Never underestimate the power of a word. Words can usher in worlds of unspeakable joy or become the catalyst of immense pain. Whether we know it or not, our life depends on words in order to function. We review instructions for food preparation as we pre-heat the oven, examine a bottle of prescription medication for instructions, review road signs as we navigate the highway, and read a contract before we sign on the dotted line.
Words matter in the world of politics, in military conquest, and in all spheres of life. Perhaps nowhere do we see the importance of words on a higher level than we do in the world of religion. Rightly so, because he who controls the dictionary controls far more than you can imagine.
Words Matter Because Meaning Matters
In recent days, Merriam-Webster unveiled “they” as their 2019 word of the year. It wasn’t a completely random choice. It was based on data from their online searches which revealed something interesting and quite troubling about our world. According to Merriam-Webster:
“Our Word of the Year for 2019 is they. It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term—a personal pronoun—can rise to the top of our data. Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.”
The pronoun controversy is indicative of a sick culture, but sadly, we are living in a day where a word can be officially changed in the dictionary in September and by December become the official word of the year. Why is this the case? Because of cultural pressure. People can demand that the actual real meaning of a word be changed to accommodate the desires of a culture. Notice what Merriam-Webster said in explaining their choice of the 2019 word of the year:
“…they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary this past September.”
We are living in a world where real men are pretending to be real women. In some cases, real people (male and female) are choosing to not identify as either male or female. This transformation culture rejects absolutes and the postmodern framework of rejecting truth and exchanging it for imagination has precipitated a world where words are being changed in order to change the whole society. Just take marriage as an example. This is more than a squabble about words on paper. It literally affects the whole of civilization.
Deconstructing a Denomination
In Jacques Derrida Of Grammatology, the ideas of deconstruction and his method of analyzing human language has led to the deconstruction of the hierarchy of vocabulary. Once again, this is far more than arguing about words. If the meaning of words can be changed—it will lead to change in the world. Make no mistake about it, the liberals and enemies of the gospel are very much interested in changing denominations—and we see this through ongoing scandals and debate on social justice. At the heart of the social justice debate is the battle for the dictionary.
Pronouns and Ministry
Merriam-Webster has made it clear—pronouns matter. We face choices on how we will address people in our culture as well as within our churches. Will we call them by their preferred pronoun or will we address them according to their actual gender? In recent weeks, J.D. Greear who serves as the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention has made a distinction between what he calls, “generosity of spirit vs. telling truth.” Greear goes on to specify that he holds to a “generosity of spirit” position which he explains is much like what Preston Sprinkle refers to as “pronoun hospitality.”
While manners are important and we should demonstrate a love for all mankind based on the imago Dei—no matter how severe the image of God has been broken by sin, the role of the pastor in the local church is to tell the truth and to feed God’s sheep. If our ministries are designed upon a pragmatic foundation seeker sensitive approach, undoubtedly postmodernism will seep through the cracks and influence our methods of ministry. All confused sinners need to hear God’s truth. This goes for the redneck who drank too much beer on Saturday night and decided to commit adultery on his wife and the man who desires to be referred to as “ze” in the church’s foyer after the service.
The gender debate and pronoun controversy is not one that John Knox was having to deal with in Edinburgh. We are living in confusing days, but at all times, we must remember that the Bible is sufficient. If we abandon the regulative principle of worship or turn our backs on the Scripture’s sufficiency in the midst of massive confusion it will only lead to more confusion. A ship on the sea at night in the midst of thick fog needs the radiant beam of the lighthouse to provide clear direction. How is it possible to demonstrate real hospitality and love for sinners without telling the truth? If we adjust our vocabulary in the foyer it will have an impact upon the vocabulary we use in the pulpit.
In 2018 the controversy over the roles and responsibilities of men and women within the SBC erupted through social media leading into the annual SBC meeting in Dallas in June. Today, that controversy has continued to burn and the heat has greatly increased following the release of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.
Bold attempts have been made to advance a firm egalitarian position into the ranks of the SBC, but those attempts have been smaller in nature. The popular trend has been to shift the meaning of complementarianism to embrace a narrow view that centers on the office of pastor alone which supports the function of women preaching in local church settings so long as she is not holding the office of pastor / elder. Other attempts have been made to discredit the term complementarianism altogether by attempting to connect the dots of the recent sexual abuse scandals to the position of complementarianism. Karen Swallow Prior who has recently been hired by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has gone on record as stating that she rejects both egalitarianism and complementarianism.
The point is clear—there’s a fight over a word taking place in the SBC. Once again, this is not just a think tank discussion that will have no lasting impact. Make no mistake about it, the future of the SBC is largely hinged upon how this debate is settled. Churches are already leaving the denomination and others are posturing themselves for a departure in the upcoming days.
Moving forward, the words that leaders choose to employ should be evaluated and considered carefully. This is not the time for political posturing nor is it the time for leaders to sit back and pretend that nothing is wrong. There are real attempts being made to deconstruct our denomination and one of the great weapons of war that anyone can use happens to be the way in which we employ words.
Words serve as the building blocks of theology. All of our theology is derived from words, sentences, and paragraphs from holy Scripture. This complementarianism debate transcends far higher than whether or not Beth Moore could serve as the president of the SBC or whether or not Lottie Moon should have preached to the people in China. Unless we carefully guard the meaning of words, any thief or robber will be able to steal away words and drastically alter the direction or even the existence of our denomination.