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Religious Jargon

by Tim O'Hearn

A recent e-mail conversation I had reminded me that what we say is not always what the other person hears. This seems to be especially true when both are using a specialized language, or jargon. For instance, if you say “secure that door,” a sailor may just close it, while a soldier will guard it. Different primary meanings attach to the word “secure” depending on experience and context.

This phenomenon seems to be especially true when we use “religious words.” There has grown up a considerable religious jargon, part of it based in the English of the King James Version of the Bible. Some are everyday words used in a new context. Others are words that have been transliterated from another language, rather than translated. Each of us interprets those words by what we have been taught.

The conversation that started this thought was a case in point. The other person stated that one can be saved without being baptized. After three e-mails each way, I finally asked for his definition of salvation. He answered that salvation is believing. I had been arguing from a position that salvation is forgiveness of sins. We had wasted thousands of words because we used a religious word, “salvation,” for two different concepts.

There are at least two dangers in using such jargon without defining it for the listener. The obvious danger is that the listener will misunderstand, or not understand, what you are saying. The second is that the listener may have an emotional content to a word that you don’t have.

My e-mail experience was one example of the first danger. Salvation was open to a misunderstanding. The same could be said of the word “baptism.” King James’ translators chose not to translate the word as immersion. If they had chosen to translate the word we wouldn’t have people saying, “but I was baptized years ago,” when they were sprinkled with a little water rather than immersed. It makes teaching them much harder. Another such word is “repent,” which now often means to feel sorry for something without committing to a change in one’s life.

Other words mean nothing to the hearer, and so we do ourselves a disservice to use them. Outside Jewish and Christian circles, and maybe even most people inside them, few people would understand the phrase “propitiation for sin.” What is propitiation? It’s hardly an everyday word. (It means a covering.) Even the related word “atonement” often meets blank stares. Without teaching about Romans 6 first, most people would not understand the phrase “buried in baptism” that is so popular in the churches of Christ. If we intend to teach others about God’s word, we need to teach at their level. Often that level doesn’t include our religious jargon.

The second problem may be less prevalent, but more damaging. Certain words contain an emotional content that is not easy to overcome. The classic example would be the use of “Jesus Christ” in teaching Jews. After almost two thousand years of persecution the term “Christ” bears such a negative connotation that we would be better served to speak of Jesus the Messiah instead.

Any time we talk to people about religion, we should be speaking on their level, in their terms. There is nothing wrong with religious jargon, if we define it. When we just toss it out expecting people to know what we mean, we have lost them from the first word. We may actually harm our own cause by doing so.