the weblog of Alan Knox

Words and Meanings

Posted by on Jan 6, 2009 in blog links | 30 comments

What we believe affects the way we use words, and the way we use words affect what we believe. Dave Black has offered a list of words and usages and meanings that may “make a BIG difference in the way we understand and practice our faith”:

Few of us are untouched by the dead hand of Christian jargon. Some idioms are so firmly entrenched in our vocabulary that any change is considered almost blasphemous. Using traditional terminology gives us a sense of security I suppose. But familiarity is not always a good thing. I’m trying to reform some of my biblical vocabulary. Here’s my list as it currently stands:

  • church: community (as in the German Gemeinde)
  • pastor: shepherd (retaining the metaphor)
  • elders: older men (the term is age-specific)
  • deacons: servers (think of your restaurant “server”)
  • disciples: trainees (think of a Wal-Mart trainee)
  • overseers: supervisors (or possibly “care-givers”)
  • baptize: immerse (this is a no-brainer)
  • saints: God’s people
  • gospel: Good News
  • brothers: brothers and sisters (the plural is usually gender-inclusive)
  • mystery: secret (there’s nothing mysterious about the Greek word musterion)
  • tongues: foreign languages (whether learned or unlearned)
  • sound doctrine: healthy teaching
  • wine: grape juice (just kidding)
  • sanctification: progress in holiness
  • “the” ministry: scrap it altogether

This list is sketchy and tentative. But maybe it will help you to rethink the wineskins. I suggest that our vocabulary can make a BIG difference in the way we understand and practice our faith.

This is a good list. I use many of the words in this way now. I can tell you from experience that if you think carefully about words – especially “Christian jargon” – it will greatly affect the way you demonstrate your faith.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-6-2009

    D. A. Carson is about to add a new chapter to exegetical fallacies. Seriously though, its easy to over-simplify with this kind of thing.

    ‘Deacons’ and ‘elders’ do have specific meanings, but they also refer to offices in the church. It wouldn’t help anyone to start calling him “The Sent-Out-One Paul.”

    That said, we should make sure we define carefully the words we use. Some really can be avoided altogether, but there’s a richness in meaning in “saints” that can’t be fully conveyed by just saying “God’s people.”

  2. 1-6-2009

    I’m torn. While terms like elder, deacon, apostle, and saint have gathered rich meaning that warrant their retention, they have also gathered cultural and historical baggage that clouds the meaning understood by the original hearers/readers of the Scripture.

    For example, the average person in the pew has little idea that “saint,”, “holy,” and “sanctify” are all related words in the New Testament.

    This is unfortunate; our translation ought to show this connection in language that is clear to hearers today. The question is, how to balance the historical theological use of each term, biblical intention, and present understanding.

    I think the above list is a good start; at least it provides some thought fodder.

  3. 1-6-2009

    I meant the exegetical fallacies comment above as humor, though I’m afraid it didn’t come across that way, so I apologize for it sounding harsh.

  4. 1-6-2009


    I’m not sure the original readers would have understood “deacons” and “elders” as “offices in the church”. What if they simply understood them as “servants” and “older men” respectively? And, what if they did think of him as “sent out” Paul?


    Yes, I think this is what Dave Black was getting at. Perhaps we can use terms like “servants” and “older men” and “community” that retain the original meaning without the historical baggage.


  5. 1-6-2009

    The wine one made me laugh. There is someone in out extended family that we go round and round with this one over. Even though we extremely rarely drink ourselves. Because they truly believe wine equals grapejuice.

  6. 1-6-2009


    I’ve heard that argument like this: 1) if the “wine” in a passage can make someone drunk, then its alcoholic wine, and 2) if the “wine” in a passage is used in positive sense, then its non-alcoholic grape juice. This kind of semantic play makes it easy for someone to defend their position. 🙂


  7. 1-7-2009

    Not only do I heartily agree – I am amazed that the most recent post I have been working on is in direct line with this one!

    I believe our choice of vocabulary is not only important with respect to effective communication of truth, but is quite telling with regards to our inward position towards the truth.

    I especially resonate with scraping “the ministry” altogether. Why don’t we scrap “church” while we’re at it!

    As an aside, regarding wine, I always ask those types why Jesus was accused of being a wine-bibber not a grape-juicer? And if…oh let me just quit now.

