Posts Tagged ‘translation’

Ancient Words and Reality

Words create reality!

Christians should know this better than anyone!

“And God said . . . , and there was. . . .!” And again, “In the beginning was the Word . . . through whom all things were made!” (Genesis 1:1-3, John 1:1-3).

Baptism is one good example of words creating religious reality. Virtually no one argues that the original Greek word translated would mean dipping or immersion.  But most English translators have not translated the word into English, rather have transliterated the word, i.e., taken the Greek and simply imported it into the English language. Transliteration is something that is done all the time in living languages, so there is nothing wrong with that. BUT they somewhat cloak the original meaning of the word.  And once the original meaning is hidden, the door is open to redefinition, i.e., creating new realities!

In fact, this is what happened with baptism! It would be very hard to justify practicing anything but immersion if the original word was always translated, but because it was transliterated, the English word baptism now can be used for pouring, sprinkling, or spraying!

I’ve been thinking about the word pastor?  Within the tradition in which I grew up, we seldom used the word pastor, and when we did, we were talking about the office of shepherd or elder as described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Probably with a certain degree of supposed spiritual superiority, we heard other religious groups call their ministers pastors—but we never did!

And now some of us do!  The first time I heard one of our ministers called pastor was in Africa, but they seemed to have a very good excuse. In their countries, the word minister was used almost exclusively for political officials, so they opted to go with the vernacular pastor.

Here in the States, I first heard it used among us when referring to the ministers of other churches who use it as their title of address, as in “Pastor Smith from First Baptist called me this week to . . . . .”  But most recently, I’ve noticed it spreading in how younger preachers especially introduce themselves to people outside churches of Christ: “Yes, I’m Bob Smith, and I’m senior pastor at the big church on the corner. . . .”

I have not yet seen it used as the official description for a minister in the Church of Christ—but I don’t think it is too far off in the future!

So what!

That’s what I keep asking myself.  I will admit to knee-jerking a bit the first few times I bumped into it, but I do have a degree in English, so I do know that words get their meanings from how people use them.  Just because pastor referred to the office of a church elder originally or in my youth does not mean that the connotation of the word could not change its denotation.

Did you know it is now correct to say, “He dove into third base” rather than “he dived into third base” which was the only correct verb form to use a generation ago?  With language and words, what is appropriate and what is correct can change.

So I got over my knee jerk and just accepted a new meaning for the word pastor.  There, that wasn’t so hard!

But then I began thinking about how words create reality, so I began to wonder what new reality might be created by this simple shift in word definition.  Here are some of my questions:

  1. Will using the term pastor diminish the sense of the ”priesthood of all believers?” ( Did you know priest is basically the same word as pastor?) Will changing words create the reality of a clergy-laity gap?
  2. Will pastors assume more of the role of overseers, shepherds, or bishops because of the historical meaning of the word? 
  3. If so, will they be held to the same standards of qualifications as recorded in 1 Timothy and Titus, or will they create a new office without qualifications, a non-shepherding pastor?
  4.  Is the use of pastor primarily an attempt to more accurately communicate or perhaps just  to create less differentiation with the greater evangelical world? Said another way: if we use all their words, do we become more like them?
  5. Are we OK with abandoning the restoration idea of calling Bible things by Bible names?  This mantra is not the Word of God, but speaking “as the oracle of God” offers a degree of certainty that we are not creating a new reality outside of God’s plan.

These are really questions, not answers!  I’d love to hear what you think!

I love the song Ancient Words by Michael W. Smith, and many of you do too! Perhaps the chorus summarizes what I’ve been trying to say:

Ancient words ever true
Changing me and changing you,
We have come with open hearts
Oh let the ancient words impart.



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