Why Definitions Matter
(Volume 23, Issue 3, May/June 2017)
It was Mark Twain who famously said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Used by Twain, the distinction between being a mediocre author and great one, such as himself, was the choice of words. If this is important to a novelist, how much more important it is to the Christian attempting to communicate timeless truths given to us by our Creator God. Words and their meanings matter. Unfortunately, in our Christian lingo, we tend to use sloppily thrown out words and terms which can mislead others and, in time, some of these terms take on lives of their own. While often harmless in their intent, I would contend that when we do so we unknowingly miscommunicate important truths that our Lord has revealed to us, and/or mislead ourselves and others as a result. We need to give serious attention to our terminology in order to avoid such things. In this paper I want to identify a few words or terms bandied about in Christian circles which need some consideration.
The Christian world is full of Bible studies. Churches and parachurch organizations offer numerous study groups and individual believers often organize their own small group Bible studies. But upon closer examination the majority of these studies are not actually engaged in studying the Scriptures. As one author, Jen Wilkins, writes, “Churches have gradually shifted away from offering basic Bible study in favor of studies that are topical or devotional, adopting formats that more closely resemble a book club discussion than a class that teaches Scripture.” Most of us would agree that our experience validates this conclusion. Ask almost any Bible study leader about the material being examined and most likely they will name a book or a series which may be more or less tied to Scripture but is not a direct investigation of Scripture itself. Adding to the problem is that most books being used in such groups are likely to be lightweight devotionals, experience-oriented testimonials, novels, or worse. If the 2016 bestselling Christian book listing compiled by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association is any indication of what believers are reading, it is disturbing at best. The bestselling book was The Magnolia Story by the HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, number seven is Tim Tebow’s Shaken, Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling books locked down number 2, 3, 15, 31, 37, 41, and 44, Joel Osteen occupied numbers 19 and 28 and Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages came in at number four. Other volumes in the top 50 included joke books, coloring books for children as well as adults, books on finances, novels such as The Shack and those claiming to unravel long-hidden biblical mysteries. Not until number 71 with Know Your Bible by George Knight do we find a book dealing with any type of actual study of Scripture.
Although the majority of these bestselling Christian books are obviously not conducive for Bible studies, nevertheless many of them are being used exactly for this purpose. This does not mean that books developing specific topics such as marriage, parenting, or general Christian living have no place, for often they do. I am occasionally asked what books the believers at our church are using for their studies and have developed a list of those we have found valuable. But, while beneficial in their place, these cannot supplant direct study of the Scriptures in our spiritual diet. In an age in which biblical illiteracy is epidemic and growing, we must not neglect the solid, foundational study of the Word. While book studies can be useful, we are wise to focus most of our attention on Scripture itself, and the theology found in it, and to make clear distinctions between such studies and topical options. Wilkin remarks, “Churches must distinguish clearly between what is Bible study and what is something else because the average churchgoer may not be able to on her own…Yet, biblical illiteracy pervades our churches, unintentionally aided by our labeling”
Word of God
In the Bible we find the phrase “Word of God” used in a variety of ways. According to context it can refer to God speaking as when He created the universe (Heb 11:3), or a reference to the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 13:46), or the Old Testament (Matt 15:6), or being the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17), or Scripture in general (Col 1:25; 1 Pet 1:23 and 1 Tim 4:5). One of the best-known texts on the subject is Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Historically most conservative Christians use the term the “Word of God” in this latter sense as identical to the Bible itself. However, we should be aware that not everyone in Christendom accepts this definition. An increasing number, while not denying that the Bible is the Word of God, have added modern messages, supposedly from God, to this definition. Most prominent in this regard would be those involved with the Word of Faith Movement. Their leaders distinguish between two Greek words translated “word” – logos and rhema. In the New Testament, while these two words often have overlapping and similar meanings, the terms can have diverse nuances depending on context. Robert Mounce writes, “Whereas logos often designates the Christian proclamation as a whole, rhema usually relates to individual words and utterances.” Greek scholars would see the logos tos Theos as referencing the whole of the Scriptures and the rhema tos Theos as individual words or sayings found in the Bible. Word of Faith adherents, however, see rhema as the words of God spoken outside the pages of Scripture, that is, modern day messages from God. The wise Christian will be careful to take note that when the Faith Movement leaders are talking about the Word of God they are normally speaking of rhema as they have defined it, not Scripture. This becomes more problematic because many within evangelical circles have borrowed the Word of Faith’s understanding of rhema and are now quite regularly claiming that God is speaking to them, even calling these supposed messages the Word of God, or similar terminology. For example, popular women’s speaker and author Priscilla Shirer wrote a book in 2006 with Beth Moore entitled He Speaks to Me, Preparing to Hear from God and more recently Discerning the Voice of God, How to Recognize When God is Speaking. These books claim the Lord speaks to them personally, apart from Scripture. Dallas Willard, mentor to Richard Foster, founder of the Spiritual Formation Movement, wrote Hearing God, Developing a Conversational Relationship with God in which he attempts to help his readers discern when God is speaking to them. Henry and Richard Blackaby have written a similar book entitled Hearing God’s Voice. And of course Sarah Young’s numerous renditions of Jesus Calling, the best-selling books in Christian publishing, claim to be direct revelations from Jesus. Her publisher describes her book this way: “After many years of writing her own words in her prayer journal, missionary Sarah Young decided to be more attentive to the Savior’s voice and begin listening for what He was saying. So with pen in hand, she embarked on a journey that forever changed her—and many others around the world.”
