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Should we reject weaponized words?

I’m a big believer in the saying that words matter. Both in form and function, words have the power to change hearts and minds. They have the power to build up and to destroy; to bless and to curse (James 3). And because that is true, we need to be careful with how we use them. Words—especially good ones—can so easily be weaponized.

This is a danger to us in the American church, in our particular moment.

A good word wielded wrongly

In the middle to late 20th century, one word in particular became popularized among American evangelicals: inerrancy. This word describes the belief that the Bible itself is “free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.” That what the Bible says and teaches is true.

In and of itself, inerrancy is a good word and an important one. It communicates a truth that faithful Christians across traditions have largely agreed upon for centuries. Yet it is also a word that has been weaponized. How?

By redefining it not in form but in function.

This seems to be the primary issue in the debates about inerrancy, especially online and within the most conservative factions of conservative groups like the Southern Baptists. And in that, the main concern—at least as it is expressed by the loudest voices—does not seem to actually be about the trustworthiness of Scripture as the word actually means. It’s about their interpretation of Scripture.

No matter the issue, to deviate from one side’s interpretation is to be at risk of abandoning orthodoxy or being on a liberal drift—even if you actually agree in principle.1

Whether intentionally or not, the redefinition ultimately serves one purpose. It is not to protect genuine orthodox belief. It is to instill fear.

Playing by the world’s rules

The irony, of course, is that this sort of weaponizing of good terms by changing their meaning is exactly what we should not be doing. It’s playing by the exact same rules identity politics activists, and many self-identified progressive Christians, have used for decades.

Think about the word “tolerance.” Once upon a time, tolerance meant accepting without affirmation. And this is a good thing—a great thing, even. It is a virtue of a principled pluralistic society because people of diverse perspectives need to be able to live together in peace.

But over time that has been twisted into what its become, where to tolerate is not merely to affirm, but to celebrate. And those who will not celebrate are close-minded bigots, and most damning for Christians, fundamentalists.

To use these sorts of tactics—to, essentially, seek conformity through fear—is wholly unbecoming for those who claim to be Christians. It is a sort of pharisaism that is entirely in conflict with what Scripture commands of us, which is not to be quarrelsome and divisive (2 Timothy 2:24).

How to restore a weaponized word

I do not believe we should relinquish weaponized words to whose who misuse them. We must restore them. We need to uphold their intended meaning and use for the good of all. So how do we do that?

  • Ask for clarity. To continue with the example, when a word like “inerrancy” is used, ask your interlocutor to define it.2
  • Address the potential error. If a word is being used incorrectly, challenge its use. Point out what inerrancy doesn’t mean as much as what it does. Call out how it may be being misapplied.
  • Use the word as intended. Even if your “opponent” continues to use a word incorrectly, show their error by using it as it was meant. It may frustrate them, but it is only because their folly is on display.

In a very real sense, to restore a weaponized word puts what we read in Proverbs 26:5 into practice. We are answering a “fool” according to his folly, and in doing so preventing him from becoming wise in his own eyes. We are correcting a brother or sister who is in error and calling them back to the truth.

It is an act of genuine love. And if we love them—whether we agree with them or not—then this is a task we must pursue.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

  1. This is especially true within the SBC as it relates to the specific roles men and women play in the church. ↩︎
  2. This is usually pretty easy, especially if there is a clear and generally accepted definition. For example, “interlocutor” means someone taking part in a discussion or conversation. ↩︎
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