by Gary Brumbelow
CNN reporter Anderson Cooper recently joined the ranks of those self identifying as what he calls “gay.” His testimony prompts an important question about the interplay of language and culture.
The truth is, language and culture are intimately connected. We cannot speak without reflecting the influence of our culture. Changes in our common vocabulary—subtle or otherwise, intentional or not—reveal changes in our culture. This is true for all people of all faith systems.
DNA Idea Shaper Elizabeth Youmans points out that “words have incredible force. Words determine the course of our lives, our families, and our nations!” The Bible says Death and life are in the power of the tongue … Proverbs 18:21 ESV.
DNA President Scott Allen wrote a pair of posts a few years ago demonstrating this point. He traced the staggering erosion in the formal definition of “marriage” from Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the American Language (DNA’s dictionary of choice) to Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1984) to the Microsoft Word 2007 embedded dictionary.
Darrow Miller also makes this point in Emancipating the World:
Over the last fifty years in the West, changes of language have preceded culture change. The phrase “quality of life” has replaced “sacredness of life.” The language of psychology has replaced that of theology: “sin” became “sickness.” Authority was taken from pastor and priest and given to psychiatrist. …
Language is manipulated to shape the mindset of a nation. Abortion has morphed from “killing an unborn child” to “a woman’s right to choose”; euthanasia from “killing the infirmed” to “death with dignity”; morals from “sexual immorality” to “lifestyle choices”; marriage from “one man and one woman for life” to “any consenting adults.”
Recently I read an intriguing account of a Christian ministry to the homosexual community (Andrew Marin of Project Love). His testimony included some very helpful insights, as well as a regrettable demand that Christians cede the language: Marin says we must never use the term “homosexual” because it offends.
I understand and affirm the sentiment, especially after a career in cross-cultural missionary work. Any communication with those of a different persuasion or framework demands care and grace. An unloving, self-centered way of speaking unnecessarily offends and is unworthy of the gospel. The gracious Creator whose righteous standards frame the discussion of human sexuality, always acts with love.
Take, for example, the first mention of homosexuality in the scripture. God goes out of his way to demonstrate grace to the Sodomites. He tells Abraham, Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. (Gen 18:20-21 ESV) Human behavior is not somehow cloaked from God; he does not need to “go down” to see all that transpires. Every human act plays out before his face. Yet he takes uncommon lengths—the visit of the angels to Sodom—to demonstrate patience, kindness, and undeserved favor. (This after he magnanimously concedes to Abraham’s bold “negotiation” all the way down to, For the sake of ten [righteous] I will not destroy [Sodom] Gen 18:32 ESV.)
Read Genesis 19:1-29 and see God’s broken heart. The last time I heard it read publicly the preacher/reader was on the verge of tears.
Love and truth are hardly incompatible. We need not yield the latter to demonstrate the former. God is altogether true, and altogether loving. This “speaking the truth in love” seems to be missing from Marin’s call to abandon “homosexual” for “gay.” Culture is shaped by language. When we abandon a biblical term in favor of a vacant label we diminish the place of truth in the marketplace of ideas. The culture suffers. (Could this be an example of the “cleverness of speech” Paul refused to employ lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power, 1Cor 1:17?)
Our loving Father does not garnish the truth about our human brokenness. The original Hebrew term, קָדֵשׁ (qadesh), is translated “sodomite,” derived, of course, from the behavior of the citizens of Sodom. The word used in the New Testament is the Greek ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites) “one who lies with a male as with a female, sodomite, homosexual.” The biblical terminology is unequivocal and lucid; “gay” is neither. This unadorned truth accompanies God’s compassionate love that is so powerfully demonstrated in the Genesis account of Sodom (whose judgment is ultimately laid on the sin-bearing Savior at Calvary).
Some Christians bring reproach to the name of Christ by their hostile confrontation. This should not be. Neither should we, by our word choice, disguise the offense of sinful behavior toward God. The consequences of this language retreat abound in today’s Western societies. Witness the president of the United States publicly endorsing so-called same-sex “marriage.” When the highest officer in the land embraces such a position we have clearly lost the moral plateau.