Of course, these books represent just the tip of the iceberg. So many are claiming to be hearing directly from God these days that one has to wonder why the Holy Spirit even bothered to inspire the sacred writings to begin with. With all of these claims of additional revelation we need to make it very clear that when we talk about the Word of God we are speaking of the inspired, authoritative Scriptures, not modern day assertions referenced by so many.
Many are understandably confused about the church today. Popular leading pastors have published their “secret sauce” for building a great church, often without much regard to Divine revelation concerning the Lord’s design for His church. The built-in mindset of Americans, that if something is successful it must be good, has been transferred to the church virtually unaltered. Big churches therefore must be good churches. If it works, then it must be of God. More people attend church in America, on a percentage basis, than almost any other country in the world, but the churches they attend are often not based on the New Testament paradigm. People are confused: Is the church an evangelistic center, a place where the unbeliever is made to feel comfortable? Do we create local churches that please the consumer or please God? Entertainment, sports programs, fun and games, will draw the crowds so should we not take advantage of these? Just what does a biblically sound church look like? In an age of many voices claiming many things about the church, we would do well to teach often God’s paradigm for His church as found in the New Testament, especially from the epistles of Paul and in particular the Pastoral Epistles. We must not take for granted that people understand what the church is or how it is to function.
While we are at it, we should sharpen our language when it comes to the word “church” itself. When people use the word “church” they are often speaking of a building, such as “our church is on Second Street across from the park.” But the church is not a building and the early church did not gather in dedicated buildings until the fourth century. Others speak of the church as a meeting: “I went to church last Sunday.” Although the church meets, the church is not a meeting. The church is the people of God. Ekklesia is the Greek word from which we derive our English word “church.” It means “to call out” and therefore the church is the called-out people of God who assemble to worship Christ, pray, study the Word, participate in the ordinances and fellowship (Acts 2:41-42). Mounce says it well,
[The church is] a dedicated group of disciples of Jesus Christ (cf. Phlm 2, also Col 4:15) whom he has purchased with his blood (cf. Rev 5:9). The apostle sees the church as a new race, which he lists alongside Jews and Greeks in 1 Cor 10:32; it is sufficiently equipped with leadership and gifts to fulfill God’s purpose on earth (1 Cor 12:28); and it is the avenue through which the wisdom of God is made known (Eph 1:22).
We do well to emphasize regularly that the church is not a building or a meeting but is a local community of God’s people who are committed to Christ, His Word, and to one another under the leadership of the Lord and godly elders (1 Pet 5:1-4).
For generations missionary endeavors followed a similar pattern as found in the New Testament. “Apostle” means “sent ones,” and beginning with Acts 13 the church would send men to various parts of the Roman Empire to intentionally preach the gospel, plant churches and make disciples. These missionaries (“sent ones”) would move from place to place, staying from a few weeks to three years (in the New Testament records) until the gospel was either rejected (e.g. Athens) or a church was established (e.g. Ephesus). Paul and his associates would revisit these church plants in the proper time appointing elders to give them leadership (e.g. Acts 14:23). They would then return to their sending church and give a report of what the Lord had done (Acts 14:26-27). Since New Testament times many have followed in the first missionaries’ footsteps, going to various parts of the world to evangelize, disciple and establish churches. Many of these pioneers spent years at a given location, sometimes a lifetime. Social betterment of the communities in which the gospel permeated would often take place as lives were changed and the values of the faith embraced, but the primary focus of missionary efforts was evangelism, discipleship and church planting, which was accomplished through many years of stable, dedicated ministry.
