An act of 1697-1698, commonly called the Blasphemy Act, enacts that: “if any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, should by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, deny any one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity to be God, or should assert or maintain that there are more gods than one, or should deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures to be of divine authority, he should, upon the first offence, be rendered incapable of holding any office or place of trust, and for the second incapable of bringing any action, of being guardian or executor, or of taking a legacy or deed of gift, and should suffer three years' imprisonment without bail.”
I suspect that this English Act is unlikely to be enforced in today's secular society. In modern English, the word blasphemy is almost invariably used to mean any statement which is disrespectful to the character of God or of sacred things. In the Bible the word is used in this sense but it is also applied to any speech which is slanderous or hurtful to another person. The Greek word blasphemia probably comes from two root words "blapto" = to injure and upheme" = speech. There is also a verb blasphemeo which means either to speak in a defamatory and derogatory way about God or to slander or speak nastily about someone.
The following two references are given in two translations to illustrate the use of the word blasphemia.
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. [ESV]
But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. (KJV)
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. [ESV]
For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: (KJV)
I have been a member of a "Brethren" church or "assembly" for fifty years and I have never heard another Christian utter "blasphemy" in the way that the Act of 1697-1698 described. Of course, I could not go through life without hearing non-Christians speaking irreverently and blasphemously about the person of Christ. Sadly, however, I have frequently heard malicious, nasty statements being made about other Christians. I have to admit that many times I have said things about other Christians which I should not have done. I have also been hurt when I have inadvertently heard remarks being made about people whom I love dearly. Similarly, I have found it hard to sleep at night when I have thought of something I said which was hurtful.
Our speech can cause offence so easily whether it is said directly to the person or more frequently about them to someone else. In his very blunt New Testament letter James describes the destructive capabilities of the small member of the body - the tongue.
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. [James 3:5-8]
In the Second World War there was a government slogan to warn people not to gossip in case they were overheard by "alien" spies. The slogan was "Careless talk costs lives!" This could be brought up to date for Christian churches in 2014 - "Careless talk offends other Christians!" Many a church has been wrecked by careless talk.
It is very difficult to take back what we have said once we have uttered the statement. The damage is done and sometimes even an apology will not erase the hurt or soothe the wounds. The advent of social media has increased the capacity of speech to be either constructive or destructive.
When I was serving the Lord a couple of years ago as part of a team, one team member, who was a retired teacher, gave us a short Bible talk on the subject of "encouragement." At the end of his talk he gave us a piece of "homework" and challenged us to speak a word of encouragement to at least one person before the end of the week. He made it clear that we needed to be genuine and sincere in our attempts to encourage others. People can often see through our pretence and they can perceive when we are being "plastic" in our praise.
And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthen the brothers with many words. Acts 15:32
Here, the tongue is an instrument of blessing and upbuilding instead of an instrument of evil and harm.
The book of Proverbs offers sound advice which is as relevant in our 21st century Western culture as it was when it was written. Here are two examples:
Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble. Proverbs 21:23.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Proverbs 25:11
In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he makes a long list of sins which he entitles the works of the flesh. The list includes several which are relevant to this topic: "enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions and envy" as the way these are communicated is often through our speech, although we can also harbour silent thoughts which are the product of the old nature and its deeds [See Galatians 5:19-21]. Conversely, we need to live a Spirit-filled life if we are going to triumph over the weakness of the human tongue which James describes as a wild uncontrollable animal [James 3:7-8].Too often, we seek by our own feeble efforts to guard our speech and its destructive tendencies and then feel downcast when we fail miserably as the old nature manifests itself in our malicious talk. It would be great if we displayed more of the fruit of the
Spirit in our lives.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. [Galatians 5:22-24]