I have a distaste for Christianese. I think it’s because I didn’t grow up in church and I’ve seen, first hand, how much of a hindrance it can be. I even became a Christian in a KJV-Only church, so not only did I get Christianese, but I got 1611 Christianese. (Do you have any idea how hard it is to learn the language of faith in 400 year old English?)
I know this is a controversial topic, so I reserve the right to be wrong about this. After all, I know there are good reasons insider-Christian language has persisted. I even see some value in it.
But, when I’m honest, I think it largely misses the point and ignores the purpose for which the words were originally put into use – to invite rather than inhibit people to learn the language of faith. Most Christianese, in my opinion, largely detracts from, rather than assists, people learning the language of faith.
My friend Rudy and I have discussed this subject on several occaisions and we come down in different places. I totally respect his position: Instead of doing away with certain insider terms, we should redeem the language by explaining it, defining it, and embodying it. I respect that position. In fact, to some degree I even agree with it. I only wish everyone did as good a job as he does in explaning, defining, and embodying it. Most people don’t. And for that reason, I think the practice of using Christianese should be challenged.
But let me make a case for abandoning Christianese in terms that are more than just pragmatic:
- A lot of Christian language began as public, secular language. Covenant, redemption, liturgy, gospel, salvation, redemption, apostle, fellowship, etc. were all terms that had secular uses first. When the early Christians started using these terms, they were stealing or borrowing these terms from the larger culture in which they found themselves living. The only reason they became distinctively Christian terms is because the Roman Empire died, and so, too, did the secular uses of these terms. Thus, Christians got to keep them. But my point is, these were not originally distinctively Christian terms.
- But this means, as well, that the earliest Christians were not in the business of redeeming only previously sanctified words; they were in the business of sanctifying secular words and concepts. They believed God could be found, not only in the sanctified language of the community of faith, but also in the larger culture’s language and symbols. (This points, in my opinion, to a strong, concrete, and practical theology of Prevenient Grace.)
- More than that, this means that Christians were intentionally looking for metaphors within their own pop-culture which could be vehicles for promoting the message of Jesus. In other words, they were looking for words, metaphors, and images that would make the message of Jesus accessible to the larger culture.
- Christians also chose these secular words because they were perfect for subverting, undermining, and challenging the larger pop-culture. In other words, these Christians weren’t just trying to culturally relevant (though that was part of it), they were actually trying to deconstruct the rhetoric, imagery, and dominance of the larger culture. They chose secular terms to use the terms AGAINST the larger culture. The use of pop-culture terms allowed them to use the language, symbols, and metaphors of the larger world in order to challenge the values, politics, and gods of that larger world.
So where does this leave us today?
My proposal is that we do away with as much Christianese as possible.
Notice the “as possible.”
There are certain terms – a lot of terms, in fact – for which we have no cultural equivalent. We have no cultural equivalent for the term, “Trinity,” for example. So I propose that the “Trinity” should not be abandoned. All words for which we lack equivalents should be kept. But when we make the conscious choice to keep them, we ought to also make the conscious choice to explain, define, and embody them. Christianeese is not bad, in itself. It is only bad when it’s not explained, defined, or embodied. It is only bad when it inhibits, rather than invites, people to know Christ better.
Now, since I have established that there are certain words that we cannot replace, I propose that we choose cultural equivalent words for all Christianese terms that we can replace.
Let me give you an example:
The Greek word apostolos is transliterate into English “apostle.”
Why should we keep this word?
In the original cultural context of apostolos, the word referred to a political emissary, or ambassador, who represented the emperor, spoke with the authority of the emperor, and spoke the good news (gospel) of the emperor.
We have cultural equivalents of this: emissary or ambassador.
When Christians started using this term they were saying that the church’s apostoloi were the political representatives of the true king, Jesus Christ. They were ambassadors for a different political entity, the kingdom of God.
For words such that as this, I propose that we go with a more modern, equivalent term and abandon the older Christianese term which inhibit, rather than assists, our understanding of the term apostolos.
I understand that this will imply looking at every word. But that’s not a bad thing. We ought to be aware of the language we use. After all, our words create worlds.
- For words for which there are no cultural equivalents, keep the word. But make sure we go out of our way to explain, define, and embody the word.
- For words that there are clear cultural equivalents, then opt for the equivalent whenever possible. This will promote inclusion, understanding, and remove unnecessary rhetorical stumbling blocks.
- For words that are more ify, well, that’s why we have Christian community – let’s debate these things in a godly spirit. If our goal is the exaltation and expansion of the kingdom of God, then every word, every term, every metaphor is worth discussing and discussing.