This extremely timely item first appeared here three years ago and actually originates with Dan Kimball back in January, 2008:
This week the Doctor of Ministry co-hort I am part of…has had some on-line discussion on definitions. This morning I had a breakfast meeting with two friends… and the same topic came up about defining the terms we use.
It seems that sometimes different people have different definitions of those words. Or the original definition of a term may have changed through time and one person is still are using it in the original way, while others are using it a different way. So you are having a conversation and assuming the other person believes the same thing you do about whatever term is being used, but you are actually talking about different things when asked to specifically define it.
This comes up a lot with such things like the word “evangelical”. Originally it had one meaning, but through time it has become more equated with a certain brand of political conservative right-wing Christians. The word “fundamentalist” in its beginning also had a much different meaning than it has today.
There is often the confusion of what the definition of “the emerging church” is. I can say at least for how I was originally using it, it has changed to a much broader definition. There is the whole “emerging church” and “emergent church” definitions and comparisons which only confusing things. But the definitions of certain words and terms can change.
…We were talking about theological and biblical terms and their definitions…how someone can say “I believe…” about something. But when asked to define what they believe or mean by a word specifically, it may differ from what the other person would define it as.
For example (and these all come from real discussions) – someone may say they believe in….
“the church“ – but is their definition of church is more of a building and a place. People who say they “go to church” theologically really can’t do that since we are the church. It normally means a building when you say you go to church. So you may hear someone say “church” but they are more defining it by the worship gathering that happens in a building vs. the people wherever they may be.
“the Gospel” – someone may say they believe in the Gospel, but what is their specific definition of the Gospel? There may be very significant differences in how one defines that.
“missional” – someone may say they are missional, but to them it means focusing most of their time on serving the poor and needy or getting involved in service projects in their community. To another it may mean putting on a large evangelistic event with Christian pop bands and lights and having an altar call where you raise your hand and pray. (In this case, I guess it sort of could be both, but I wouldn’t necessarily think these are holistic ways of defining missional or emerging-missional).
“Virgin Birth of Jesus” – someone may say they believe in the Virgin Birth. But is the Virgin Birth they believe in a parable or allegorical understanding of it, or a literal, it really happened understanding of it?
“hell” – someone may say they believe in hell, but it is an eternal punishment/separation hell or is it referring to more of the hell on earth people may go to in this life?
“inspired Scriptures“ – someone may say they believe in the inspired Scriptures, but it is the inspiration as in the Holy Spirit guiding the human authors so that exactly what God wanted in the Scriptures are there – or is it more of inspiration as in human beings writing out their own best thoughts and efforts to write about God, more like a person is “inspired” to write a song today or write a novel?
“Jesus” – someone may say they believe in “Jesus”, but as I know fully well from writing the They Like Jesus but not the Church book – someone can believe in the Jesus who is more like a Buddha or a Gandhi and follow their teachings, but it is a different Jesus than the Jesus who is the Son of God, died, came back to life, divine, Judge, Savior, coming back bodily one day etc.
…It is so easy to assume we are saying the same thing, when we may have drastically different definitions of the words. I try now to actually ask for specific definitions from people. It really helps me understand what others mean by certain terms where I am have assumed we had the same definition until I asked.
I am trying my best as I teach in our church to be defining words as I am using the word, in particular with terms like the ones above.
Lost posts: Do you have a classic blog post that you once read on someone’s blog that you find to be even more relevant today than the day it was posted? We’re looking for the lost blog posts from more than 2 years ago that we can revive here or at Christianity 201. Add the URL as a comment to this one.
Comments: I’ll be mostly offline over the weekend if moderation is needed it might take longer than normal.