Just words?

Diane Benge

Language can be a funny thing. I remember sitting through a series of meetings in which a group of us were trying to formulate a statement which we were intending to present at a larger meeting later in the month. The issues we were wanting to discuss were sensitive and most of us were at great pains to word the statement very carefully so as to avoid any misunderstanding of the points we were trying to make.

At one point while we were deeply enthralled in intense debate over which of two particular words best conveyed the sense of what we were trying to communicate, we were surprised to see someone who had been sitting quietly to the side watching the procedure leap from his seat in utter frustration and yell very loudly: "Oh for goodness sake! It's just words! It doesn't matter which word you choose to put down, just say it for crying out loud and let's move on!"

For a few moments we all sat in stunned silence and then most of us collapsed in screaming heaps of laughter, including the perpetrator of the outburst.

For some, the laughter was simply a way of relieving the tension. For others it was due to our sheer incredulity that someone could seriously suggest that just any words would do. Certainly the phrase 'mud of dog and blue trash biscuit' - though it is indeed made up of words - does not manage to convey the subtlety which most of us were after!

The words we pick carry the meaning of what we want to say. It is therefore vital to try as hard as possible to pick the right words.

The point is that words are the only tools we have with which to convey ideas. It was an essay written by George Orwell which first introduced me to the idea that when we allow our language to be limited, our thinking will be correspondingly limited. Words are the tools of thought, before they are the tools of communication.


But then choosing the right word is not always so easy. As I said earlier, language is a funny thing. Sometimes a single word can have a variety of meanings.

Take the word 'church' for instance. I can think of at least three quite separate meanings. When we say 'church' we might be talking about a building, maybe with a steeple and a graveyard.

Or we might mean the Bride of Christ - that is the Universal Church (usually designated by a capital 'C') - the vast number of Christians who have been gathered up to make Christ's body throughout the centuries from the time of his resurrection until now.

Or we might be talking about a particular group of Christians in the same locality who meet together on Sundays for the purpose of worshipping God: people who define themself as believing (and doing) 'this' but not 'that', over and against other Christian groups which believe and do slightly different things. (To complicate matters, the word 'church' is also used to denote the collection of all these individual groups - as in 'the New Zealand church'.)

Each of the entities described here may legitimately be called 'church', but each has a distinctive character which separates it from the others.


We can find ourselves running into all sorts of difficulties if we muddle up the various meanings of the word 'church'. Let's consider, for example, the phrase 'altering the church'.

If someone were to suggest that a particular church (of the building variety) should be altered or modernised, scarcely anyone would bat an eyelid. Churches regularly raise funds to complete various building projects: kitchens and meeting rooms are added on, sanctuaries and auditoriums are enlarged.

What about altering the Church Universal? Can we do that? Not really, no. The Church Universal is God's possession to do with as God wills. It seems to me that the only way we can 'alter' - or have an effect on - the Church Universal, is to do our best to bring more people to Christ, and to encourage and help, in whatever way we can, those people who belong to Christ to become more Christlike.

And what of altering the 'particular local group of Christians' variety of church? An alteration here might involve changing some of the ways we go about things - the ways we 'do church' - in order to bring more people into the Church Universal.


Confusion arises when the idea of altering some of the ways we 'do' church in the context of a particular faith community, gets muddled up with the idea that this constitutes some kind of attack on (or threat to) the Universal Church. To acknowledge that Christians are not interacting as successfully with the surrounding culture as we once did, is not to belittle the Church Universal in any way. This is a matter which relates instead to the localised groups of people who meet together for the purpose of worshipping God and supporting each other in the Christian life.

Society's expectations and ways of behaving have changed. We - in each of our diverse Christian gatherings - should carefully consider how those changes affect the way we are heard and understood, if we are to be successful in reaching out to people with the Good News and in providing 'homes' for those who come into the kingdom of God.

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