As Christians, our words do indeed matter. If you have not yet read some of Dr. Kruger’s articles that I posted last week (click here), I encourage you to read a couple this week. “Christianese” is a product of the American evangelical Christian subculture, and the overwhelming majority of Christianese (80-90% or more???) is unbiblical. Many professing Christians claim to be “people of the Book,” yet they are anything but that with their words. How often are you and I guilty of the same?
I am not a fan of all things Christianity Today, but the following article by Megan Hill offers excellent insight into this topic: “It’s OK to Talk Like a Christian”.
Though there are many causes for the widespread (ab)use of Christianese, I believe the predominant cause begins in childhood. Children learn language and vocabulary by listening. Before the age of five, they are praised for parroting (most of, but not all!) the words they hear from others. Children know what to say in order to receive praise from adults. It is a skill they acquire very early in their lives.
Likewise, from church nursery right through elementary Sunday school (and very often even through youth or college group), younger church attenders are praised for parroting the words they hear at church. Parroting the words of other Christians or older Christians is reflexively praised in Christian circles, whether or not any actual understanding is behind the words. Consequently, Christianese (or frequent use of Christian words and phrases) becomes a plagiarized proof of faith as children grow into adulthood. This is not wrong, per se. It is simply part of growing into adulthood.
Sadly, however, this is not recognized or corrected by most. Rather than being seen as a developmental stage of faith (and life) and as something that should disappear with age and maturity, parroting has become a pattern of living in far too many churches. Admittedly, this problem has occurred in all generations of the church. The Christianese problem in today’s churches is by no means unique. Different generations with different versions of Christianese come and go, but the effects of Christianese are felt in all generations because too few understand its real danger. “This is what Christians are supposed to say, right? It’s close enough to what the Bible says, right?” Wrong!
Now that might sound harsh, but consider just one example from Scripture:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” ~ Gen. 3:1-3 (my emphasis added)
To be fair, when Eve added to what God said, she was not yet capable of sin (because she had not yet eaten the forbidden fruit) so she did not sin by what she said. Nevertheless, her addition to God’s actual words (cf. Gen. 2:16-17) revealed a troubling tendency in mankind that would proliferate after the fall – wrongfully and sinfully relying on man’s words rather than God’s words. Paul actually addressed this very tendency (and the resulting pattern of sin) in his opening remarks to the Church in Rome:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. ~ Rom. 3:21-25 (my emphasis added)
With regard to the topic at hand – our words as Christians – these truths still apply. Tampering with God’s words, his revelation of himself, is no light matter! Trying to make God’s words more understandable for children or new believers (again, not wrong per se) does not truly help them. It is far better for all people, us included, to struggle to understand God’s words than it is to dumb them down. Whenever someone does the latter, that person always risks compromising, discarding, or exchanging the truth of God for a lie.
Now, does this mean that we should only and always use the Bible’s exact words? Of course not! We can, and indeed must, use our own words sometimes (or even much of the time), but when doing so, we must be ever-vigilant to know and to hold fast to God’s words, not our own, as the ultimate standard of truth. God foreordained and spoke the exact words he wanted us to hear and to read in Scripture. Allowing interpretative restatements of Scripture to become the primary language of our faith should never be standard procedure in the church.
Regrettably, this has become the norm in too many churches. The goal of much evangelism, and overwhelmingly so with young children, is for people to ask Jesus into their hearts, rather to than repent of their sin and to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The majestic beauty and complexity of God’s sovereign providence has been reduced to “It’s a God thing.” The assurance of God’s fulfilled promise to dwell with his people (i.e., the Holy Spirit living in and among all true believers) has been replaced by an emotional quest to “feel God’s presence.” True freedom in Christ – which allows Christians to make thoughtful, wise, and biblically-based choices based on the information at hand, all the while knowing and trusting that his will shall be done (not our own) through our decisions – has been exchanged for the psychological bondage of “being led” or “feeling called.” The incomparable privilege of approaching the living God’s throne of grace in prayer has been demoted to a prosaic pat-on-the-back, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” And this long paragraph only begins to scratch the surface of the damage done by Christianese…
Is it any wonder that children in the church, after hearing so much “Christian” language in churches but never reading it in the Bible, do not know what to believe? Is it any wonder that the Christianese of the 1980’s and 90’s (my childhood) is altogether absurd to the ears of today’s youth? Should we really be surprised that most kids who “gave their lives to Christ” (whatever that means…) at every summer youth retreat never exhibited fruit in keeping with repentance? Should we be surprised that the people who did that exact thing 20, 30, or 40 years ago have completely abandoned the church today?
Perhaps I am too comfortable casting stones on this topic, which frightens me a great deal – “Judge not, lest you be judged.” In Christianese, the first part is retained and oft-quoted, but the second part is just as important. Whatever standard I apply in judging others will, in turn, be applied to me. What words, phrases, and “Christian” cliches am I guilty of using? With my children, where have I abandoned biblical, Christlike virtues in favor of cultural morality? With you at CPC, what portions of God’s word have I compromised so that I can please people by proclaiming “my version of the truth”? As a follower of Christ, as a father, and as a pastor, my words matter, and I will be held accountable for them. So do yours, and so will you.
So may God graciously grant all of us the knowledge, faith, and words we need so we might better tell others of his glory!