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Human beings are social creatures. We need to belong. One of the most obvious ways we do that is by the way we speak. Whenever we speak, in all sorts of small ways, we’re signalling to others how and where we belong. Often our nationality, our social class (or our aspirations!), our particular generation, our allegiances, influences, and personalities are all revealed when we speak. This is entirely natural; usually we don’t realise it’s happening. As small children, we’re hardwired to learn language by imitating parents and other family members and listening for their responses. As we grow, we pick up accents and mannerisms from all sorts of people we care about, so that we can communicate with them and show we belong. Teenagers do it all the time with their language. Adults do too.
A while back, I moved from Australia to England to study theology at a university. My course involved attending a weekly seminar where students were encouraged to ask questions. I had a go at asking questions, and I soon realised something. Whenever I opened my mouth, for the first few seconds, the people in the room (who were mostly British) weren’t listening to my question. They heard my ocker Aussie accent; and subconsciously, their brains were running through their stereotypes: “This is strange; this person doesn’t belong here; he belongs at the beach or drinking beer or starring in Home and Away…” That is, until their conscious minds kicked in and they started listening to my question (or at least politely humouring my ignorance). So what did I do? I wanted to belong, so I toned it down a bit. My accent changed subtly. I didn’t realise how much it had changed until I came back to Australia and everyone told me I sounded a bit weird and posh. In fact, my dear sister (who trained as a voice coach at NIDA) informed me that I had come back with “neutral vowels”. Amazing!
As believers in Christ, we use our speech to show that we fit in and adapt to the way others speak. Often, we do it for very good reasons. We want to connect with people so we can share the great news of salvation through Christ. We don’t want to alienate them unnecessarily with weird expressions. We don’t want them to think we’re weird either, because we want them to hear what we have to say. So we adapt our speech to the way everyone around us speaks. But of course, our motivations are often more complex than that, aren’t they? Sometimes, even unconsciously, we’re motivated by fear rather than by love. We’re afraid of what other people think of us; we’re afraid we might sound a bit weird. And sometimes, that leads us, without even thinking about it, to speak in ways that are wrong.
That’s why it’s important for us to hear what Paul has to say in these verses. He’s talking here about certain kinds of speech (and this applies to online communication too). In this area, Paul is saying that those who believe in Christ must not adapt our speech to the people around us. In fact, this is an aspect of life where it’s important for us to sound a bit weird.
But sexual immorality and every kind of impurity or greed should not even be named among you, as is fitting for holy people: so no filth, and no stupid talk or witty innuendo, which are out of line, but rather thanksgiving.Ephesians 5:3–4
Verse 3 begins: “But sexual immorality and every kind of impurity or greed should not even be named among you”. To get the idea across here, I’ve created a new English word from some of Paul’s original words: pornolalia. I know it’s not very catchy, but it describes what Paul’s talking about here. You know the English word pornography: this means images of an inappropriately sexual nature (in previous centuries it used to mean writing of an inappropriately sexual nature). We must run away from pornography (see 1 Corinthians 6:18). But here, Paul is talking about speech of an inappropriately sexual nature: pornolalia (lalia means speech). The original word for “sexual immorality” (porneia), especially in a Jewish setting, means sexual activity that goes beyond the good boundaries that God has put around it, i.e. marriage as the Bible describes it. And here Paul isn’t just ruling out sexually immoral activity (porneia). He’s not even just ruling out sexually immoral images (pornography). It’s even stronger. He’s even ruling out pornolalia. He’s saying: don’t even talk about it. Don’t name it. As Christians, what we say and how we say it matters deeply. And there are things we just shouldn’t say.
Why does our speech matter? Because of who we are: believers in Christ are “holy” (see Ephesians 1:1). That means we need to be speaking in a way that is “fitting” for holy people. God himself is holy: excellent, supreme, distinct from all that he has made. When God saved us and loved us, he called us, too, to be holy (see Ephesians 1:4). God has chosen us to belong to him, to be set apart for his service, to live for him, to be pure and to live right lives. And this holiness must be reflected in our speech as well as in the way we live: sexual immorality shouldn’t be on our lips. We should use our speech to show who we belong to: God. Now of course, in some contexts there might be good reasons to appropriately mention or describe something about sexual immorality, in order to help people to deal with its consequences or avoid it. After all, Paul himself has just mentioned sexual immorality in these verses, hasn’t he? Paul can’t be telling us never to use the word. His point, though, is that we shouldn’t talk about sexual immorality casually, for the sake of it, as a topic of conversation. We are called to be holy. There are lines we shouldn’t cross. And talking about sexual immorality, just for the sake of it, is one of them.
