Christians, Language and Authority

I think we quite often laugh at some of the extremely odd ways Christians use language.  What has been called Christian-ese. Whether it's the clichés we pray in or the odd phrases we talk in that would make no sense to someone who was not a part of the church.

Sometimes those things are pretty harmless - the theology may be good even if it's presented in a kind of Victorian English!  Other times it can be more serious.  In particular, I'm thinking of those times when people use language to express a power or authority to what they're saying.

I think I first noticed this in the early nineties, when at university and mixing with Christians from various backgrounds in the Christian Union and found many from a more charismatic viewpoint talking about what God had "said" to them, or what God had "told" them.  That hadn't really been a huge part of my background or experience before and, at a theological level, I didn't quite know what to make of it.

Now obviously discussing my whole view of the charismatic movement would be longer than a blog post.  But the thing I gradually noticed was that there was an implicit authority when someone said that.  If God said it, it must be true right!  But then of course you start to ask, what do you mean by God "said" or "told" you?  And, as many will know with some of the excesses of the Charismatic movement of the time, you start to wonder how God said that, when he said the opposite in the Bible!

That's not to undermine the whole charismatic movement, but simply to note how easy it is to be imprecise with language (most people didn't really mean "God said" in the way he did in the Bible and they weren't really claiming that sort of authority) and use that as a power play to get your point of view across - however intentionally or not.

I've noticed a similar thing in a lot of the debates on women's ministry.  Again, just shelve what you think on the issue for a moment, and think of a some of the language.  Many of those for women being church leaders argue that God has "called" and "gifted" them for the role.  Again, if God's done that, who am I to argue?  But again you have to ask: what exactly do you mean when you say that? Audible voice from heaven?  What authority do you ascribe to that "calling" and "gifting"?  And so on.

I've noticed it again recently in discussions on homosexuality and gay marriage in the church.  We need to listen to voices of those who have found their calling from God in a homosexual identity, for example.  People have sought the Lord for direction and concluded that he is leading down the path of same-sex relationship.  Again, though we start asking about the authority behind their calling, experience and guidance.

Now I suspect post-modern deconstructionists would have a hey-day with all the power through words here.  However, I'm not one of them and I think a more productive thing to do is comment on why this approach is so problematic.

First, if we use this kind of argument, we will have to accept that people won't buy it.  It's the kind of argument that the other person has no access to and so they are required to accept it on the authority of the person giving it to them.  But why should they?

Second, because of that first problem, the temperature of the debate is immediately ramped up.  The argument is personal and the authority it is given on is personal.  So if someone doubts it, they are doubting the person and the genuineness of their experience.  In other words, it immediately makes it a matter of personal integrity!

Third, we've located authority in the person rather than in God - however unintentionally.  God is, at best, mediated through a person and that person has just as deceitful a heart as the rest of us.  There's a discussion to be had about prophets and apostles here (God can speak truly through sinful people), but we at least need to be open to the fact that this may not be God speaking and just my sinful heart!

Fourth, by locating authority in a person, instead of God, we can actually take the authority away from what God has said in the Bible (e.g. Psalm 119; 2 Timothy 3:16).  Our experience, calling and so forth make us ignore, or re-interpret Scripture to fit.

Fifth, the last two points seem in the NT to put the question mark over any of our personal experiences and prophecies and so forth, so that instead of declaring them to be from God we are to test them against the gospel of Jesus and the apostolic teaching (1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 4:1-6).

None of this is to say that experience isn't important in the Christian life, nor that our relationship with the Lord Jesus is not a dynamic and experiential thing.  However, it is to say that as with reason and tradition, experience comes under God's authority and that authority is expressed in his revelation - the Bible.  That's why I'm not post-modern, because I do believe in authority and power in language and that it is a good thing.  It's just you have to root the authority in the right place - in this case God!

Primarily, my plea would be to be careful about our language and the authority we express with it. We need to remember where the authority lies.

Secondarily, this line of argument explains why some of our discussions (facilitated or not!) are so fruitless.  Within a messy denomination, like the Church of England for example, my fourth and fifth point would simply not be accepted by the majority.  If that's the case, whatever discussion you are having, you simply have an authority impasse and the disagreement is primarily at the authority level. We need to recognise this more clearly I think.

What do you think?


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