People sometimes give us a hard time about how Circle of Hope is “picky” about nomenclature. I am not sure we are picky enough. For people constrained to speak the truth in love in a world of lies, words matter.
For instance, Dr. Jacquelyn Grant, in her chapter, The Sin of Servanthood [In A Troubling in My Soul] suggests that the word “servant” should be dropped from our theological vocabulary because it is used for evil purposes, and that other terms should be found to symbolize mutuality and nonhierarchical styles of leadership and community. She thinks the church should stop misusing the image of servanthood as the primary image of faithfulness to Jesus and instead use the equally biblical image of “discipleship.” She says, “The language of discipleship for women provides the possibility of breaking down traditional exclusivistic understandings of discipleship. Overcoming the sin of servanthood can prepare us for the deliverance that comes through discipleship.”
I think that is the kind of dialogue the church needs to have in order for words to matter. Words do matter. And we don’t want to have the advertisers or dominators own all the definitions. If they do, we will be swept away on their flood of nonsense as they turn language into a means to confuse and direct, while most of us are unwittingly taught to think “whatever.”
Last week we had a decade-overdue chance for some dialogue between some pastors and our bishop (and other leaders) in the Atlantic Conference of the Brethren in Christ. We were struggling to find a way to talk about the unexplained resignation of our bishop and the subsequent reform in the denomination. The powers-that-be in the BIC have been devoted to communication control. It has been pretty much a monologue. The recent public statements about why our bishop resigned said perfectly nothing and left us to come up with our own interpretations based on hearsay and speculation. As we struggled to talk about this disaster, we had the predictable trouble that people who don’t maintain dialogue have – we did not have a mutual nomenclature. Sometimes we were not speaking the same language.
Among the Circle of Hope we have recognized that we need to speak a common language that is not owned by “the world” or even by some generalized theological school. We need to speak the truth in love and have a common meaning for what we are all about and what we do. Like Dr. Grant, we have something of a language of resistance (even in our mission statement) , that looks suspiciously at how the powers use words and which tries to maintain some sense of revolution in what we are doing.
For instance, we won’t call our meeting “services.” Theologically, the word probably refers to Israel’s worship in the temple, and that really does not fit when we are the temple. Moreso, the word doesn’t really have any meaning in normal parlance. So we call our weekly meetings PMs. They are public meetings and they are at night. The lack of general meaning for the term “PM” helps us fill it with our own content.
Likewise, we meet weekly in “cells.” This term can be confusing for people who connect it to terrorist cells or cell phone networks. But we like to be forced to explain ourselves. We are relating, not advertising. We use the term to connect to a biotic image. We are organic units forming organs that form bodies that form a culture.
We won’t call our leaders a “board.” For the sake of relating to the State of Pennsylvania and other governments, we have a corporation and and a way we define a board. But we would never let Penssylvania tell us how to think of ourselves and we are quite sure that the Lord is not interested in conforming to the ideas that make up corporations. We are a Leadership Team.
Likewise, our core team leaders are not “chairpersons,” they are just team leaders. We don’t have special chairs, certainly not thrones, in which a person of special authority sits. Our team leaders catalyze and listen more than they preside or direct.
On the other hand, we are not compelled to make up a bunch of new words when the old words work fine or they are so good we need to fight for their survival. For instance, we haven’t gotten rid of the word “church.” Our four local groups are congregations and they form a network, but the network is one church. We have not lost the word “pastor” even though it implies that he or she is like a person who wrangles sheep. We don’t want anyone to be like a sheep. But the organic, farmer-like sense of the word appeals to us and aptly describes what our pastors are all about. We have also not given up on the word “covenant” even though very few people make them or understand them. We might be able to come up with another description of how we relate to God and one another, but we think this word deserves respect.
I’d say we are in a nomenclature war, but it would have to be a very cold war, since most people don’t know it is being fought (or lost). The philosophers of the age are convinced that all language is socially constructed and that does not include God’s input. In a society in which the Supreme Court can declare a corporation has the free speech rights of an individual the social construction of language is the province of big entities like the government and Exxon. Followers of Jesus (a term with less baggage than “Christians”) have a responsibility to keep the faith in a way that provides an alternative to the domination system. How we describe the alternative helps make it real for people lost in the nonsense.