Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bad Language

There is a natural evolution in language over the course of years. For instance, the Latin spoken in western Europe as a result of the expansion of the empire gradually (over centuries) morphed into the Romance languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian, and French). Language changes, words come and go, grammatical rules are redefined. Even our own American dialect of English can be shockingly different than various dialects spoken in our mother country. Ditto for the variations of French spoken in Canada and Louisiana when compared to that spoken in Europe.

Lingustic variation is natural, but there is also a danger. For example, the English word "suffer" today simply doesn't mean what it did in Elizabethan times (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). It no longer has the common connotation of having permission. Of course, if a person is unfamiliar with the older definition of the word, he may completely misunderstand our Blessed Lord's invitation: "Suffer the little children..." from the 1611 King James Version of the Bible (Matt 19:14) . When this evolution is gradual, meanings of older words can be taught, or new words can be employed. But when this evolution is forced or rushed, words that meant one thing in the past can now be interpreted as something entirely different. There is a danger of an accidental "bait and switch" by those who call the shots of language.

There is also a sinister lust in our sinful nature to seek the control of others. The easiest way to manipulate a population is to manipulate their collective thoughts. And the key to thought-control is language-control - as George Orwell's 1984 artistically and powerfully demonstrates. When words can be radically redefined, traditions that have become part and parcel of human society can be turned on their heads to the benefit of dictators and other tyrants.

In 1984, the Ministry of Truth was a government bureaucracy whose mission was to rewrite history and overlay truth with a lie (just as the Ministry of Peace's job was perpetual warfare). The people were bombarded with slogans and buzzwords designed to reprogram their traditional thinking, such as "war is peace," and "freedom is slavery." We have seen extreme examples in the United States of the highly politicized use of language and the policing of words as a means of re-education under the guise of "political correctness" (styled "Newspeak" by Orwell, not to mention by Pr. Christopher Hall).

Of course, government bureaucracies around the world continue to manipulate their populations with such linguistic gymnastics. But I'm also suspicious when church bodies and bureaucracies latch onto new and suddenly non-biblical and non-traditional language - usually appropriated from the worlds of commerce and technology. Perhaps there is a genuine need to coin new terms, or to expand the usage of existing nouns into verbs. Things do exist today that did not exist when the Scriptures were written. Even the Roman Catholic Church, which still clings to Latin for official correspondences, must routinely invent new words (neologisms) in Latin for things the imperial caesars and saints simply didn't have - especially in matters of technology and changing political structures.

However, some things never change - creedal things. One of the things we confess in both the Apostles and Nicene creeds is the Church (Greek: Έκκλησία, Latin: ecclesia). This is a word that means "assembly" (of believers). The English word "church" appears to be rooted in the Greek word "kurios" (Lord) as the church is the Lord's house.

What we confess in the creed is a thing called the "Church" - a noun. What the church is comprised of is "people" - also a noun. The people become part of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" by becoming believers, by being baptized and taught the faith. The Church's members are the "baptized," the "believers." Both of these words are based on verbs: "to baptize" and "to believe." A person (noun) becomes a baptized person, becomes a believer, as a result of their being baptized (passive participial form of the verb) and their believing (gerund form of the verb). As a result, they become members of the Church (noun).

However, I'm seeing quite a lot of uses of the word "churched" coming from Protestant sources, which has spilled over into our own Lutheran vocabulary. In fact, with the Ablaze!(tm) program, nearly every correspondence from synod or district includes the word "unchurched" describing the intended target of our mission endeavors. The words "churched" and "unchurched" are adjectival variations of the word "church" used as a verb. In this case, "church" is not being used as it is in the creeds, as a noun, a thing we confess as an article of faith, but rather it has become an verbal adjective to describe something one does. In fact, we often run into a strained related expression: "to do church."

I don't believe this is a natural evolutionary shift in language to accommodate changing realities, rather I think this is symptomatic of a shift in confession. If "church" is a verb that we can "do," than it is no longer a mystery to confess, but rather an activity, like swimming or throwing a baseball. And a "churched" or "unchurched" person is not defined by membership in the church (the noun), but rather by what he does (i.e. "going to church" as an activity, a verb).

So, when did we find the word "churched" as an adjectival participal of the verb "to church" making its appearance in the English language? I figured it must be something from the 1980s. Maybe the 1960s, but more likely, it was coined by some clever church-growth guru in the age of MTV.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that "church" as a verb has been used in English since the 14th century.

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Main Entry: 3church
Function: transitive verb
Date:14th century to bring to church to receive one of its rites


This makes sense, as there is an old rite of "churching" a woman who has given birth (which is a blessing of a woman upon her return to worship after having a baby." To "church" a person was to physically convey them to the church building, the place where the church met for divine services. With the exception of baptism, only believers are administered the rites of the church.