  8. 1-7-2009

    Alan, Philippians 1:1 and 1 TImothy 3 are perfect examples that show the early church understood these as offices.

    Take the discussion of deacons in 1 TIm for example. Its obvious there is a particular office in view, not just generic ‘servants’ of the church.

    Both of those passages talk about overseer (or bishop, episkopos) which is pretty clearly synonymous with the term elder (Acts 20:17,28 and 1 Pet 5:1-2).

    So it is very clear that in several NT context does not simply mean “older man” but refers to a recognized church leader.

    Timothy is clearly functioning as a pastor/elder/overseer and is a young man. (Let no one look down on your youth.)

  9. 1-7-2009


    I’m looking forward to reading your post.


    Would you be surprised to find that many people disagree that “elders/overseers/pastors” and “deacons” were offices in the church? Even people who study Greek, New Testament, and Church History? There are even those (myself included) who would point out that Timothy is never called a pastor/elder/overseer, and perhaps is best recognized as an apostle or apostolic assistant.

    There were certainly those within the early churches who were recognized as elders or deacons, but this is not the same as an office.


  10. 1-7-2009

    I have been trying to rid my vocabulary for the last several years of the word church. I like using Ekklesia, but that doesn’t go over very well, so I like the word fellowship.

    I tell my kids how can we go somewhere, where we already are, when referring to going to church. I also like to use the phrase “gathering of the saints.”

    When Dave Black spoke at our fellowship last fall, he confirmed my belief that elders should be older. He was the first person I had ever heard speak that from the pulpit.

    A lot of our vocabulary has lost it’s original meanings. It is time to re-emphasize some of these terms. The problem is, it steps on the toes of the very ones that need to be speaking it out.

  11. 1-7-2009

    Not that long ago we attended a church that advertised itself as a “New Testament Church”. They used almost every word on your list, and since those words were in their English translations of the New Testament, that made them a “New Testament Church”. They were extremely serious about this.

    In reality, they used the words, but in much different ways than the original language used the words in the New Testament. For example, the elders and deacons bore scant resemblance to the ones found in the New Testament, but the roles those individuals had assumed could not be questioned because “it is totally supported by the Bible”.

    Another thing that group did, and I have seen it done by many other groups – If someone found a word in their (English translation) Bible, they looked up its definition in the (English) dictionary. Any time they found that (English) word anywhere else in the Bible, it meant the same thing. I have even heard these people say, when it was pointed out to them that more than one Greek (or Hebrew) word was translated using the same English word, that the English word takes precedence. These people claim that they accept the Bible literally!

    My observation is that often, if not usually, current usage of the English term and current practice are read back into the original text to support current usage and/or practice. I do not call that a literal translation of the Bible. This amounts to changing the Bible to make it say what you want, and yet these are the very people who claim that is what others do.


  12. 1-7-2009

    Alan, you said:
    “There were certainly those within the early churches who were recognized as elders or deacons, but this is not the same as an office.”

    Whether or not you want to call it an ‘office’ doesn’t seem to matter much. If you can think of a better term, feel free to let me know. I don’t really like the term ‘office’ either. But what you just described in my quote above is exactly what I mean.

    When Paul called for the elders from Ephesus, he was not calling for the older men of the church. He was calling the men who occupied some designated position in the church. (That’s not to say older is not at all meant by the term, but it is not even the primary meaning there.)

    So to translate presbuteros in Acts 20:17 as “older men” would not just be inadequate, it would more properly be called misleading.

    Even given your dichotomy of pastor/elder/overseer (which I do not think is exegetically sustainable), AND even if I concede for the sake of argument that elders were always older men; I think you would have to agree with this statement:

    All elders were older men, but not all older men were elders.

    And that by itself shows why understanding elders as simply ‘older men’ is an oversimplification.

  13. 1-7-2009

    I think where a lot of the confusion comes when when defining the terms elders, pastors and overseers, is we tend to assign a title to what is obviously a function.

    We like the western, top down corporate style of management in our churches. We have to have “Senior Pastor” stamp on the office door, are whatever title that seems appropriate.

