Thursday, August 25, 2011

Foul Language

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Foul Language:

Q:  Is it a sin to use “curse words” or “foul language?”  Where in the Bible can this be found?

The acceptability of certain language in our culture is certainly a standard which has seen a great deal of change in the past two decades.  I grew up in the era of the “Seven words you can’t say on Television,” which seems to have been a transitional time which left behind the excessively-conservative portrayals of married  couples sleeping in separate twin beds, but preceded broad availability of networks such as HBO, Showtime, and MTV, where nearly anything goes. 

During those times, I remember being instructed, sometimes even by well-meaning Lutheran School Teachers, that there were certain words one ought not say because they are sinful.  This reflects one side a divide that often exists regarding the morality of using certain language.  Some teach that there are certain topics that are not permitted for discussion or combinations of syllables that are immoral to vocalize, while others take the approach that, since there is no list of forbidden words in Scripture, that anything goes.  I remember once hearing it said that there is no commandment reading, “Thou shalt not say **** an awful lot.”

These opposing positions are both partially correct.  On one hand, there is no Biblical law regarding certain four-letter English words (since English as we know it did not yet exist in the first century A.D.) or outlawing the discussion of certain topics.  On the other hand, the Bible does frequently speak about our use of language. 

For example, Jesus’ brother James speaks in his letter about “taming the tongue,” and Jesus speaks once in the Gospel of Matthew against the use of “idle words.”  Several verses throughout the Bible, especially in Proverbs, encourage pure speech and maintaining a good reputation before one’s neighbors, but none of them specify the content of that speech in such a way that certain words are permitted or forbidden. 

Additionally, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians that “everything is permissible, but not all are beneficial,” and in both 1 Corinthians and Romans, he discusses how Christians ought to treat their “weaker brother” on matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God’s law.  

Most Christians regard the Ten Commandments as the foremost summary of God’s law for humanity.  Many of them would point to the Second Commandment, which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” as forbidding the use of certain words.  This is true, but this commandment only forbids misusing God’s name.  This means that Christians ought to use the names and titles ascribed to God by the Bible in the ways that He has commanded, but what about those other words that do not involve God’s name?

Some of the other commandments can be helpful in this respect.  For example, for children to use language forbidden by their parents, teachers, or other authorities would be to sin against the 4th Commandment.  To use language in such a way that harms another person, either by damaging their reputation or by being verbally abusive or intimidating, would be a sin against the 5th or 8th commandments.  And, to use language in a way that is sexually indecent would be a sin against the 6th commandment. 

In light of these verses and commandments indicated above, we could probably conclude that the traditional list of “naughty words” is pretty accurate, but not for the reasons usually argued, and that not only they, but many of the other ways that we typically use language, are also not in harmony with God’s commands.  Even in the case where we could not say we have a clear command from God regarding a word or phrase being sinful, the Bible encourages us to consider how our actions will affect our reputation in the world or the state of our neighbors with a weaker conscience. 

In the end, it is not the vocalization of certain syllables, but the manner in which we use our words and the impact they have on our neighbor that informs its use.  Therefore we ought to choose our words carefully and consider their impact before we speak.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What are the Boundaries of Christianity?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about what makes a religion Christian:

Q:  What are the beliefs that define what a Christian is?  What is the least a person could believe and still be considered a Christian?

There is a short statement which appears a few times in the New Testament, which answers this question in three words.   “Jesus is Lord.”  A Christian is a person who acknowledges that Jesus is Lord.

As simple as that seems, these three words mean a lot more than it seems at first glance.  They aren’t a phrase that each person can infuse with their own meaning or interpretation, but they actually make a very radical statement. 

Jesus – a certain Jewish man, born in Nazareth just over 2000 years ago, who lived approximately 33 years, whose cause of death was crucifixion carried out by Roman soldiers, and who rose to life on the third day following His crucifixion and death. 

Is – means exactly what it says.  Not “represents,” “symbolizes,” “displays qualities of,” “appeared to be,” or any similar elaboration.  If it were a math equation, you would use the equals sign.  This makes “Jesus” and “Lord” equivalent terms—they are interchangeable. 

Lord – This is the word that carries all the weight.  While the word does have a meaning of “Master” or “Ruler,” this is rarely the meaning that it carries in the New Testament.  Instead, it means something far more significant the majority of the times it is used in the Bible. 

In the Old Testament, God’s name as He revealed it was equivalent to the English letters YHWH.  In some Bibles, whenever you see the word Lord spelled in capital letters in the Old Testament, it means this word was used.  Because the Second Commandment warned against misusing the God’s name, it eventually became common practice not to use God’s name at all.  Instead, they would substitute other words, such as HaShem (which translates as “the Name”) or Adonai (which translates to “Lord/Master”), and when they read out loud, they would say these words instead of YHWH. 

When the New Testament authors wanted to use God’s name, they used the Greek word Kurios, which was equivalent to “Adonai/Lord/Master.”  So, in the New Testament, the majority of the times one sees the English word “Lord,” it is a translation of a translation of a word that was the substitute for God’s proper name. 

So, to say “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Jesus is God, Jesus is YHWH, God became man, God was born, God died, God rose from the dead, God paid the penalty even though we committed the sins which angered Him, God ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead in the same body in which He performed all of the previously mentioned acts, and in which He awaits the last day when He will come again. 

Over the years which followed the death of Jesus’ Apostles, different ideas frequently arose which challenged this teaching about who Jesus was as taught by the Apostles and recorded in the New Testament.  In response to these new teachings, the Church compiled statements called creeds, which clarified which of these teachings were in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and which were contrary.  Today, we call these the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. 

While there are numerous religious movements which consider themselves Christian, the definitions of God and the understandings about Jesus within them are sometimes so different that independent scholars of comparative religion can no longer consider them segments of the same religion. 

When these scholars classify religious movements, it is two primary doctrines, as expressed in the previously-mentioned creeds, which they take into account.  The first of these is the Trinity—that God is three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), yet one God, and the second is that Jesus is both fully God and fully Human, yet one person.  They classify any religious movement that holds these two doctrines as Christian.  Any movement that teaches differently they classified separately.  

Of course, it is impossible for us to know for sure what another person truly believes, so when discussing these questions, it is not the individual faith of a person which is in question, but the written teachings of the movement or denomination, since individual beliefs often differ either knowingly or unknowingly from those of the religious organization to which they belong. 

In the end, however, the question is not  “How much can I disagree and still be considered a Christian?” but rather “What is True?”