Our Language is a Confession

Language“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” goes the well-known cliche, first written by Gerald Seymour in 1975 in his book Harry’s Game. Journalists who take their trade seriously know this well: descriptive words reveal what the speaker thinks of what he’s describing. The saying above illustrates this: The one who describes the person in question as a “terrorist” obviously does not agree in the justice of his perceived cause. The one who describes him as a “freedom fighter” likely does agree with the justice of the perceived cause. So in choosing one term over another, the speaker is not only saying something about the person in question but about himself.

So in the church, what does our language say about what we believe? How careful are we to speak in a way that clearly articulates what we believe? We all know the phrases like “sola gratia”, “justification by grace through faith”, “Law and Gospel”, et cetera. It’s pretty much code that you’re a Lutheran to anyone who hears it. But take time to consider what else you might be saying in and about the church, and what it says about what you believe.

For example, to what do you go on Sunday morning? Is it worship, for example, or is it Divine Service? These words may describe the same event, but they emphasize different aspects of that event. “Worship” describes man’s response to God’s gifts; “Divine Service” describes God’s service to man in giving those gifts. Properly speaking, both are taking place on Sunday morning (or whenever else it takes place), but which term one uses says something about which aspect he wishes to emphasize. In other words, which is more important? Which is the bigger reason for a Christian to come? For Lutherans, although we confess that both take place and both are important, we know that the Christian comes first and foremost to receive God’s gifts. This is why you find Lutherans using the term “Divine Service” over “worship” to describe what happens in church on Sunday morning.

I bring all this up to mention one strange set of terms that is used that also confesses something important. We Lutherans are aware of the divinely instituted Office whereby men teach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. So what term do we use to describe the men whom God has placed in this Office? Folks in my congregation refer to me, for example, as “pastor”. This is a term that comes from the Greek ποιμήν (“shepherd”)– for example, when Jesus tells Peter in John 21:16 literally to “shepherd (ποίμαινε) My sheep”, He is commanding Peter to be a pastor to His people. When I’m walking around the town wearing my ecclesiastical uniform (black clergy shirt with clerical collar), I may be called “Reverend” or “Father” (though I’ve also been called far worse). Each of these confesses something about what the speaker believes about the Office held.

But do you know what I’ve never been called either in my congregation or in the community? “Minister of Religion – Ordained”. Only in the roster of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod would I or any other LC-MS pastor be given such a bizarre title. Take a moment to consider what this confesses about our understanding of the Office. Does “Minister of Religion – Ordained” confess that this is a divinely instituted Office, given by God to men whom He chooses to teach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments to His dear people? Or does it confess to the synod and the world that these men are cogs in a large bureaucratic machine, complete with the sterile nomenclature of corporate America? I posit that it confesses that pastors possess an Office that is merely one in a drop-down list of possible offices, stored on a central database somewhere.

Or consider the catch-all of “church worker”. Within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, we have pastors, deacons, district presidents, professors, teachers, principals, deaconesses, missionaries, and parish nurses. There are lots of other sorts of people who serve, too. But each of these terms in unique and says something about what each sort of person does for the Church. So what does the term “church worker” say? It is not found in Scripture or in the Lutheran Confessions. What does it confess to those who fall within its broad category? What does it confess to the world? What does it confess about those within the Church who do not fall under this catch-all title?

I bring all this up for a reason. We collectively bemoan the hire-and-fire mentality in regard to our pastors, and we should. They are, after all, divinely called, and ought not be dismissed, let go, or fired simply because they weren’t a good fit or didn’t align with a certain mission vision. But think carefully about how we collectively, and you individually, speak about the Office (and anything else pertaining to the Church). Are we upholding a Biblical understanding of things by using Biblical language, or are we upholding a worldly understanding of churchly things by using worldly language?

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