In our work in Europe we meet many church planters and church catalysts. Some are quite “traditional” in their understanding and practice of “church,” while others are pretty innovative. We’re particularly fascinated by those who “pitch their tents” among those at the ‘margins’ and who seek to make the gospel understandable and relevant through sharing life with those on the “outside.”
We had an interesting conversation with a young ministry leader in France. Most of what he does to bring people to Jesus and grow the church takes place on the streets, among people who really don’t care much for “church.” As you might expect, he was a bit of a character, but we found him engaging and reflecting on his ministry was stimulating.
One thing he said took me aback, at least at first. “As you connect with people, it’s important for sure that they know you follow Jesus. But my advice is to avoid using any of those crazy Christian churchy words.” Come again? Isn’t that downplaying the most essential things about Jesus, about WHY we follow him?
You can’t explain faith in Jesus without “churchy words,” can you? Jesus as Savior, the gospel that explains how the Lord has become incarnate to bring us eternal life. Discard those “churchy words” and what’s left?
Well, in contemporary English words like “savior,” “Lord,” “salvation,” “gospel” and the like ARE “churchy” (they really don’t have relevant meaning outside their function as “religious” terms). However, they didn’t start out that way… and the people who first read the narratives and the correspondence that make up the New Testament would not have heard “churchy words” either.
Here’s an inscription that we saw with our own eyes from Priene (in Turkey, near Miletus, where Paul said farewell to the Ephesus elders in Acts 20). It was placed there in 9BC:
Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance… surpasses all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him,
… the birth of Caesar Augustus was “the beginning of breath and life”… the honor of Augustus should remain forever… This decree was to be inscribed on a “white stone” and placed in the temple in Pergamum.
So Caesar was calling himself “Savior” before Jesus was born? The “birthday” of “the god Augustus” was described as “the beginning of the gospel” decades before Mark began his documentation of the life of Jesus with those same words (“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…”). The word for “appearing” is the same word we use for “epiphany,” referring to the “coming of Jesus.” Elsewhere in the inscription Caesar is affirmed as “kurios” (“Lord”).
So in none of the cases where such words appear in Scripture are they “churchy” or even religious in reference. In fact, these terms – rather than being part of the unique lexicon of the “church” or people of faith – were actually employed by the Empire to authenticate itself as having a “divine right” to rule.
No one would have heard Jesus referred to as “savior” who has “appeared to us” to bring us “salvation” and thought, “Ah, here are those churchy words again…” Instead they would be struck, perhaps even shocked, that terms that are explicitly used, time and time again, to praise the glory of the Empire were being (scandalously!) “repurposed” in some rather novel ways to glorify Jesus.
The clear subtext to the original readers would have been “the things that the Empire and the Caesar are saying about themselves must be false, because those words actually should be applied to Jesus.”
The Revelation of John, written to believers suffering persecution at the hands of this Empire has many instances of “repurposed” imperial language: “the origin of God’s creation” | “give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne” | “(all) in heaven and on earth (sing)… blessing and honor and glory and might to the one sitting on the throne” | “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be…” | “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth– to every nation and tribe and language and people” |
And a generation after the Augustus inscription was “inscribed on a white stone” to be placed in the temple in Pergamum, John wrote to the Christians in that city, “To the one who overcomes, I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it”
Our current “world system” talks a lot about things like “national security,” “prosperity,” “robust economy,” “greatness,” etc. But the gospel comes along and says, “Those words you think apply to the “system”? Well, guess what… they really apply to JESUS.”
So while I was taken aback at my friend’s suggestion to “avoid churchy words,” doing so might actually bring us closer to the original message. As opposed to holding tenaciously to terms that we think are “religious” but which, when first coined, were subversions of the language of the Empire, we might consider a different approach… What “contemporary imperial” terms, words and concepts might WE need to “repurpose” in order to speak authentically to our world?