    Jesus never intended for leaders to have titles. Elders are older men who’s function is to oversee and shepherd the flock. In fact God’s flow chart of leadership is just the opposite of corporate leadership. The leadership is on the bottom. The least comely is at the top.

    It amazes me how we think a young man coming out of seminary can actually elder or oversee and shepherd a church. It doesn’t mean they don’t have gifts and callings and have a place in the body. It’s just impossible to be an elder unless your are older.

  14. 1-7-2009


    I like “fellowship” or “assembly” or “group” or even “community” as Dave Black suggested.

    Yes, in Scripture, people were not encouraged to seek leadership, per se, but to serve. We are then instructed how to recognize and follow those who serve.


    Exactly! It doesn’t matter if we use the “right” terms if we are using them in ways that don’t convey their original meanings.


    It sound like we’re on the same page. I don’t like the word “office” so I don’t use it. The word “office” indicate respect for a position, instead of the person. If the person disappears, the “office” still exists. So, I don’t use that term. By the way, there was a Greek term for “office”. Its not used of church leaders.


  15. 1-7-2009

    Jack writes,
    “Jesus never intended for leaders to have titles.”

    Are you serious? Mark 3:14: He appointed twelve – designating them apostles…

    and Jack also writes:
    “I think where a lot of the confusion comes when when defining the terms elders, pastors and overseers, is we tend to assign a title to what is obviously a function.”

    This is not an either/or choice. They are both titles and descriptions of the roles. That’s probably the basic problem with Dr. Black’s original list, Alan’s defense of it, and your statements as well.

    You guys are effectively saying:
    “They are functions, not titles.”

    But in the NT describes them this way:
    “They are both functions and titles.

  16. 1-7-2009

    Hey Brent,

    I don’t have a lot of time to go into detail on my thoughts on this subject, but take a look at what Jesus told his disciples in Mt. 23. Especially vs 8-12.

    It seems to me, Jesus is admonishing his disciples to not be like the Pharisees, by not coveting, nor receiving a title.

    Titles tend to engender pride and a sense of superiority to those who obtain them.

    It is God in us that is important not a label or office. Don’t get me wrong, leaders are important, but just because a man has the title of elder or pastor does not mean that they are functioning in that anointing. I have seen men elder and shepherd without ever being recognized or ordained by man.



  17. 1-7-2009

    Jack said:
    “Titles tend to engender pride and a sense of superiority to those who obtain them.”

    You’re right about the dangers of titles and coveting the respect of others that come along with that kind of position. But there clearly were teachers and designated church leaders by apostolic command.

    We need to guard against pride and even take action when people are in those roles and not living out their biblical calling. But the roles and even the titles are important in the life of a church.

    Christ intended his sheep to have (under)shepherds. The pastor(s) of a church has a God-appointed role. I think you see and understand this. But to see the importance of the role of pastor and to then denigrate the ‘title’ of pastor is moving into the realm of non-sensical.

    At some level, they cannot be separated.

    I understand you may have experienced someone misusing their title at some point. I have too. But that doesn’t mean that titles are a bad thing in and of themselves. They must exist if human language is to function in any usable way.

  18. 1-7-2009

    I’d like to hear what you have to say on your reasoning for rejecting the pastor/elder/overseer view I mentioned earlier. I really want to make sure I haven’t missed something on the issue. I can’t find your email address to send you my contact info, but mine is available on my blogger profile. I you don’t mind, send me an email so I can send you my phone number and we can set up a time to talk, if that’s ok with you.

  19. 1-7-2009


    I think there’s a difference between recognizing someone’s identity and giving them a title. For example, “son” is my son’s identity, but not his title. I think this would apply to apostles, elders, etc. “Apostles” really are people who are sent – that is there identity. “Elders” really are mature people.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “pastor/elder/overseer view” that I rejected. Can you explain again?

    My email address is It is listed in the left sidebar of my blog just under my pofile.


  20. 1-8-2009

    Brothers Alan & Brent,

    I would like to humbly request you continue your dialogue publicly. This is quite an interesting topic and I would like to hear your discussion.

    Peace to you brothers,
    From the Middle East

  21. 1-8-2009

    From the middle east,
    Thanks for your request, I’ll wait before contacting Alan privately. I just felt like we weren’t exactly on the same page so a phone conversation might lend itself to better understanding, but I’ll try and keep the conversation going on here to see if we end up anywhere beneficial.

