Language Matters

Language Matters

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Tuesday, March 28, 2023

When we use inhuman words to describe ourselves, we slowly imagine ourselves less human. In time we become less human because our metaphors matter. In the church, the great Spirit-filled vehicle of becoming more human as we become more like Jesus, more like the world that sin made us forget, we should be especially careful to use metaphors which advance our shared humanity.

The words that we use create the categories that we think in. Language is upstream of thought.

Which sounds like a completely crazed thing to say, I imagine, though I’ve touched on the concept before when explaining why we can’t be ‘fixed’ and why ‘family’ is not a helpful term to use for the church, unless you actually are one.

The metaphors that we use are often inspired by the world around us, but they come with an implicit set of assumptions that then create categories for us. Almost as though our metaphors are ploughs that run furrows down the fields of our minds. To think across the furrows is difficult work and can sound bizarre to those who thoughts flow neatly and clearly along them.

This is the principle at play in Orwell’s famous novel 1984. Language is tightly controlled, with the dictionary being reprinted regularly, because the words we do and don’t use surround the edges of our thinking like fences that keep the sheep from straying. It’s a rare sheep who decides to play on the other side of the fence anyway—these madmen are sometimes those who revolutionise the way we approach our lives and thoughts, and sometimes they are just madmen.

Language makes an incredible tool of control, and often unwittingly we let forces we are unaware of control us through its use.

You can see this at play in most of our lives. To take a church example, imagine a church is Complementarian by conviction—which means that they understand the Bible’s witness to be that elders or pastors are, by definition, men—like mine is. Then imagine that they are concerned that their application of true Biblical principles can unjustly prevent women from serving in ways that God would call them to: I think this is common, though plenty of Complementarians would disagree with me.

That church then calls women into a variety of ‘leadership’ positions that are not eldership, depending on their convictions as to where they draw those lines. If they start to use the same terminology to speak of all of these various people, office-bearers or not, perhaps calling them all ‘leaders’ generically, then to begin with their Complementarian convictions will be fine.

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