During my childhood, the natural reaction of most parents who heard their children using bad language was to say, ‘Wash your mouth out!’
These days, if an adult has the temerity to complain to a parent about a child’s bad language, the likely outcome is a mouthful of bad language from the parent as well (from mothers as well as fathers)!
As Christian influence in society has declined, so permissiveness has prevailed and bad language, in all its forms, become commonplace.
It is ironic, therefore, that, even as society has tolerated increased swearing and obscenity in public speech, new forms of taboo in speech have arisen.
Now, particular words associated with racism and homophobia, for example, can give rise to storms of rebuke, complaint and vilification, and, in some cases, criminal charges.
Yet the BBC and other broadcasting channels quite happily commission and broadcast programmes that, in some cases, contain substantial quantities of swearing and obscene language, even though this offends Christians (and, indeed, many people of other faiths or no faith who still aspire to high standards of speech and behaviour).
But what rightly upsets Christians, more than anything else, is the endemic casual use of their Saviour’s name as an oath in drama programmes, current affairs programmes and so-called comedy programmes. Even sports programmes are not immune.
‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’, used separately or together, are very often heard as oaths in the media, and much less often as terms of reverence for the eternal Son of God who gave himself to take away the sin of the world.
How did we get to this? After several centuries during which blasphemy against Christianity was a matter of canon law, the seventeenth century governing authorities decreed that blasphemy should be an offence under common law.
Then, as liberal democracy evolved, there were increasing notions of the rights of freedom of speech and, during the twentieth century, fewer prosecutions for blasphemy.
Finally, the Human Rights Act 1998 made it almost impossible to prosecute for this crime in a multi-cultural society, and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 paved the way for the omission of the specific law of blaspheming Christianity from the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
This demotion of Christianity from a special and valued place in British society has been overseen by an increasingly liberal, often atheistic, political establishment.
How should Christians react to this? We need to understand that profane speech is just one symptom of the underlying disease of sin, in the hearts of us all. And this can only be remedied by the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
If, therefore, we claim Jesus as Saviour, we should be scrupulous about our own speech, especially those words which could lead to accusations of us taking the Lord’s name in vain. Our speech is part of our witness to the saving power of Christ in our lives.
‘Similarly encourage the young men to be self controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us’ (Titus 2:6-8).
We should also pray for those who misuse the name of God that the Lord would convict them about this sin, and bring them to the place where they yield their lives to Jesus, whose name is above every other name.
Edited, with permission, from the Congregational Concern Magazine (Issue 212, Summer 2014) of the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches.