(Psalm 19:14) May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Words matter. Words can bless and words can curse. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for their words. Jesus forgave the sins of the thief on a cross for his words. God created the universe with words. Jesus is the Word. Words matter very much indeed.
And yet we in the Churches of Christ have a tendency to be very careless about our words. To persuade others of our views, we often slander our brothers and sisters by calling them names and falsely stereotyping them. We often judge the motives of our opponents without justification. Much harm has been done, and great sin committed, through the careless use of words.
As we try to reconcile warring factions within the Churches of Christ, we can easily frustrate our purposes by using words wrongly. Therefore, I try to use words very cautiously, “as though speaking the very oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11 KJV). Indeed, we are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
As I’ve considered the many issues that surround our divisions, I’ve come to realize the Churches are so divided we don’t even know how to describe the fact of our division. For example, if we call some congregations “conservative,” must we refer to others as “liberal”? While “conservative” is usually not an insult, “liberal” almost always carries a negative connotation in Church of Christ circles. Just so, if some churches are “institutional” or “cooperative,” are others “anti-institutional” or “anti-cooperative”? In Church of Christ circles, “anti” is used as a term of reproach.
As a matter of principle, I refuse to use words that demean hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters. Jesus condemned the use of “Raca” and “fool,” and surely he meant to prohibit the use of all demeaning labels. Hence, if someone permits a practice we consider wrong, I will refer to that person neither as a “liberal” nor as a “digressive.” These terms are intentionally insulting and therefore impermissible. And if someone considers a practice sinful that I consider permissible, I will not refer to him or her as an “anti.”
But surrendering these words to Jesus leaves me somewhat short of useful terms. After all, most of the terms we use to describe one another are intended as insults! (It’s hard to speak a sadder commentary on the current state of the Churches.) Hence, I generally use the terms that each party uses to refer to itself. Those who are moving away from many of the practices and teachings that characterized the 20th Century Churches of Christ I call “progressives.” Of course, I know that those who disagree would strongly dispute the term, insisting that they are making no progress at all but are, rather, digressing. But I’d rather be a bit controversial than violate the Sermon on the Mount.
Similarly, those who reject certain forms of inter-congregational cooperation I call “non-institutional,” as this is their preferred term. And those who oppose the progressives I call “conservatives.” The term generally refers to those who oppose change, and that is certainly apt in our current circumstances. Of course, in broader theological circles, “conservative” generally refers to a believer who accepts the inspiration of scripture, the virgin birth, miracles, and the divinity of Jesus — that is, not a liberal — and the fact is that all factions within the Churches of Christ are conservative in this sense. Hence, calling those who defend 20th Century teachings “conservative” hardly means that the progresives aren’t conservative, too. It’s just the term the conservatives like to use for themselves.
Those who are caught in the middle between conservatives and progressives, I call “moderates.” Again, those I know in that camp prefer that term.
These divisions aren’t sharply defined. Many a congregation will be moderate but with tendencies toward being progressive or conservative. Indeed, there are degrees of being progressive and of being conservative. The terms imprecisely draw lines along an ever-shifting continuum. Therefore, I try to be careful to avoid overly generalizing about what conservative, or non-institutional, or progressive churches teach or practice. It is unlikely that much can be said about all churches of any classification except that all believe in Jesus, all accept the inspiration of scripture, and all seek to obey God’s commands as they understand them.
There are those who would dispute that last statement, but I’ve yet to come across a congregation of the Churches of Christ for which these conclusions aren’t true. Until proven to the contrary, I choose to think kindly of my brothers and sisters. Some see things differently, but I believe my approach is commanded by scripture.
(Matt. 7:1-2) “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
(James 4:11-12) Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor?
Let’s go a little deeper. Why did Jesus condemn calling someone “Raca” or “fool”? Are these dirty words? Or is the principle deeper?
(Mat 5:21-22) “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Notice how Jesus teaches this lesson as a commentary on “Do not murder.” The connection isn’t obvious, but it’s important.
You see, in times of war, we invent names for the enemy that dehumanizes him, making him easier to kill. It’s far easier to shoot or bomb a “Nazi” or a “kraut” than a “Lutheran” or “believer in Christ,” or even “fellow human.”
Just so, it’s easier to condemn a “liberal,” “digressive,” or “anti” from the pulpit than a “brother in Christ” or “person for whom Jesus died.” We invent names to make it easier to kill and to hate and to condemn. And this is why those names are spoken with a curl of the lip and a sneer.
We honor Jesus’ command not by changing our vocabulary so much as by changing our attitude. “Speaking the truth in love” only happens when the person of whom we are speaking feels loved. And no one feels loved when he’s being called a name. In fact, he feels a dehumanized.
Name calling is a serious sin. It’s past time for us to all stop.