Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More on language

When Paul wanted a language to talk about the gatherings of the followers of Jesus, he didn't mine his religious heritage for it. Rather he used the vocabulary of the market place.

The word ekklesia (which we translate 'church') was a word used to describe gatherings of all kinds - especially political ones. Famously in Acts 19, the magistrates in Ephesus use the word to describe the riot of the silversmiths (v32, 40) and the gathering of the people in council (v39) - where both times 'assembly' (in the NRSV) is a translation of ekklesia.

Then when Paul uses words to describe leadership, he is infuriatingly fluid in his use of language. Sometimes he speaks of elders (a Jewish leadership word) and sometimes he uses episkopos (the Greek word we get bishop from but which was used in the first century to describe a leader in a voluntary association). Maybe his use is determined by who's reading his words - those of a Jewish background would recognise 'elder' as a leadership word, while those from Gentile background would know 'episkopos' was someone with a leadership role in the community.

Paul seems to have gone out of his way to find language to describe church that his readers would have found familiar from their context. New Testament scholar Andrew Clarke says: 'It is clear that these early Christians were already operating with the expectation that the characteristics of leadership within the Christian ekklesia should parallel those characteristics of leadership in the civic ekklesia'.

But while Paul used familiar language to describe his gatherings and the leadership in them, he spent a lot of time describing how those gatherings should function and how leaders would operate within them. In other words he used familiar words and then gave that language a Christian twist through how he talked of them.

I think the genius of this is that it helped people to feel unthreatened and at home as they came into churches because the words used to describe how things were done were familiar to them. Over time, the meaning of this language was filled out with a particular Christian take on it.

Perhaps we need to learn to use language to talk about membership in our churches today in a similar way.


Philip Magee said...

enjoyed this discussion on membership and the use of language. In most occassions I guess words were used in those days so that folks could understand them. I suppose another example of this is Greek word euangelion which was used before to speak about an event which changed history. The new Testament uses it to talk about the Gospel.
It comes back to the question How we use terminology that folks can understand but in light of what Scripture says.

Wulf said...

A small spanner in the works - was Paul a master of writing in a way that people could easily understand?

Peter (2 Peter 3:15-16) wrote:

"... just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction."

Paul's congregations were made up of well-schooled Jews, converts from paganism s and doubtless many shades in between. Borrowing from different pools of vocabulary may have confused as much as it soothed. "Infuriatingly fluid" as you say; wrestling with expressions that don't fit our natural vocabulary is part of the discipline we must go through in order to grow in our understanding of the good news of God's victorious grace towards us.

Following on that train of thought, I wonder if it is sometimes appropriate to use language that deliberately breaks people out of their comfort zone (especially including those who have come to speak fluent Christianese)?