When I read the May report of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s decades-long complicity in covering up sexual abuse, along with patterns of intimidation and retaliation against survivors and whistleblowers, I heard myself say, “Oh my God.”
That might have been the first time I’d said that, precisely due to my Baptist upbringing. My grandmother, a pastor’s widow, would wash my mouth out with soap if I said anything like “Good Lord!” or “I swear!” She would point to number three on her framed Ten Commandments, hanging on her wall just as they were in my Sunday school classroom: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
This led to a kind of Jesuitical lingo of a Southern Baptist sort—in which “Jiminy Cricket!” or “John Brown it!” was not “cussing” but the words they replaced would be.
When I once called my brother a “fool,” I received my grandmother’s rebuke. Jesus said, she reminded me, that anyone who called his brother “fool” was in danger of hellfire. I called him “idiot” instead; that was allowed.
I loved Jesus and didn’t want to say anything that might offend him, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the King of the cosmos was so limited as to only hear the words one could find in the concordance to the King James Bible.
This question isn’t as bygone as we might think. I recently heard of a debate among 14-year-olds as to whether texting “OMG” breaks the third commandment or if it just means “Wow.”
The third commandment does, of course, address speech and oaths. And casually invoking God’s name for emphasis indeed trivializes what the Bible reveals to be holy. But there’s more than one way to misuse the name of God, more than one way to take his name in vain, and some of those ways are far more dangerous than just “swearing.”
“To speak the Lord’s name, unless instructed to do so, is to wrap yourself in the divine mantle, to summon God in support of your own purposes,” Leon Kass writes in his commentary on Exodus. “In the guise of beseeching the Lord in His majesty and grace, one behaves as if one were His lord and master. One behaves, in other words, like Pharaoh.”
To usurp the authority of God as a means to an end—even a good one—is, the Bible tells us, a pagan act. Much of the Old Testament is a rebuke to the “prophets” who speak where God has not spoken, especially to prop up the power of some political or religious institution. God also condemns as “vain” those who would come before him to worship while their “hands are full of blood” from acting unjustly toward vulnerable women and children (Isa. 1:12–17, ESV).
Sexual abuse, in any context and by any institution, is a grave atrocity. It’s worse when this horror is committed—or covered up—by leveraging personal or institutional trust. But using the very name of Jesus to carry out such wickedness against those he loves and values is a special evil. When sexual abuse happens within a church, violence is added to violence—sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Predators know this power is great, which is why they weaponize even the most beautiful concepts—grace or forgiveness or Matthew 18 or the life of David.
It’s also why institutions seeking to protect themselves will take on the name of Jesus to say that victims, survivors, or whistleblowers are compromising “the mission” or creating “disunity in the body” when they point out horrors.