The Importance of Words & Context

book-160876_1280William J. Stewart | Is That Really What It Means?

“Inconceivable!” If you have seen the movie The Princess Bride, you recognize this as the word used repeatedly by Vizzini, a witty Sicilian criminal mastermind. After hearing his boss use it several times, the hired swordsman, Inigo Montoya declared, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” There have been times I’ve had the same thought about how folks use the Bible— “…I don’t think that verse means what you think it means.”

Words are important. In fact, I’m not sure the word important is emphatic enough to convey what I’m trying to say. Critical. Essential. Necessary. Vital. Paramount. Imperative. Words are the vehicle of communication; so we must use them correctly and with integrity. What do I mean by that? You and I do not have the right to redefine a word so it will mean what we want it to mean. Doing so is void of honesty, is intentionally deceptive, and leads to misunderstanding, falsehood, and division.

Most people in my generation will recall an infamous statement made by President Bill Clinton, when he appeared before the Grand Jury. Having been asked about an affidavit given by his attorney about Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the President said: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” You don’t have to be a linguistic expert to see that he was playing word games in an attempt to avoid the question posed to him.

Sadly, such dishonest use of language happens in religious conversations as well. Now, don’t mistake what I am saying. There is nothing wrong with basing an argument on the meaning of a word. In fact, Jesus’ case for being deity in John 10:31-36 relies on the meaning of a phrase in Psalm 82:6. In Matthew 22:29-32, the Lord affirmed life after death based on the tense of a word used in Exodus 3:6. Words are important. Arguments, biblical and otherwise, depend upon words and their meaning.

When people redefine words and base arguments on their own definitions, it’s difficult, dare I say, impossible to have a reasonable conversation. Several words are often misused by religious folks today. We’ll not take the time to delve into the misuses here, but simply give a short list of examples: church, baptism, faith, pastor, elder, saved, Sabbath, priest, anointing, elect, calling, etc.. It will be hard to agree on what the Bible says if we cannot agree on what the terms used in it mean. It’s time to stop redefining terms, and to seek to know how they were used by the Bible writers.

As important (critical, essential, necessary, etc.—you get the picture) as the meaning of word are, we must also respect the context in which words or statements are found.  When someone feels compelled to ignore context, they have opened the door to deceit and falsehood.

In May 2013, a website associated with Sri Lanka’s president quoted The Guardian UK as saying, “Sri Lanka has everything to offer perfect holiday.” Makes you think Sri Lanka might be a great vacation destination, right? But the original article reads like this: “Sri Lanka has the hotels, the food, the climate and the charm to offer the perfect holiday, says Ruaridh Nicoll. It’s just a pity about the increasingly despotic government.”

Context is key! Not a word was added to the original quote; but the words that were ignored make a huge difference. The same type of thing happens in Bible discussions. A number of doctrines find support by simply taking a single verse (or section of a verse) and building a case on it. Never mind the fact that the context might be saying the exact opposite, or that the original writer did not really support the resulting doctrine.

There are all kinds of examples to look at; and that is the very thing we will be doing in our series of article. Some of the context capers we will look at are used to support various denominational teachings; some will sit a bit closer to home, as they have been misused by our brethren, possibly even we ourselves.

The Guardian

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