Missing Words

Every year new words are added to our English language. Other words fall out of the vocabulary and become archaic.

Words like algorithm, Facebook, email, blog, Google and the Internet—all part of our computer age—were not part of our vocabulary a few decades ago. Can you imagine the look on a person’s face, thirty years ago, if I said something like, “I wanted a recipe for gluten free bread so I googled it?”

People might think I had just arrived from another planet.

New words are also added in our religious vocabulary. The church growth movement of the last half of the twentieth century introduced words like “mega church” (“large church” had always been sufficient). Virtual worship entered our vocabulary after COVID19. There is no such thing as virtual worship or praise. Biblical praise requires verbal boasting about God so that a listener can respond or affirm. How, then, can I praise God if there is nobody to listen and respond? Does praising God via Zoom ciunt as corporate worship? I’ll leave that one with you.

It’s the words that seem to be missing in some contemporary Christian churches that trouble me most. Biblical words that were frequently heard from the pulpit (there’s another word we used to hear.) only a few decades ago but seldom heard today.

I realize there are exceptions. There are churches and pastors that still tell it like it is written in God’s Word. And they are lighthouses on a darkening landscape.

I suspect the move toward “seeker friendly” church services has influenced this choice to avoid words that might offend—hell, sin and blood don’t sell well today.

The movement away from expository preaching toward homilies—offering three secrets to a happy marriage or a larger bank account can’t replace what Paul called sound teaching. (Sound or healthy teaching  is the Greek word used in the New Testament. )

Another casualty from this dearth of biblical teaching has been the break-up of the family and the spiraling rate of divorce and remarriage in our churches. Children have grown up in homes, far too often, without sound parental instruction of how to live morally and uprightly. I wonder, have youth ministries—trying to compete with the secular culture—failed to teach biblical ethics and sexuality?

The secular culture is a major influence on the changing values and ethics of professing Christians. We are inundated with messages encouraging instant sexual gratification. While our youth are receiving little or no instruction about biblical sexuality, they are consistently receiving messages—through music and movies and television—that sex before or outside of a committed marital covenant is normal and safe. Seldom are we reminded that there are serious consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases, inconvenient pregnancies and emotional scars.

My chief concern is that these cultural changes in sexual mores have infiltrated the church.

I share a few statistics about the practice of co-habiting among professing Christians taken from an article in the April 2021 Christianity Today. According to a Pew Research survey in 2019 58% of white evangelicals and 70% of black Protestants believe cohabiting is acceptable if the couple plan to marry. A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 43% of evangelical Protestants ages 15-22 said they would definitely or probably cohabit in the future. Only 24% said they would definitely not.  53 percent of evangelical Protestants that are currently in their first marriage have cohabited with each other prior to marriage. COVID19 has apparently increased this cohabiting without marriage.

Our views as professing Christians toward divorce and remarriage have also changed. Divorce for almost any (or no) reason is becoming accepted in the evangelical church.

It seems to me that instead of being authentic Christ-followers we are morphing into “cultural Christians.” Culture, not the Bible, is shaping our values and mores. We sing that we love Jesus, but far too often our actions deny it. Didn’t Jesus say, “If you love me you will obey me?” The proof that Israel loved God, in the older testament, was that they obeyed him.

Let me share a few words that are apparently vanishing from our evangelical vocabulary. Words like holy matrimony, adultery, fornication, incest, polygamy and pre-marital sex. None of those words appeared the nearly five-page-article about co-habiting in the magazine article I mentioned above. I realize the article was specifically about the increased acceptance of co-habiting, but where were the biblical terms: adultery or fornication? Is “co-habiting” becoming another euphemism like “an affair” or “sleeping with” or “hooking up” to avoid using the more offensive biblical words to describe sin?

 By the way, the argument some use to justify cohabiting in order to see if the couple is compatible prior to entering into a marriage covenant doesn’t seem to work. In fact, the risk of divorce among married couples that cohabited prior to marriage actually increases.

As a pastor of almost five decades I have witnessed the increase in cohabiting prior to marriage. The greatest shock to me has been the apparent ignorance that it is actually called fornication in the Bible. I suspect that some young people have never even heard the word, fornication, let alone been taught that it is wrong—not to mention harmful.

How can we defend this biblical naiveté in our so-called evangelical, Bible-believing churches? I wonder how many young people passing through our children and youth programs are biblically literate. Would they know where to locate the Ten Commandments? The Sermon on The Mount?

I believe the causes of this gap between what we profess and how we live are manifold, but the primary blame lies on our spiritual leaders. It’s our responsibility as pastors and Christian parents to teach God’s Word. We are not called to follow the shifting winds of culture. We are not called to be popular but to live holy lives in a “crooked and perverse” generation. We are called to lead by our example.

Yes, we must continue to preach grace, practice love, offer encouragement and to seek to comfort and help the broken and wounded. But we must also exhort them to obey God. Otherwise, we are teaching them to build their lives on sand. The only difference between the two home builders—the two houses— in Jesus’ parable is one word: obedience. Both men had heard the truth, but only one had applied the truth to his life. Jesus taught that it is not enough to know or to claim to love God’s Word, we must do what it commands. Anything less is building a shack on the shifting sand of our culture.

We may not be called to be judges, especially of the culture around us, but we are called to speak the truth, the whole truth to those whom God has placed under our leadership.

Because the Church has been following culture rather than leading, our culture is rapidly disintegrating. Today we deal with gender identity issues, women competing against men in sports, the State permitting a child to change their gender without parental permission and a host of problems that we couldn’t imagine thirty years ago.

The Congress and the Supreme Court have perverted the institution of marriage. A few years ago the issue was whether two men (or two women) could legally marry each other. But that was yesterday. Just recently a parent on the east coast has filed a legal challenge to be able to marry their adult child. That was once called incest and forbidden in almost every culture and religion. Definitely forbidden in the Bible.

Soon, if not already, someone will be seeking legal permission to marry and have sexual intercourse with their pet dog. I am not kidding. That is the risk once we have replaced God’s Word with whatever the changing winds of culture demand.

I remember this phrase from the musical, Fiddler on The Roof,” Pull out a thread and when will it stop?” Traditions had kept the small, Jewish community intact, but times were changing, just as they are today.

When will it stop? Probably never! Have we crossed the line of no return?

One thing is certain: The Church, God’s people on earth, have the thread and the needle to help stitch the hemorrhaging wounds in our culture. God has also provided the pattern for healthy sexuality, healthy families and a healthy church.

It is not ours to re-imagine a new, better world.

 But It is ours to simply trust and obey.