Are we over-policing our language?

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We are quick to complain about “political correctness gone mad” but do we Evangelicals have our own tendencies to a form of political correctness when policing each other’s language? Here are a few examples:

“I’m going to church”

“Don’t you mean that you are going to the building where the church meets in order to gather with the other members of the church for one of its meetings?” Well yes I do. And we are I think capable of holding that distinction in our minds. We know that the church is the people not the building, it’s been drilled into us long enough. We are also able to talk about a building as “a church” as shorthand for the above.

“Thank you for a lovely evening”

My wife was actually picked up on this after a Bible study once. She thanked the host who had welcomed the group into their warm home and given them tea, coffee and delicious home baked cakes before leading a helpful study. She was told:

“No you must not thank her. You must thank God”

Of course she was grateful to God from who all good things come. Yet saying thank you to a kind host wasn’t slipping into idolatry and didn’t make her any less holy than the person who studiously chose not to say thank you.

“This is perfect for…”

A lot of book reviews will say that this or that book is perfect for a particular audience. Yet shouldn’t they say “This book is fallible and finite. It’s not perfect but the following people may find some helpful things in it”?

Well no.  I mean, there are issues with the expression “perfect for.” The phrase can be used as a kind of  back handed compliment as in:

“How does this suit look”

“It’s perfect for YOU sir.”


“This book is perfect for pastors of medium sized suburban churches in their early 40s “

(In other words, if you are a small church urban pastor in your early 30s then don’t even bother).

But we are able to distinguish a superlative use from an absolute use.  If we arrange to meet for coffee and I ask “when and where” and you say “Costas at 10am) when I reply with “perfect” I’m not saying that this is going to be the best possible coffee experience ever. I’m saying that the time and place work for me.

Similarly, when I say “this book is perfect for…” or “that job would be perfect for…” I’m not saying that they are faultless. I’m simply saying that they would be appropriate to the people named.

“You took the fall and thought of me, above all”

This is a line from the song “Above all powers.” It has come in for some criticism because it suggests that Jesus on the Cross was primarily thinking about me.  However properly speaking, his death on the Cross was bringing glory to God. Shouldn’t we say that he thought about himself above all?

Well remember that Jesus took on the nature of a servant, that he came because God loved the world, that his death does reconcile us to God.  Poetry uses extravagant, hyperbolic and absolute language to make points. I can sing “you are always on my mind”, “your praise is always on my lips” or even at a pinch “these are the days of Elijah” without taking them literally.

 So, it is possible to sing that Christ “thought of me above all” recognising that costly sacrifice without losing the beautiful theology that “God’s chief end is to glorify himself and enjoy himself for ever.”

“The Father turns his face away”

This is a helpful corrective for us conservative evangelicals because the warning that you are judged by the same standard you judge is so true when it comes to hymns and songs.  Conservative Evangelicals have come under some flak in recent years for our views on penal substitution and also on the Trinity. So, if you can attack us on both accounts at the same time then that has got to be a bonus.  Stuart Townend’s hymns have been the focal point for such attacks with some churches refusing to sing “The wrath of God was satisfied.”

Similarly the claim is made that when we sing “The Father turns his face away” that we are suggesting a split in the Trinity, dividing the persons.  Well, the response has to be

“No more than Jesus himself was when he cried out ‘My  God why have you forsaken me.”

Yes, Jesus would have been headlining the whole Psalm which points to God’s triumph and salvation. However, he explicitly chose that Psalm and those words. Jesus was not at that point doubting the oneness of God, his oneness with The Father. Nor, I suspect was Stuart Townend. Rather he was reflecting those words in contemporary poetry, taking time to reflect on the love of the Father who gives his only begotten son to die for us.  There he expresses the depth and cost of the Father’s love for us.

Gnats and Camels

The risk is that we become nit picky so that we are like those scribes and pharisees who Jesus said were “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.” 

There are two risks here. First, we show a lack of grasp and intuition for how language works. If we are unable to cope with the workings of our own language then how can we be trusted to handle the Bible written originally in other languages.  Further, if we are unable to grasp things like poetry and metaphor then it makes us look a little odd.

However  even more seriously is that if we are “straining at gnats” then whilst policing little phrases and song lyrics we may miss out on the camels of serious error or idolatrous culture that do need challenging.

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