Blasphemy and the Church
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”
If there is any commandment that is broken more consistently, habitually, historically, and egregiously by Christians than by non-Christians, it is the third commandment. That’s because taking God’s name in vain goes a lot farther than saying “Oh my God”. What God has in his sights is the abuse and misappropriation of his name, which tends to happen more when you use the name more. In fact, the higher up you go in professional piety or ecclesiastical authority, the more blasphemy you are going to encounter.
Think about what name abuse means. The reputation of a public figure is not compromised by Facebook trolls and media vultures, but it can be terribly assaulted by a close friend or family member. Likewise, the more we claim to know God, the closer relationship we represent with Him, the more danger we run of doing violence to His name. Or think about how we care about our own name. We do not so much take offense at being called “Stan” instead of “Steve”, or when someone calls for us when they didn’t really need us. What we care about is maintaining the integrity of our name. I am who I am, and thus my name should not be attached to things in which I have no part, regardless of whether those things are good or bad.
In the same way, Christians—and church leaders in particular—are guilty of far more flagrant and grotesque blasphemies than the avowed atheist or Buddhist guru, who stumble in the dark, attempting to describe something they themselves profess they cannot see. In some sense, the risk of blasphemy is an occupational hazard that pastors and leaders should face with humble determination. Deep discussions of doctrine are the most fertile grounds for heresy. Like medical professionals, leaders in the church can do much good, but also much harm. That doesn’t mean these vocations should always be avoided. Acknowledge the risks, ask for forgiveness, learn from your mistakes, and move forward.
My great concern in the church is that so many pastors and leaders are unaware there is a risk. More often than not, the scenes of the ugliest carnage play out not in the fields of doctrine, but in the field of philosophy of ministry. When it comes to the sin of blasphemy, of misappropriating God’s name, doctrine is not such a messy battle. Not because doctrine is less important, but precisely because it is more important. Doctrine is held up to the light. Doctrine is poked, prodded, and plainly debated, because it is “official church teaching”. Therefore opponents are better respected, or at least more fairly treated. It becomes clear in short order whether a pastor or teacher is relying on the Bible or not. From there, the rules of engagement are straightforward, and blasphemy is more overt.
The real danger comes when Pastor Steve or churchman Ron goes off on a retreat or into his prayer corner. Steve is enlightened; he’s had a vision. Ron is renewed; he’s heard from God. Then come the conversation-stoppers: a new ministry plan or new direction from God. These plans and directions may or may not be good in themselves. What is definitively not good is to give off the impression that these plans bear the seal of Divine authority and approval.
No one except a cult leader would ever say such a blasphemy directly, but the ugliness of the blasphemy comes precisely in its veiled packaging. It’s hard to put your finger on precisely why it’s so hard to question Steve or Ron’s decision. Yet any questioning, any dissent is painted as either a lack of faith in God, or a lack of understanding of His Word. This is why it is truly an unwitting blasphemy that is happening at these points. The speaker and the hearer are both unaware of what’s happening. What is happening is that God’s name, God’s authority, and God’s person is being twisted and misappropriated to give credence to something God has not attached himself to.
A good way to determine whether blasphemy is in play is to observe how objections to the plan are answered. Let’s say, for example, your church is debating whether to support a missionary to Algeria. However, when objections are raised, the head of the missions committee defends the proposal by citing the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20), or by saying: “I’ve given this a lot of thought and prayer, and I believe God could really use this initiative to grow His kingdom.” These would be utterly worthless, laughable arguments if it weren’t for the uneasy fear that rejecting this proposal is now tantamount to rejecting God.
Such feeble non-sequiturs usurp the appearance of spiritual authority, and that is what classifies them as blasphemy. Is the Great Commission a new revelation to those gathered there? Or perhaps nobody else had thought about praying, or wanted to build up God’s kingdom? The issues to be weighed are in fact those of vision, resources, and the specifics of the ministry, and it is on these terms the discussion should be carried out.
Church leaders and Christians in general must exercise caution and restraint. Present and offer debatable decisions of wisdom under your own name, not God’s.
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Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL.
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