Pay Attention to the Guarded Definitions

I once endured a hour-long lecture on why I should never again use the term “mold remediation.” According to my zealous guest, once mold exists in a structure it can never be fully remediated, though it can be mostly dealt with. Needless to say, I learned my lesson to guard which verbs I use around our organization’s logistics and maintenance personnel. I’ve also had coworkers who were very keen that the word “strategy” be used only in very defined and particular ways. In Western culture’s current social media wars, the ever-fluctuating proper use of terms for identity groups and new and emerging sexual self-identifiers are policed with a vengeance. And now that I am a team leader of a church-planting team, it bugs me when my colleagues use terms like “church,” “shared the gospel” and “believer” in sloppy ways.

In reflecting on these things, I have come to believe that every person has their own set of terms which they think should be defined and used accurately, terms which should even be policed when used incorrectly. Further, this personal set of terms reflect things that are very important or valuable to that individual, or things that they put their identity and hope in. This is probably unavoidable. This is probably good. After all, if the meanings of words are constantly shifting throughout time, oozing around on top of a fixed grid of possible meanings (as linguist John McWhorter’s helpful analogy describes), then we should naturally fight to maintain stable meaning for those terms which are the most important. We can’t fight every battle and not all words are worth fighting for. I don’t mind that “googling” has become a verb. But I am a little concerned about the fact that “jealous” has now largely taken the old meaning of “envious.” This bothers me because our English Bible translations call God a jealous God and through this shift of meaning most of my contemporaries are going to misunderstand this statement at first reading.

If each person really has a set of definitions they guard jealously (in the old sense of the term), then this calls for some self-reflection. What are the terms that I feel should be policed? Why am I bothered when certain terms are used incorrectly or sloppily? If we can isolate the kinds of terms we feel most passionately about, that is a good window into what we are placing our hope in, or what we feel is most important for those around us to hold onto in the instability of life and communication. Most importantly, does our list of words-worth-policing reflect the concepts that are the most important in the word of God? It could be that an awareness of our carefully-guarded vocabulary betrays some trust put in the wrong places. Too many missionaries place their hope in their strategy. Too many Westerners root their identity in their ethnicity or sexual expression.

As in many areas, the question is not if you will have a list of definitions that you guard – the question is which ones? Instead of operating by default, let us instead strive to guard certain definitions intentionally. Though some words will need to be replaced as their former good meaning is lost forever, others can be redeemed and put to work serving the Church for thousands of years to come.

Photo by Vasco Sousa on Unsplash

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