So, the word "church" used as a verb has been around for six centuries, but there has still been a recent subtle shift in meaning. For in 14th century England, everyone (with very few exceptions, such as Jews) were members of the Church. There simply were no "unchurched" people in the way the term is used today. A woman who was "churched" was not a person who didn't go to church, or who had never heard of Jesus. Rather to be "churched" was literally to be brought to the building to receive a rite. This rite is today called the "Blessing of a Mother After Childbirth" (LSB Pastoral Care Companion, p. 59).

This bringing of believers into the building to receive a rite is not how our synod uses the term in speaking of reaching "unchurched" people (meaning unbelievers). The word "unchurched" is not biblical, nor is it traditional in this context (just as "doing church" is neither biblical, creedal, nor traditional).

Rather Scripture speaks of believers and non-believers. The mission work of the Church is to "make disciples" by baptism and teaching, to bring people into the Church (ecclesia) through God's means of instilling belief (the "implanted word" of Jas 1:21). We are to bring people to the Church by bringing them to the faith that is proclaimed - typically in a church building.

We are to bring unbelievers to the church to hear the Word of God, so that they may be incorporated, that is, organically bonded, to the Church. This is very different than a 14th century mother who is already a believer being physically conveyed to the parish church.

In speaking of people as "unchurched," we are subtly altering what we mean by the word "church," and thus altering the confession of our creed without changing a word.

I believe we should speak of people as "believers" (instead of "churched") and unbelievers (instead of "unchurched"). The word "unchurched" is too ambiguous. Are Lutherans who attend services only on Christmas and Easter unchurched? Are unbelievers who attend our services churched? What about members of sects, or cults? It also waters down the third article, if not changing it in the minds of many. It turns membership in the church into an activity, which borders on turning grace into a work.

The fact that the word "unchurched" is trendy and used by "experts" in the unbiblical branch of business marketing known as the Church Growth Industry, I believe the term should be shunned. It is a word that is foreign to our Lutheran emphasis on the "monergism of grace" as well as the historic confession of the noun "Church."

I think we need to watch our language. We ought not allow Oprah and Dr. Phil to become the guardians of our ecclesiastical expression.

Maybe instead of speaking of our "relationship" with God, we should start saying "communion" again. Maybe instead of "witnessing," we should be "confessing." Instead of "messages" maybe our pastors should unabashedly preach "sermons" again. Instead of saying "we worship a hundred people on Sunday," maybe we should say: "We worship one God in three persons." Instead of describing every activity as a "ministry" (even basketball and quilting), maybe we should reserve the term for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Instead of "servant events" maybe our young people (not our "youth") should be learning that we are servants of Christ all the time, that the Christian life is a life of service, that service is not a staged "event." We ought not be ashamed to worship God in "church sanctuaries", instead of describing such holy places using such almost clinical pragmatic terminology as "worship centers."

Words are important. Carelessness can water down our confession. We must be wary that Satan will use every means at his disposal to strip us of our faith. "Who controls the past', ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,'" says George Orwell through the narrator in 1984. "In the beginning was the Word," says God through the Evangelist in John 1:1.


Hoffster said...

Hear hear!! Good post. Part of the problem is with our dictionaries themselves - and how they have recently changed their emphasis from being prescriptive to being descriptive. So now we have a culture from the middle of the 20th century forward who feel they can make language mean whatever they want it to mean - regardless if they can back it up with a dictionary.

Jeff said...

Amen! Orange does indeed watch faster than December ever will!

Augustinian Successor said...

Remember, the EXISTENCE, yes, you heard it, the every existence of the CATHOLIC Church is a matter of faith, not sight. I believe ...

The Catholic Church is the company of the predestined here on earth - the hidden Church, only to be revealed in the proclamation of Word and Sacrament.

The Roman Church is the FALSE Church. Get that into your head, and you won't go wrong.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Aug:

I know a lot of folks who bash Rome who do in fact "go wrong." The Muslims would agree whole heartedly with your assessment of the Roman Church.

I think it's better to focus on Jesus rather than painting with such a broad brush. You'll find Christians in every corner of Christendom - even if their bureaucracies say and do stupid things (and I speak from experience with the LCMS).

The Church *is* Catholic - which means it transcends denominational labels. And I agree 100% with you that the mere existence of the Church is an article of faith.

Bhuvan Chand said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stacy McDonald said...

Great post! I've often lamented the casual perversion of perfectly good words. You made some additional points I hadn't thought of.

RevFisk said...

Good post...

...but then we'd have to admit that all those people aren't believers. That would mean some of our kids too.


And I agree with AS - that would mean there are such a thing as false churches too.

Again, great post.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Hoffster:
Postmodernism rears its ugly head! It's quite a battle we have keeping language in track.

Dear Jeff:
Good point, I think. ;-)

Dear Stacy:
Thanks for your kind words - it's a great thing when words can express kindness and not be merely a waxen nose in the eye of the beholder (and I do believe I may be the first person ever to mix those metaphors)! :-)

Dear Rev Fisk:
Indeed. Not every "churched" person is a believer. The synodical lingo is not only slippery, but entirely misses the point as to what the church is and who receives salvation. Scary stuff indeed. Come Lord Jesus!