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Watch your language

On the Sola Panel:

I was recently reminded of my approaching middle age while teaching a Scripture class to a bunch of 12-year-olds. We were learning about the kings of Israel and Judah. At one point in the lesson, I told them that many of these kings were wicked, and therefore God’s judgement came upon Israel and Judah. My pronouncement was met with a set of puzzled stares. What was confusing about this seemingly straightforward statement?

After a couple of minutes of questioning and clarifying, I realized that the problem was the word ‘wicked’. The students had only ever heard ‘wicked’ used in a positive sense. To them, ‘wicked’ only ever meant interesting, cool, fun and exciting. Why would God judge the kings of Israel for being wicked? That would be pretty mean of God, wouldn’t it? They were fascinated to learn that, originally, in the dim distant past (of my childhood), the word ‘wicked’ once meant evil, bad and wrong.

Words, of course, change their meaning over time. It’s helpful to remember this as we seek to communicate the gospel to the people around us. Look at the kind of words that grown-ups use nowadays to talk about right and wrong. It was interesting to hear and read the responses to the Matthew Johns sex scandal a few weeks ago. Hardly anybody came out and said that Johns’ behaviour had been ‘immoral’; his ‘morality’ was never brought into question. However, the letters and talkback radio shows were full of people outraged at Johns’ ‘unethical’ conduct. His behaviour was, in fact, not just mildly ‘unethical’, but “totally and extremely unethical”, “violent and unethical” and “unacceptable and unethical”, to use the words of just a small sampling of letters and comments on newspapers and blogs.

What’s going on here? Partly it’s got to do with word association. The word ‘morality’, in our world, is associated with arbitrary old-fashioned rules imposed by authoritarian bigots, Victorians (of the 19th-century English kind) and American right-wing political loonies. ‘Ethics’, on the other hand, is a way of talking about enlightened and thoughtful reflection about right and wrong attitudes and actions. ‘Ethics’ is up-to-date and quite important; ‘morality’ is hopelessly archaic and even dangerous.

On the other hand, I suspect that people prefer to talk about ‘ethics’ rather than ‘morality’ because ‘morality’ implies more absolute standards of right and wrong, and often hints at a God who will judge us based on those standards. ‘Ethics’ is something personal and specific to the individual. You can talk about ethics until the cows come home, with no need to refer to a God who will hold us to account for our ‘ethical’ stance.

(Just as an aside, I know that ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ have more precise technical meanings. But I’m talking here about the way the terms are used by the average person).

How do we respond to this kind of phenomenon as we seek to communicate the gospel of Jesus to our world? On the one hand, I’m tempted to ditch the term ‘moral’ altogether in case my hearers are distracted by all those associations with bigots, prudes and right-wing loonies; they’ll be in danger of not hearing the message I want to proclaim. On the other hand, if I talk about ‘ethics’ all the time, I may end up blunting the gospel message itself. Is it really sufficient to say that God will judge the ‘unethical’ behaviour of our world, that Jesus died to pay the terrible price for our lack of ethics, or that we must urgently turn to God and be ethical?

Are there other examples of words that Christians use that might have passed their use-by date? What might you replace them with? Can we change words and be clear without undermining the truth we are trying to proclaim? What words would you want to fight to preserve and define? Why?

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