novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George
Orwell introduced to the world a fictional language that he called “Newspeak”. This imaginary language reflected Orwell’s
view that English was developing pretentious diction and meaningless words that
undermine logical thinking. In the
novel, the political leaders exploit this tendency by using Newspeak to
subjugate and control the general populace.
leaders in the real world may not be able to control their congregations by
using distortions of language, but they can influence the behavior of the
unwary by twisting words in ways that benefit themselves primarily. This self-serving rhetoric is generally known
today as “Churchspeak”. Most websites
that post translations of Churchspeak, however, treat this artificial language
as a benign phenomenon—and well they
might since most of them are maintained by religious organizations. They present Churchspeak as the rather amusing
jargon used by insiders to establish their place in the institution. Typical of this light-hearted approach is the
Web posting, Get your Apse out of my
narthex! “A churchspeak for dummies”.
consideration of some Churchspeak suggests that perhaps not all this
ecclesiastical rhetoric is as harmless as advertised. Many of the expressions have meanings quite different
from standard English, and many metaphors are used in ways that are directly
contrary to biblical usage.
stewardship = giving your money to the church
In standard English, “property management” comes closest to the church’s usage of stewardship. While the term is no longer popular in the world of business and finance, conservationists often use it when discussing general responsibility for forests and wetlands. In neither case, however, do the stewards get to decide what portion of the income should be returned to the owner of the property. Even if they did, the analogy fails when we get to the question of the rightful owner of the church-goers’ property or the rightful recipient of their wages. The answer to the question of who has the financial rights is always “God”, but who gets the money is always the church.
Bible, the Greek word for steward is oikonomos,
literally house manager. In I Corinthians
4:1-2 , we read that the followers of Jesus are to be “stewards of God’s
mysteries”. With I Peter 4:10, we learn
that they are “stewards of the manifold grace of God”. Titus 1:7-9 says that “a bishop, as God’s
steward” is responsible for preaching “sound doctrine”. Stewards of mystery, grace, and doctrine, but
nowhere do we find that Christians are stewards of money or property. It is also interesting to note that the
Gospel according to Luke presents a rather dim view of an oikonomos in a parable attributed to Jesus. Perhaps because of the growing popularity of
using “stewardship” in church fundraising, the NRSV, unlike the KJV, translates
the Greek word in Luke 16:1-8 as dishonest “manager” instead of “steward”.
tithe = giving one tenth of your income or produce to the church
Although few mainline Protestant or Catholic churches actually receive a tenth of their people’s income or produce, they continue to bring up this peculiar standard, perhaps to show the people in the pews what cheapskates they are. When the church introduced the tithe in Britain, it was not a standard for voluntary giving but a tax on those who farmed church lands. Evidence for the practice still exists in the many tithe barns that once held the church’s share of the grain. The biblical precedent for this practice is apparently the system reported in Numbers 18:24, which describes a tax to support the landless Levites who managed the rituals at cult sites throughout Israel and Judah. The only mention of the tithe in the specifically Christian parts of the Bible is a mockery of the practice in a diatribe against the Pharisees found in Matthew 23:23.
God called me = I want to be ordained.
discernment = Perhaps you misunderstood.
Theoretically, since ancient times the church has taught that it is God’s business to fill the ranks of the clergy. The people whom God has chosen are supposed to get the message and present themselves to the appropriate authorities. Fifty years ago, when clergy were in short supply, few candidates were asked about their “call” until the ritual of ordination. During the Vietnam war, when draft boards were breathing down the necks of college graduates, more people sought ordination than the church could accommodate, so the church authorities put in place elaborate screening systems. At every step in the process, committees and commissions quizzed aspirants about “the call”. Naturally, the more they had to defend their call, the more aspirants felt that they knew God’s will and the less open they were to the opinions of other people.
the church turned them down, the aspirants became enraged or depressed or
both. In order to soften the blow,
church authorities began to substitute the word “discernment” for “screening”. That was a curious choice, inasmuch as in the
Christian tradition discernment was “perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction
and understanding” (The New Oxford American Dictionary; emphasis mine). Because the various interviewers had
responsibility for evaluating the aspirants’ qualifications to prepare for
ordination, calling the process “discernment” is clearly a case of the church
authorities making judgments but trying to avoid responsibility for upsetting the
people they reject.
formation instead of education
While education is highly regarded in this country, formation has primarily negative connotations when it comes to human beings. While education connotes active participation, formation is passive, requiring no involvement on the part of that which is being formed. The New Oxford American Dictionary gives four examples of formation: the Great Rift Valley, clouds, the formal arrangement of military aircraft or troops, and an assemblage of rocks. “Formation” suggests that the church intends to press people into molds so that they will more closely resemble what the church wants them to be.
The growing popularity of the term formation among Christians runs counter to our culture. The promise of education beckons us. It reminds us that, according to the gospels, the first followers of Jesus referred to him primarily as their teacher, didaskolos or rabbi. They referred to themselves as disciples, mathetai—literally those who learn. If church leaders genuinely mean by “formation” what the church used to call “education”, at least in this instance, they should abandon Churchspeak in favor of standard English.