But it’s not just sexual immorality, is it? Paul also mentions “every kind of impurity or greed”. Uncontrolled desire goes beyond the bounds of sex to all sorts of other areas of our lives. I remember a trend on social media to use the word “porn” to refer to all sorts of things beyond sex. Someone would share an attractive or enticing image of food, or property, or alcohol, or coffee, or cars, etc., to show how desirable it is and to get others to join with them in feeling that desire. And they’d tag it “food porn” or “car porn” or “coffee porn”. It was kind of a joke. But it’s wasn’t entirely a joke. Because it was about pushing the bounds of desire. That is, it wasn’t just about rightly appreciating something good in the world; it was moving into the area of sharing and encouraging greed and uncontrolled desire. And this is the kind of thing that Paul is ruling out here. We shouldn’t speak to encourage people along in their greed and uncontrolled desire in any way. Our mouths are intimately tied to our hearts. Jesus himself said: “What goes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this is what defiles a person” (Matthew 15:18 ESV).
Paul then goes on to make it even clearer: “so no filth, and no stupid talk or witty innuendo, which are out of line”. “Filth” is gutter-talk: language that goes into detail about sex just for the sake of it. “Stupid talk” and “witty innuendo” are about using sex for a laugh: in Paul’s day, “stupid talk” was the low-class version used by the poor and uneducated masses, and “witty innuendo” was the high-class version used by clever, rich people. But God isn’t class-conscious, is he? Both are ruled out. It doesn’t matter how clever or witty you are, don’t talk filth. Of course, very little has changed since Paul wrote his letter. This is the stuff that forms the bread and butter of so much comedy today, isn’t it? It’s the cheapest way to get a laugh, and it sells. It’s the stuff that pervades so many movies, and music, and huge swathes of social media. Paul is talking here about a very common way that the world speaks. And he’s saying that it’s not fitting for God’s holy people.
We should be holy in our talk. But won’t that make us sound a bit weird? Surely, if we do that, we’ll be scoffed at for sounding like Victorian-era prudes, won’t we? Yes, probably. This is how pious Jews must have sounded in the sexually saturated Roman Empire that Paul is writing to, and they were constantly scoffed at. Are you afraid of that? Are you afraid of sounding uncool? Are you afraid of not fitting in? Because that’s a large part of Paul’s point here. Being holy is about not fitting in with the world. It’s about fitting in with God, to whom we belong. And it means wearing the uniform of specialness, separate from what’s impure. God calls us to clean living, and so he calls us to clean speaking. That’s what it means to be holy here. There’s no getting around it.
So if there are certain kinds of speech that are ruled out for God’s holy people, what’s the alternative? Should we make up clean Christian swear words instead: “Golly gee”? “Shucks?” No, the alternative is something far more powerful. Paul calls it “thanksgiving”. Thanksgiving is a grace word. Thanksgiving is what you do when you’ve been given a great gift: you return “thanks” to the giver. It’s literally “saying grace”. And it’s the kind of speech that God’s dearly loved children are always to have on our lips. As God’s forgiven and holy people, we don’t need to spend our lives speaking the filth and the foolishness and innuendo of the world. We have something far more affirming and transforming to say: thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving isn’t just being vaguely thankful to the universe for our existence. It’s about being thankful to the God who loved us and saved us and brought us from death to life. It’s about being thankful for this gift of salvation, and it’s about being thankful for all the gifts that God has richly provided us with in this world. Christian speech is to be saturated with thanksgiving; it’s to be pervaded with thankfulness for God’s great gift and his goodness to us in Christ, and the life we’ve been given. And this applies to online interactions too, doesn’t it? It’s a good habit to develop. When you find yourself about to talk (or type) in a way that promotes impure sex or lust or greed, or a way that casually uses these things for a laugh, think of something to be thankful for instead. It can be something big, or something small. You can use sentences that start with “I’m glad…”, or “I’m thankful…” or “Thank God…” or “It’s so good…” or anything else that expresses thankfulness for something. It might take a while to develop the habit. But it’s a very powerful habit to get into. And it’s vitally important for God’s holy people to speak this way, rather than just fit in with the world.
So in this area of our speech, we need to be different from those around us. We naturally want to fit in with those around us, but here we need to fit in with God’s holy calling instead. Does that mean our ability to share Jesus with people will be compromised because we won’t fit in? Not at all. In fact, being different and holy in this area is part of our task to act as “light” towards the world for the sake of Christ (see Ephesians 5:13–14). There are plenty of other ways that we can and should adapt ourselves to reach others. But to reach people, we don’t always need to be the same as them. In this area, to reach people, we need to be different. Thanksgiving, not filth. This is our holy talk.
In what situations are you tempted to talk about sexual immorality or greed in order to fit in with what others are saying?
In that situation, how can you practice thankfulness instead?
 Christopher Ash summarises the biblical understanding of marriage this way: “Marriage is the voluntary sexual and public social union of one man and one woman from different families. This union is patterned upon the union of God with his people his bride, the Christ with his church. Intrinsic to this union is God’s calling to lifelong exclusive sexual faithfulness.” Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Inter-Varsity, 2003), p. 211.
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This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.