    Let me respond to your question later today, I need to head out for the AM, I’m already late!

  22. 1-8-2009

    From the Middle East,

    That’s a great idea. I’m enjoying the discussion as well.


    I’m looking forward to it!


  23. 1-8-2009

    Here’s the statement that I was referring to…

    1/06 11:23 PM
    “Would you be surprised to find that many people disagree that “elders/overseers/pastors” and “deacons” were offices in the church? Even people who study Greek, New Testament, and Church History?”

    In reading it again, I think I misunderstood the point you were making. I thought you meant that you didn’t think elders/overseers/pastors were referring to the same group. Now that I re-read it, I think you’re saying you do think they are referring to the same group, you just don’t think that group qualifies as an office. Is that a fair statement?

    I’m sorry if I didn’t read carefully enough.

    At 1/07 10:43 you wrote:
    “I think there’s a difference between recognizing someone’s identity and giving them a title. For example, “son” is my son’s identity, but not his title.”

    I think this train of thought, just like Jacks’ comment earlier, are really making a distinction without a difference. You see some kind of dichotomy between a function and a title, but I don’t think the way we normally use language allows us to split the two.

    Titles are often just common descriptions of the role someone plays. You can have a job as a race car driver, or elementary school teacher, or plumber. These describe what the people do, but you could just as easily say they function as titles.

    To say, “I drive race cars but abhor the title ‘race car driver’ is just pedantic.

    So too with someone who functions as a pastor in a church. “I shepherd/pastor this church but don’t like the title ‘pastor'” doesn’t seem like it really makes much sense.

    In short, I don’t understand your aversion to titles or your clean-cut distinction between a person’s role and their title.

    Like I said to Jack above, we definitely must guard against desiring titles for their own sake or for the respect that may be gained through them, but that doesn’t make them wrong in and of themselves.

    You also say, “I think this would apply to apostles, elders, etc. “Apostles” really are people who are sent – that is there identity. “Elders” really are mature people.”

    I don’t think that distinction stands up to Mark 3:14 or Luke 6:13. Not only did he send them out in the surrounding context, but he ALSO DESIGNATED them as apostles. That’s pretty clearly giving them a title. A descriptive title, yes. But still a title. Literally, he named them apostles.

    Like I said above, it just won’t do to say “‘elders’ really are mature people.”

    If we were to give a range of meanings for the term elder: (1) an older man, (2) a community leader, (3) a church leader. Even if you think #2 and #3 are always characterized by #1, you still can’t limit the definition to #1, because there are clearly instances where it doesn’t have in view someone’s age as its primary meaning.

    Check TDNT on presbuteros:
    “a title is at issue when the reference is to members of governing bodies, as in the nation, the synagogue, or the church.”

    I know TDNT is not the Bible, but it just seems so clear that some instances a title is clearly in view.

  24. 1-8-2009


    I have no doubt that we are saying very close to the same thing. Perhaps if I explain why I make a distinction between title and identity or function it will help you understand where I’m coming from.

    1) Person 1 is called by the title “Pastor”. However, he rarely interact with people and spends most of his time studying and doing administration.

    2) Person 2 does not have any title or position, but he consistently cares for and guides people (that is, he “shepherds” or “pastors” them).

    Which person is a “pastor” as the term is used in Scripture?


  25. 1-8-2009

    Biblically speaking, I would say #1 is a deficient pastor, and #2 is not a pastor until he is recognized by the church as such.

    Just because #2 does things that fit into the role of a pastor/shepherd, doesn’t mean he is one. I can do a little electrical work on my house, but that doesn’t make me an electrician.

    Are you saying that there’s no real place in the life of the church for setting #2 apart and recognizing him as a pastor? I think that’s something that SHOULD happen if he’s exhibiting those gifts. I think Paul would agree with me. Titus 1:5 “appoint elders in every town…”

    It sounds like you’re saying this ‘appointing’ Paul speaks of is meaningless as long as someone is acting like a pastor.

  26. 1-8-2009


    Biblically speaking, I would say it is deficient to call someone a “pastor” (i.e. give them the title “pastor”) if they are not “pastoring”.

    We definitely agree on one thing: the church should recognize those who are pastoring consistently.

