in one way or another. However, not even he makes the case that the latter three are examples for akatharsia in the first set. Furthermore, he never mentions that cussing is in view, but only general moral impurity. However, all of them agree that the six items here are things that are not to be involved in the lives of the believers, not even in thought or in deed.

Refutatio

Paul is not addressing lewd off-color language in the sense of cussing. Unless you take a view like Hoehner, in which he is alone compared to the other scholars in the field, you will have to concede that the language in question, that which is prohibited, is language that makes light of or does not take seriously sexuality and sexual sins. Specifically, what is being prohibited is not cussing in general but sexually crude jokes that exploit obscene sexual behavior to obtain a laugh. Such language might include a few choice swear words, but it would also include other crude language, topics, and themes. Furthermore, not a single commentator demonstrated a connection between akatharsia and the latter three vices listed in v. 4. The latter three don’t cover all the bases of words, subject, and spirit of the conversation either. They mark the subject primarily, but specific words themselves are not identified, nor is the spirit of the conversation. As a result, we must conclude that when Paul is talking about obscenity, silly talk, and coarse jesting, he is not providing examples of “every impurity,” but he is using multiple terms to prohibit any form of communication that would cause one to mention and therefore think about and dwell on sexual sin. Ephesians 5:3-4 has nothing to do with cussing per se, but it might include it if the cussing were part of the language that takes sexual immorality lightly.

Conclusion

The appeal at the top of the page is certainly not valid. Paul is not concerned with cussing (lewd or colorful language). Rather, Paul is concerned with preventing Gentile believers from lapsing back into the old lifestyle that was originally marked by sexual immorality and all impurity along with insatiable greed. To prevent them from lapsing, he told them that they could not even talk or think about it. This prohibition also extended to obscene language, foolish talk, and coarse joking that took such things lightly, because they essentially promote such activities. The concern of the author who made the appeal is duly noted. We agree with such a concern. Holiness is an important matter. Having a godly effect on the culture is also important. But Eph 5:3-4 does not concern cussing. Therefore, if a case is to be made against cussing, it will have to be made elsewhere.

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