In the 1700s and 1800s the focus of the church in general changed in many circles and this shift spilled over into missionary endeavors as well. As theological liberalism in Europe, especially Germany, gained traction, the biblical gospel was gradually replaced by the Social Gospel. People did not need to be saved from sin, they needed to be rescued from injustice, poverty, and other social ills. The mission of the church was altered from spiritual to social liberation and what was taught at home was soon adopted in missions. In time liberalism ran out of steam leaving that branch of Protestantism with little more to offer than relatively weak and scattered social programs. Beginning in the early 1900s, evangelicals fled these bankrupt denominations and institutions and returned to their biblical roots. Social programs were scaled back and minimized while evangelism and discipleship once again became central. In the 1950s and 1960s, many evangelicals began to think that they had over reacted in regard to the social agenda and, under the umbrella of “engaging the culture,” began to reemphasize social dimensions in their ministries. In recent years, in almost identical fashion to the original Social Gospel Movement, social and benevolent programs have increasingly gained steam and now play a major part in the ministries of most local churches. And what happens on the home front soon bleeds over into missions. The newer emphasis on social issues within evangelical churches has led to coining the word “missional.” This word has taken on many connotations since it became popular and it is not always easy to nail down its meaning but, in essence, missional is ministry, outreach, and programing geared toward the betterment of mankind. Some use the word as a trendier term for missionary work, others see it as a combination of spiritual and social ministry, and still others use it exclusively for helping people with their physical and social needs. Missional should be added to the words that could use a good definition.
All of this is to say that the face of missions has radically changed in recent years. A missionary in the not so distant past was a believer who moved to another location to spread the gospel and disciple believers, often in the context of the establishment of a local church. Other ministries might be attached to these, such as medical clinics, orphanages, or feeding the hungry, but these ministries were sidelights, not the central thrust of the missionary endeavor. With the increase of this new wave of the social gospel, often under the banner of missional, much of that has changed. A great deal of what is called missionary work today has little to nothing to do with the presentation of the gospel or direct discipling of Christians. Rather, the focus increasing within missions is social in nature. And the popularity of short-term “mission” trips evidences this very well.
Short-term missions (STM), defined as non-career individuals involved in some sort of short-term (usually from 1 week to 3 months) outreach or ministry in a location different from one’s home base, has grown incredibly popular in recent years. Statistics are difficult to nail down but some researchers estimate that approximately 2 million people per year are now participating in short-term trips of this nature and, while financial contributions for long-term traditional missionary work are stagnant, the amount of money spent on short-term trips is booming. Debate on the benefit and value of short-term missions is escalating and studies on this modern phenomenon have only just begun, but there is little disagreement among the experts that it has brought about a considerable shift in the normal definition and understanding of missions. Brian Howell, professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, a participant in numerous short-term trips, have written an insightful, well-researched and predominately-supportive book titled, Short-Term Mission. He writes,
The emergence of STM as a practice was accompanied by a shift in the very definition of missions. That is, since the earliest years of the Christian movement, there have been those who travel to other places for brief periods to engage in missionary work, but the contemporary short-term mission phenomenon with its focus on sending average laypeople, and particularly young people, abroad for the length of time generally reserved for a vacation is a contemporary movement indeed. The archival data reveal a fascinating emergence of the language that today contributes to the expectations and interpretations of short-term missionaries.
Howell documents that the majority of STM has little to do with traditional missionary activities focusing rather on construction, water projects, medical assistance, relief of poverty, and other benevolent services. Howell believes STM has benefit, mainly for the participants, and that social aid is valuable in and of itself, but that most STM projects are not missions as defined traditionally or biblically. Some recognizing this have stopped calling STM missions, but instead are labeling them “short-term learning opportunities.” I think this is a wise step if, in fact, the definition of words matter. If there is no evangelism or discipleship, that is, no direct effort in spiritual ministry, then such trips are not missions. They are benevolent trips and/or learning experiences. Social aid and education have their place, and many will benefit from such involvement, but they are not mission trips, and I believe it would be best if we make clear the difference. When offering short-term opportunities in our churches, which have nothing to do with the gospel, we should call them what they are, not mission trips.
The gospel is precious to every child of God. Unfortunately, the word has been stretched, deformed and redefined beyond all recognition. Biblically the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in order that we might be saved, forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God (1 Cor 15:1-4). Sinners appropriate the gospel to their lives by believing the gospel message and accepting the grace of God by faith alone in Christ alone (Eph 2:8-9). But in recent times two distortions of the gospel have become fashionable; one involves miscommunication, the other substance.