    However, the recognition by the church comes after someone is already pastoring (in function).


  27. 1-8-2009

    In hopes of bringing this conversation full circle… If you are agreeing that there is some sort of setting apart by a church of its pastors/elders/overseers (whether we call it an office or some other term), then I think certain things follow.

    1. Calling elders ‘older men’ does not convey the full meaning of presbuteros.

    2. Calling poimen simply ‘shepherds’ likely has the same problem. Though this one has more to do with that fact we are familiar with the term pastor for a church leader and unfamiliar with the word ‘shepherd’ for the same thing. While it is a good description of the role, virtually no one would understand what we were talking about. I’d say teach people what the word pastor means shepherd, but trying to substitute the term in normal usage is kicking against the goads.

    A few other thoughts on the list:
    *If ‘sanctification’ is understood as progress in holiness, why isn’t ‘saints’ tied to holiness as well?
    *’Tongues’ as foreign languages seems to have an anti-charismatic innuendo that isn’t reflective of the ambiguity of the NT on that point.
    *I think ‘Church’ ekklesia is a little more specific than simply ‘community’
    *’trainees’ for disciples? seems a little shallow – Are Wal-Mart trainees supposed to devotedly follow and imitate their trainer?

    I guess in all that what I mean to say is that so many of those terms Dr. Black mentions are pregnant with meaning, and he, as a Greek scholar knows that and should be careful about over-simplifying. In a lot of these cases, he’s exchanging one deficient definition for another deficient one.

  28. 1-8-2009


    You said, “I guess in all that what I mean to say is that so many of those terms Dr. Black mentions are pregnant with meaning, and he, as a Greek scholar knows that and should be careful about over-simplifying.” That’s just the point. The terms as used in the NT are not as “pregnant with meaning” as we make them. This idea that the term carries the full meaning was taught by Kittel, but has since been thoroughly refuted.

    Thus “ekklesia” doesn’t mean everything that we know about “the church”. “ekklesia” is simply a gathering. A “mathetes” is a follower (a trainee would work here). A “persbuteros” is an older man.

    Now, these terms can REFER to something more specific. Thus, “ekklesia” can refer to a gathering of God’s people. A “mathetes” can refer to someone who specifically follows Jesus or is being trained in the ways of Jesus. A “presbuters” can refer to an older, more mature person who has been recognized by a group.

    But, these are references, not meanings.

    And, in fact, “church” is not a good translation of “ekklesia”, since “church” came into English through the Greek term “kuriakon” not “ekklesia”. The early English translators recognized this and began translating “ekklesia” as congregation. However, the ecclesiastical authorities instructed the KJV translators to retain the word “church” and other “ecclesiastical” terms. So, now in English, we use a term that has nothing to do with the original.

    Meaning is important. The way that we use words is important. Moving away from words with theological or ecclesiastical baggage can help us understand Scriptures. As I understand it, this was the purpose of Dr. Black’s original post. I agree with him: we need to think about how we translate and use these Greek words and many, many more. We can quibble over whether we think “ekklesia” should be community or assembly, but I think either one is better than “church”.

    You may disagree, and that’s fine. But, I hope that you would agree that meaning is very important and we need to make sure that we are not importing meaning into the words of Scritpure, but that we are translating and using the words similar to how the first readers would understand them.


  29. 1-9-2009

    You’re probably right about ekklesia… I was just pulling those thoughts off the top of my head. But when I say pregnant with meaning, I don’t mean they carry all of that meaning into every usage.

    But if a word has possible meanings #1, #2, and #3, then to simply take #1 and say, “well that’s the primary meaning of the word, we’ll translate it that way and change our everyday usage to reflect that” is going to do great injustice to meanings #2 and #3 when they do appear.

    That kind of thinking has often caused preachers to go off the deep end in word studies during sermons.

    I understand the desire to get rid of the ‘baggage’, as you say. Baggage can be heavy to carry around. But when I finally get to where I’m going, I’m glad I have a few bags packed. 🙂

    Sometimes, we’ll be better off using the traditional word and explaining it. Sometimes rethinking our terminology is a needed thing.

  30. 1-9-2009


    It seems that we agree up to the point that we start choosing words and baggage. That’s a start. 🙂

    Thanks for the great discussion!