Definitions Matter

I think it is common knowledge that conversations about politics and religion often are unproductive due to people talking past each other.   This is obviously largely due to people being cranky and dumb, but I think it also has a lot to do with word choice and definitions.   If there is one think I have learned through the liberal arts is that pretty much everything is a social construct.  (While I disagree with this conclusion on some things I think they are right on with language.) What I mean when I say something it might mean something completely different when someone else says it.  Here are 5 words I feel like I hear thrown around without an agreed upon definition.

1. Homosexuality – I honestly don’t even know what this word means anymore.  Is it an orientation?  Is it a lifestyle?  Is someone who experiences same-sex attraction a “homosexual.”  Is Sam Alberry, who is a British preacher who is celibate and experiences same-sex attraction a homosexual?  The importance of the definition of this word is of the utmost importance.  It is pretty much agreed upon in evangelical Christianity that “homosexuality” is a sin.  Even though I believe in biblical sexual ethics and that same sex relations are sinful, I do not feel conferrable saying homosexuality is a sin.  If an orientation makes someone a homosexual, then I do not feel conferrable that saying homosexuality is a sin.  Homosexual lust is a so just like heterosexual lust is a sin, but I do not believe an orientation is a sin.  Acting upon this orientation lustfully or physically is a sin, but I don’t know if the orientation or the action is what homosexuality means.

2. Islam – Is Islam violent?  I don’t really know.  It depends on what Islam means.  Is Islam specifically the religion of Muhammad, or is it the collective group of people who claim to be Muslims.  If it is the former then yes Islam is violent, but if it is the latter then no, not on the whole.  The religion of Muhammad is violent, but most who claim to follow it are not.  This distinction must be made.  Calling Islam a peaceful religion is dangerous because the Quran clearly prescribes violence and ISIS reflects this, but calling Islam violent is also dangerous because this will lead us to make assumptions about all Muslims that do not reflect the majority.

3. Liberal – Is being liberal bad for a Christian?  Well that depends on what liberal means.  America was founded as a liberal democracy.  Liberalism is a theory in international politics.  Clearly neither of those are “bad.”   Liberalism is also a political ideology that is associated with progressive ideas and the Democratic Party.  This is also not always bad (yupp I just said that liberal politics aren’t always bad.). I support immigration reform and prison reform.  These are both “liberal” ideas.  I oppose war in most cases.  Also liberal.  These liberal political concoctions are rooted in my conservative theological convictions.  Liberal politics and liberal theology do not always go together.  Conservative politics and conservative theology do not always go together.  If by liberal I mean Paul Tillich and Fredrixb Schleiermaxher, or the support of liberal abortion policies, well then yes that is an issue, but this is not always what liberal means.

4. Religion – First let me tell you how much I hate the “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship” nonsense.  But is Christianity a religion?  What is a religion?  Is it a set of beliefs that make up a worldview or is it something that is purely spiritual and involves earning your salvation?  If it is the former, then yes, Christianity is a religion.  If it is the later, the. It most certainly is not.  I appreciate Jefferson Bethke and Tim Keller distinguishing between “religion” and the gospel.  Yes Christianity does have a set of beliefs or doctrine, but it is not limited to the spiritual realm.  Christianity has something to say about every area of life.  And, the gospel is the antithesis of every other religion.  So in that way it is not “religion.”  It is not a way to earn your salvation.  It is a declaration of salvation already earned for you by God.   That distinction must be clear.  

5. Cult – Is Mormonism a cult?  Is a cult a group of people doing weird dances and séances around a fire.   In that sense it is not a cult.  There are many societally normal and very intelligent Mormons.  Most are that I know of.  They aren’t like Jim Jones.  If by cult you mean a derivation  from orthodox Christianity, then yes. Mormonism is heretical.   

Definitions matter.


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