Of lesser import is the use of the word gospel in ways never intended by the inspired authors. Throwing about the term gospel has become so common among some evangelical leaders that we are never really sure what is being said. We are told to live the gospel, pray the gospel, rehearse the gospel and the like. The gospel this, the gospel that, is everywhere and definitions are lacking. John Piper went so far as entitling one of his books, God Is the Gospel. We know that Piper, and others who misuse the word gospel, mean well and are not attempting to change the message of Christ necessary for our redemption, but such use of the word gospel is at best perplexing. If God is the gospel, then, if my high school math is remembered correctly, the gospel is God and that can’t be. God is much more than the gospel. He describes Himself as love and holy, among other things but not the gospel. We would do well to return to, and camp out, on the biblical definition of the gospel as outlined above, which is the Cross-work of Christ necessary for our salvation.
Of more significance is how the gospel message itself has broadened and enlarged to include a social aspect. Evangelical leaders and commissions from every direction are telling us that the gospel of salvation, as clearly found in the New Testament, is only half the good-news message. Added to “spiritual” salvation must be “secular” salvation, that is, the social gospel. N. T. Wright claims that feeding the hungry is part of the gospel. He writes, “Jesus fed hungry people. This was part of the good news, an enacted symbol of the coming kingdom in which everyone would be given what they needed.” Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, wrote The Hole in Our Gospel which intermingles the central message of the gospel with solving the social issues of humanity.
And Ron Sider, in his book devoted exclusively to the Social Gospel, assures us that “the mission of the Incarnate one included freeing the oppressed and healing the blind.” But then he “graciously” admits, “It was also to preach the gospel, which is equally important.” Like many others, Sider places the Social Gospel on equal footing with the biblical gospel.
The very morning I was writing this section, I read an article in Christianity Today called, “Evangelism Is Alive in Portland” which is typical of how the gospel has been mutilated by evangelicals. Melissa Binder, in an interview with four cutting edge pastors and Christian leaders, questions these men concerning their strategy for reaching “nones” with the gospel. James Gleason, pastor of Sonrise Church in Portland, responded,
We’ve constructed a culture around Christianity that isn’t the gospel. It’s not the gospel that’s the problem. The gospel is amazing. It’s what we’ve done to the gospel. We have to deconstruct the wrapper of culture that we’ve put on. We want people worshiping God for eternity—that’s no question—but we also want people fed, people healed, and people to find homes. Words and works bind together in a way. When we do both I think we have an open door for people who are more skeptical of the institutional church.
In other words, if we will but repackage the gospel by including a social dimension, we will discover that people will be receptive to its message. Never mind that nothing of the sort is taught in the New Testament as part of the gospel, nor as a carrot to win people to the gospel. Josh Chen, who directs Cru’s city ministry in Portland adds,
An older generation were asking: “How do I get to heaven?” and “What do I do with my guilt?” Millennials are asking, “What does it mean to thrive?” If we approach millennials with a pitch for Christianity that was designed to resonate with their parents, it isn’t going to sound like good news to them.
Chen further suggests that we have to customize the gospel to this new generation and take out words from our vocabulary like sin, faith, repentance and salvation. In other words, if we will change the gospel message to fit the desire of the “nones” they will respond, but if we insist on proclaiming the biblical gospel, with biblical words, we will never find an audience. Yet, “customization” can only be taken so far. The gospel has nothing to do with offering people a means by which they can “thrive.” The gospel, the unchangeable gospel, is still about solving the problem of our guilt before a holy and offended God because of our sin. To change the biblical message may draw an audience; it many even register “converts,” but it will not lead them to salvation.
In the Wilkin article mentioned earlier, she reminds her readers of a scene in the comedy The Princess Bride in which the swordsman Inigo Montoya has finally grown tired of hearing the Sicilian boss Vizzini describe one thing after another as “inconceivable.” After Vizzini attempts to cut a rope the Dread Pirate is climbing up, he yells out that it was inconceivable that the pirate did not fall. To this, Montoya replied with: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” We might give Montoya’s comment some serious consideration. Are we using words and terms in the way that communicates biblical truth, or are we using them in ways that confuse the people of God?
By Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel, Springfield, IL
Jen Wilkin, “Let Bible Studies Be Bible Studies,” Christianity Today, March 2017, p. 26.
 Robert Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 803.
 Brian M. Howell, Short-Term Mission, An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p. 27.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Ibid., p. 212.
 N. T. Wright, Simply Good News, Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good (New York, HarperOne, 2015), p. 159.
 Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Moving from Affluence to Generosity, (W Publishing Group, 1997, 2015) p. 51 (emphasis mine).
 Melissa Binder, “Evangelism Is Alive in Portland,” Christianity Today, April 2017 p. 38.