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The River of Language

by Tim O'Hearn

Language is a fluid thing, like a river. A small stream flowing out of the north joins with the Ohio and Missouri rivers to become the mighty Mississippi. And yet, the Mississippi at Memphis and the same river at New Orleans are very different. In the same way language flows, is added to, and changes. The English of America in 2015 is not the same as the English of England in 1611, when the King James Version of the Bible was translated. And yet many even today insist on using the same words in the same way. We deride the Amish for being frozen in the 1800s, and yet in many ways we try to freeze the Bible in the 1600s.

The King James Version is, on the whole, still one of the best translations of the Bible. In many ways it surpasses the second favorite today, the New International Version. It must be understood, however, that it is one of the best translations if one knows the meanings of the words. Unfortunately, some words have changed in meaning since the time they were used in the translation. Language is, after all, fluid. Perhaps the most commonly used example is 1 Thessalonians 4:15, which says that “we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” The modern usage of the word “prevent” would imply that Paul’s readers imagined that the living would keep the dead from going to heaven. In 1611, however, readers understood that word to mean “precede” rather than “obstruct.” Another example shows three words that have changed meanings: suffer, allow, and let. The first of those words would today be translated by the second, and the second by the third; and let originally had the meaning of “hinder” rather than “permit.”

We can see those changes in language, and actually prefer the newer ideas. But many in the church are not willing to grant the same consideration to other words. One that particularly comes to mind is the word “pastor.” For years in the Churches of Christ people have been pointing out that a pastor is not the preacher, but rather one of the elders. Much time has been spent pointing out that 1 Timothy 3 uses bishop and elder interchangeably, and that 1 Peter 5:1-4 uses elder and the concept of the shepherd (pastor) interchangeably. Therefore elder/bishop/pastor all refer to the office of elder. In modern English, however, the preacher of a congregation is often called the pastor, whether or not he holds the office of elder. In some religious groups they have many pastors, but no elders. Perhaps it is time for some people to realize that some words have changed in meaning over the years. Rather than turning people off by insisting that a pastor should be the same as an elder, perhaps we should be embracing their terminology and using that as a starting point for agreement.

On the other hand, sometimes the fluidity of language has not been favorable. The translators of the King James Version did the world a disservice when they refused to translate the Greek word baptizo, but rather used the word baptize. Perhaps the reason they did so was that practice had changed and they did not want to offend. To baptize, in modern parlance, could mean to immerse, to pour water on, or to sprinkle with water. This change in meaning from the original Greek has taken away one of the most beautiful pictures of salvation. When we take baptize to mean anything other than immersion, we destroy the whole concept Paul was trying to portray in Romans 6. Baptism is a reenactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. When we change it to anything other than immersion, we take away from that picture. Who, after all, considers a person buried if they are lying on the ground with a little dirt sprinkled on their head?

Language is a river. Sometimes that is good; sometimes that is not so good. The hard part is determining when we should resist change or when we should just go with the flow.