Dynamic Definitions

Words are an interesting thing. Rationally, you would think that a word has a specific meaning, and that’s it. The flaming ball of gas in the sky is and always will be the ”sun”, your “eyes” are the part of your body that allows you to see, “kindness” is a virtue, and being “selfish” is a sin. It’s all very straightforward when you think about it. Except, reality tells us it is not quite so simple, and the meanings of words can change over time. For one reason or another, these meanings are altered, sometime slightly, and sometimes drastically. Definitions on the whole then, become fluid and multi-layered, and the correct usage of words is subjective. Looking round us, we can see how terms within the church have either lost or changed meanings over the years as well, both internally and in secular perception. 

Each Sunday, we come together as a congregation, confessing our beliefs with one of the three ecumenical creeds. It is a sore spot for many of our clergy and members that today, we confess to believe in the “holy Christian Church.” Over time in the Church’s history, “Christian” came to replace “catholic” in the creeds, as well as in our general rhetoric. Traditionally, “catholic” is defined as universal in extent, or involving all. Today, however, when we say catholic, we instantly think of Roman Catholicism. Over a thousand years of Roman dominance within Christendom has led most people to fuse the word catholic with Roman Catholic theology and traditions. While strictly speaking, it is perfectly appropriate for other Christian church bodies to describe themselves as part of the catholic Church, to do so usually leads to more confusion and questions than it is worth. Public perception of the word’s meaning has changed. 

Similarly, we are starting to avoid the word “evangelical.” We see evangelical generally being used in one of two major ways, according to Rev. Paul Koch and Rev. Joel Hess on last week’s episode of Ringside. Within the realm of Christianity, Joel sees that it refers to a body that “is generally Protestant, probably more feverish than your “mainstream” or orthodox denominations, usually those who ‘decide to follow Jesus’ or have a more Baptist theology…a mega church is a fitting image.” From a secular viewpoint, the term evangelical has been politicized, “it means something to our country. It’s the people who are going to support certain causes and lobby for specific things, you go after the ‘evangelical vote,’ if you will,” says Paul. Yet, this is all far removed from the original meaning of the word. “We know in studying church history and the history of the Reformation, [evangelical] was us,” Paul reminds us, “This is the title Luther preferred when trying to label what he was doing in the Reformation. It means ‘to Gospel’ or ‘to do the Good News.’” 

In recent years, Joel reflects, “we have tried to not use that term, because it’s been stolen (just like catholic), and there’s so much imagery attached to that word, and a mixing of church and state, that LCMS Lutherans have shied away from using it. But originally in Germany, we were the Evangelical Church.” Yet, the meaning of the word has changed. “So, we can’t say evangelical, because it means something specific to other people, and we can’t say catholic. Ideally, I think we are Evangelical Catholic. These are important terms that reflect who we actually are. We teach the catholic faith of old, that’s what the Reformation was all about, and we are evangelical in that the gospel is the center of that catholic faith. We teach and we do what churches should teach and do.”

What are we to do about all this? Can we reclaim these words, re-associating them in the collective conscious with their original meanings, or are we at the mercy of the ever-changing tides, forced to standby and adapt our own language amidst these dynamic definitions and perceptions? I don’t know. What we cannot do, however, is be ignorant of the world’s perception. Whether we choose to lean into it or rebuff it, we should do it with our eyes wide open, ready to answer for our decisions. As long as those choices allow us to continue to stand on the Word of God, and point to Christ as the sole source and means of salvation, no matter what we are called, we will always be the Evangelical Catholic Church. 

This article is a brief examination of one of several topics discussed on this week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Ross Engel, Rev. Paul Koch, and Tyler the Intern duking it out over being “woke” today, the real definition of evangelicalism, and the bad business of God’s kingdom on the latest full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, Wokeism and Sharia Law.

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