Words are not just names. If they were, we’d have no problem swapping out one label for another. No, words are things. Yes, they are man-made things, concatenations of syllables created by human cultures, and their particular meanings have been shaped through convention and association. But they are things that have meaning in themselves, and that transmit meaning. Meaning is at the heart of worship and obedience.
When the thing in question distorts meaning, it becomes a very dangerous thing. A road-sign that points left when it should point right is a dangerous thing. A box of rat-poison labelled as jelly-beans is a dangerous thing. When words are used badly or wrongly, it is not simply a matter of some grammar that needs polishing. Mangled words are more like a loose nut in an airplane engine, like a stray flu-germ on the chef’s hands. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Words are the stock and trade of pastors. Pastors should care more than the average man about the meaning of words, both denotative and connotative. They should oppose the wrong use of words, as the apostles did when false teachers distorted the words “liberty” (2 Peter 2:19), “grace” (Jude 1:4) and “people of God” (Phil 3:1-3).
To be careless about words is to fail to see their importance. It is, in some cases, choosing nominalism over realism. Nominalism denies ultimate realities or fixed meanings, and sees names as just convenient labels we use to impose meanings. Realism believes God’s reality is in itself meaningful and that meaning is more or less discoverable. In God’s case, naming even preceded creating: God spoke, naming the creation, and it came to be. Meaning preceded matter. Meaning or naming preceded the existence of the thing; the name was not a mere interpretation or label after the fact. He then gave man the privilege of assigning further names to creation. In other words, man was a sub-creator with God. By naming, Adam shared the prerogative of perceiving a thing’s reality through words. There is a true correspondence, between naming and nature.
The meanings of the words tolerance, freedom, authority, authentic, relevant, culture, equality, emotion, taste, and hate are not arbitrary and purely subjective. Nor are they unimportant. These words are currently the words at the very centre of our culture, and are at the root of disputes about worship, ministry, missions, social justice, morality, economics and Christian living. To get the wrong meaning about these words will likely be to court failure or disaster in ministry. Church leaders cannot afford to live with the mangled form of these words.
Is this being “obsessed with disputes and arguments over words” (1 Tim. 6:4)? I trust not. Clarifying the correct meaning of these words is the effort of those whose primary tool is the written and spoken word. We refuse to allow these words to fall into enemy hands. As Luther said, “If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
May we earnestly contend for the true meaning of these ten words.