SEMANTICS AND CONTROVERSY
T. Pierce Brown
As I view the discussions, debates, and controversy in and out of the brotherhood, and as I counsel with persons in troublesome personal relationships, I discover that many times the disagreement may be a result of a semantic problem, and when such is joined with an attitude problem, it grows. Semantics has to do with the science of meanings. Let me give some illustrations of this, and perhaps it will help others be aware and check to see if part of our problem may not be solved by making sure we are talking about the same things before we begin to argue.
Not long ago I was knocking on doors in an effort to set up Bible studies, or otherwise be helpful to those whom I met, and a lady came to the door. As we discussed some things, she asked where I attended church services, and when I told her, she said, “Oh, that is the liberal church.” (She was attached to what is commonly referred to as an “anti” group.) I replied, “Well, we are not as liberal as we should be, perhaps, but I suppose our giving is at least average.” I deliberately did this (used the word “liberal” in a different sense than she was using it) for the purpose of carrying on the conversation a little longer in the hopes of showing her some of the errors of her assumptions. But when I later began to think about it, I realized that many times words, phrases and expressions are used by two different persons without them ever being aware of it, which may lead to useless arguments.
For example, I am “anti” — all sorts of things. I believe in “total commitment.” I am not opposed to “house churches.” I believe in “unity in diversity.” Salvation is “totally by the grace of God.” But I recognize that it is very dangerous to throw these terms around loosely, for they have taken on specialized meanings and need careful defining. For example, “anti” as a prefix simply means “against,” and any person who is not against a whole group of things cannot be a Christian. But as it is loosely used, it refers to those in our brotherhood that are opposed to such things as church support of orphan homes, etc.
Can any Christian even suspect that Jesus would accept a person who said to Him, “I will follow you, but I will follow you on my own terms. I do not intend to surrender my will completely to you?” Surely not! “He that is not with me is against me!” (Mt. 12:30). But since the expression has come to be associated so closely with those who claim that total commitment to their system is equivalent to total commitment to Christ, one needs to be careful how he uses the term. I refuse to allow a group of false teachers to take away from me the right to use any Biblical idea or expression just because they have misused it. I have more right to teach “total commitment” to Christ than anyone else does to teach “total commitment” to any human system, and I will exercise that right if/as/when I choose.
When I read from one person that he is not opposed to “house churches,” I feel sure that he means by that the kind of structure and practice that is being done by many inBoston, where it appears that the unscriptural “diocese” concept of one eldership over a whole group of churches is being practiced. But when I use the term, I mean that I am not opposed to a church meeting in someone’s house. That church, however, is a separate congregation, standing in the same relationship to God as any other congregation. One can be reasonably sure of what a man means by the expression if one sees his actions and the rest of his teaching, but one should not automatically assume he knows a man’s meaning just by hearing or reading the expression.
Most of us who consider ourselves “conservative” have spoken against the “unity in diversity” concept. Most of us are aware that almost everyone believes in “unity in diversity” if it applies to being unified in what God has authorized and having any kind of diversity you choose in what is merely an expediency. But the term has come to be used in a denominational concept that we can all believe and practice anything we choose, as long as we are united in calling Jesus our Lord and Savior. The idea is being taught by many of our brethren that since we all have different and diversified ideas about many things, that we can and do all practice “unity in diversity” whether or not we admit it.
I am not afraid or ashamed to admit that the Apostles practiced “unity in diversity,” if by that we mean that Paul and John (and all the rest) were very diverse in their approach, method of expression, and many incidentals. But that it allowed one group to practice sprinkling and another immersion, one to sing, and another to play and still have “unity in diversity” is a foolish and unwarranted conclusion.
If I should teach (and I do) that we are saved totally by the grace of God, I simply mean that all of God’s gracious provision for our salvation was provided by His grace, and none on the basis of our merit. God did not send His Son to die because we deserved it. It was totally by His grace. When I accept that grace by repentance, confession and baptism, that means by which I may appropriate His salvation was totally by His grace. In no sense does that suggest or imply that salvation is by grace alone without any acceptance of that grace on His terms. But it does suggest that when I have accepted that grace on His terms, I should recognize that those terms are also a part of His grace and were not given because of any merit in me.
If I make the statement, “God demands obedience to His law in order for us to be saved,” and mean by that the idea that God never saves anyone who has not perfectly obeyed God, the thought is preposterous! The fact that God provided salvation for sinners refutes that idea, for sinners are those who have not perfectly obeyed God. We are saved in spite of the fact that we have not obeyed Him! But if I mean by “demands obedience to His law” the fact that God demands that we accept on His terms His gracious offer of pardon before that pardon can be secured, that is a different thing. The very idea that a man has a right to expect God’s grace to save him without his accepting that grace on the terms God offers it is equally preposterous.
Anytime a person presents “the plan of salvation” as if the mechanical process of going through certain actions without a trusting reliance on the grace of God is somehow efficacious, he is wrong. But any time a man presents the Savior as if He graciously saves without the person accepting that salvation by complying with the terms on which that gracious love is offered, he is wrong. That is, the idea of “The Man INSTEAD of the plan” is not a scriptural concept. It was “The Man” that gave the plan, and if one fails to accept the plan, he has not accepted theMan.
But my point in this article is not so much to define points of doctrine, such as “total commitment,” or “salvation by grace through faith,” but simply to point out the urgent need of the speaker or writer making as clear as he can what he means by what he says, and those who read or hear making as sure as they can that they understand his meaning.
Part of the problem is in semantics–the meaning we attach to the terms we use. And part of the problem is in an attitude–of making up one’s mind what a person means before he tells it. Of course the problem is compounded by some speakers and writers deliberately (apparently) hiding their meaning with “weasel” words–words that twist and turn and have varied meanings– and then claiming that they are always misunderstood. Modernists have long been known to do this with such subjects as the resurrection of the Lord and various other subjects. They will strongly attest to the fact that they believe in the “resurrection,” but when pressed, will admit that they do not believe in an empty tomb. It was a “spiritual resurrection” (whatever that is) in which they believe.
It ill behooves our brethren to practice the same sort of chicanery, and consistently use words to which they attach their own private meanings, then cry about being misunderstood. If a person can not be understood after the first time or two, he should quit speaking or writing about the matter until he learns to use words that can be understood!