Many things are important in life, and when assessing the value of material and immaterial things—we must not forget the immense value of words. Consider how people fight over the meaning of terms found in the Constitution of the United States of America. At times, political leaders from polar opposite ideological backgrounds fight over words and the meaning of those words. This is not only true of the world of politics—it’s likewise true of the religious world. Political skirmishes will have an affect upon a society, but none is greater than religious skirmishes over the definition of words.
The very word theology comes from two Greek words (Theos meaning “God” and logos meaning “word”). Therefore, theology literally means words about God. That’s why words matter—especially in the study of God. Some have suggested that we “preach the gospel and use words if necessary,” but that statement is flawed from the start. For, God’s Word is made up of sixty-six books which are comprised of thousands of paragraphs, sentences, and individual words. It was John Gerstner who once said, “[We] may have knowledge of God and not be saved, but he can never be saved without knowledge of God.”  It was Theodore Beza who described the preaching of John Calvin by saying, “Every word weighed a pound.”
Words matter, but often words change. Read through the King James version of the Scriptures and you will likely run across many terms that are antiquarian—and in some cases nearly completely dead altogether. Consider the term, filthy lucre as an example. Who uses that phrase to describe greed for money in our present day? As it pertains to the morphology of specific terms, one can hope for the best as modernity consistently presses the limits on language and adds new vocabulary each year. However, when it comes to theology, words matter. Such words must be guarded. This is why a commitment to the single meaning of the text is essential when interpreting the Bible. The author’s original meaning matters. Unless carefully guarded—the words of Scripture will be redefined and such a process of change will lead to an assault on the theological foundation of the word which is an assault upon God himself. Take the definition of marriage and family as an example of this truth.
Take for example the word evangelical. As we see the rise and fall of this term, it finds it’s roots in the rise and fall of another term, fundamentalism. When skepticism was popular in the early 1900s, the Christian community rallied behind the term, fundamentalism as a means of intellectually defending the veracity, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture. However, over time that very term morphed into a banner for legalism and still to this day if you call someone a fundamentalist—it’s likely used as a term of derision rather than a compliment.
During this time period, Carl F. H. Henry used his platform with Christianity Today to promote an alternative term that could be used to describe faithful, conservative, and intellectual Christianity that did not blush at the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. That term was evangelical. The term itself is rooted in Scripture and derived from the “εὐαγγέλιον” which is a Greek term meaning “good news” and is often translated “gospel” in the English translations. The Latin term evangel meaning “gospel” is also derived from this term. While Carl F. H. Henry and other religious leaders didn’t coin the term, they popularized it at the time when many Christians were in the midst of an identity crisis and fundamentalism had morphed into a narrow movement that isolated itself and marginalized many believers.
Through time, evangelicalism grew to encompass many believers from across denominational lines. While many good things have come out of the evangelical movement, today the term has been redefined so much that it has lost its original meaning and attractiveness. When evangelicalism became so wide that it lost its distinction, it likewise lost its meaning. Today, much of what we call evangelicalism encompasses the teaching of John MacArthur to Sarah Young. Beneath the umbrella of evangelical, you will find studies from Banner of Truth and Beth Moore. People who voted for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both claim to be committed evangelicals. The term is certainly stretched and in many cases—completely broken.
Words are representatives of truth. This is especially true and vitally important in the world of theology. Such terms serve as stakes in the ground to mark what God says and how we as God’s people must live, worship, and serve. If God’s Word regulates what we believe and how we live out our faith—God’s Word likewise regulates the boundary of vocabulary. The boundary of theological all terms must be carefully examined from God’s sufficient Word. Since God’s Word is indeed sufficient for every age and every people group in human history—the terms and boundaries of such theological terms should not shift and change with the winds of culture. Pastors of local churches and members of those local assemblies are called to guard the truth. Any attempt to accommodate the culture is a recipe for theological disaster. Unfortunately we are living in such times.
Years ago, a term was introduced in order to help us understand the distinct roles of men and women in the church, home, and society. This term is complementarianism. It served as a weighty word that put a line in the sand and sought to reveal the boundaries of God’s Word on the calling, responsibilities, and roles of both men and women. Such boundaries are necessary in order to see how one must function within the household of faith. These God-ordained boundaries are likewise necessary to establish the governance of God’s church in local assemblies around the world. Therefore, it’s clearly an important subject and complementarianism remains an important term.
The problem arises in our present evangelical culture when modern definitions of complementarianism are being offered. Such new definitions seem to stretch the boundaries set forth in God’s Word and it’s causing a rift among many who claim to be evangelical. Once again, when the tent of evangelicalism encompasses such diverse groups of people across denominational lines with such sweeping theological convictions—it’s no wonder that a shared term such as complementarianism would eventually find itself in the crosshairs of religious attack. When a group of people claim to be complementarian in their positions, they could likewise be using several different definitions.
Undoubtedly there is a battle for the dictionary in our day. We are all bound by words and definitions. This is not true for the professional theologian alone. It’s also true for the pastor-theologian. It’s true for the homeschool-mom-theologian, the mechanic-theologian, the father-theologian, and the academic-theologian. Every Christian has a responsibility to rightly divide the Word of Truth—in the teaching of women’s Bible studies and while writing systematic theology textbooks. Words matter, but unless carefully guarded, they will morph, change, and be redefined to accommodate a liberal devil-glorifying culture.
When we see new terms surfacing within the Christian community such as “woke Christianity” or “woke church”—we should pause and carefully examine the agenda. To redeem a word such as “woke” that found its origins in the Black Nationalist Movement and seek to use it within evangelicalism to push the social justice agenda is another example of how words matter. Sometimes one word is introduced in order to help shift a people’s understanding of another word. So, what does justice actually mean these days? Must a person be woke in order to be just?
Read the Bible. Think. Exercise discernment. Words are the building blocks of meaning and serve as foundational components of representing the social, religious, and political views of human beings. Fight for the true meaning of words.
- John Gerstner, Theology for Everyman, (Chicago: Moody, 1965), Chapter 1.