Jargon (April 2011)

Jargon-- it is something that you hear all of the time. When you understand it, everything is well and good. When you are not "in the know," however, it can be quite frustrating!

Jargon is language specific to a particular group of people, generally understood in terms of specialties. There is medical jargon--CPT codes, the many long terms from Latin and Greek for various conditions and illnesses that always sound scary, pharmaceutical names, and so on. There is also legal jargon--that legalese in contracts that is very difficult to understand. There is also plenty of jargon in the tech community--apps, HTML, CSS, PHP, Java, and all other kinds of terms that you either understand or you do not! Jargon can be found among almost every group of people, and in many cases, it serves necessary functions for those who understand it. It would be much more difficult for a lot of groups to function if they could not use terminology specific to their groups!

There is also a lot of jargon in religion, especially in the Church. Think about it for a moment: how many terms do you use among Christians that you would probably not use in any other circumstance? Baptism, gospel meetings, faith, repentance, justification, sanctification, hermeneutics-- all these are examples of jargon. Even whole phrases like "guide, guard, and direct us," "separate and apart," "watery grave of baptism," and so forth are examples of jargon.

Is it wrong or sinful to use jargon? No, not at all! Nevertheless, jargon can become a barrier hindering understanding for those who are not in Christ or who are not familiar with the terms. This can become a particularly acute problem when we assume that everyone else understands what we mean when we use this jargon and, in reality, they do not!

For a long time it was believed that the whole New Testament was its own form of jargon-- some suggested that "Holy Spirit Greek" was its own dialect of the language. Yet papyri discoveries over the past two hundred years have painted a very different picture for us. The New Testament was not written in some special form of language that was not understood; it was written using the common language of the people. God's message was communicated to the world in a form that was designed to be understood!

We see this push toward understanding throughout the book of Acts. When preaching to Jews, the Apostles used language and stories familiar to the Jews (cf. Acts 2:14-36, 3:12-26, 13:16-41). When preaching to Gentiles, they used language and even quotations familiar to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 17:22-31)! Paul provides the general principle in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23:

To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the gospel's sake, that I may be a joint partaker thereof.

If we are to become all things to all men so that some may be saved, should that also not mean that we should communicate to our fellow man in ways that he understands?

The New Testament is clear: the message is to be taken to all men so that all men may understand and come to the knowledge of the truth (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Timothy 2:4). For them to understand, the message must be presented in a way that is understandable. Yet how can the message of the Gospel be understandable if the people with whom we speak do not understand the terms that we use to describe the message of Jesus?We should give some thought to the version of the Bible we use in order to teach others. How effective will our teaching be if those whom we teach must first decipher the English in order to get to God's message?

Our main concern must be with the language we use in presenting God's message. We must come to grips with the fact that we live among a generation of people to whom Biblical terms and concepts might as well be a foreign language. On the whole, people do not know the Bible or the terms used in its pages. For example, what do people think of when they hear "gospel"? They might think of it in terms of a genre of music as much or more as "the good news of Jesus Christ." What is "baptism" to them beyond a religious ritual that many experienced as a baby (or not at all)? For too many, "faith" is nothing more than the opposite of "science." People might know what "sin" is, but what actions are defined as sin and the consequences of sin are not as well understood. Terms like repentance, sanctification, justification, Trinity, and the like are almost entirely unknown to many of those in the world.

But how can we present the message of God without using some of these terms? We really cannot, just like people in technical fields cannot describe their work without using some of their jargon. The issue is not the use of jargon in and of itself; the issue is making sure that people understand the message that is being communicated!

In terms of evangelism, therefore, we should give some thought as to how to explain the terms that we use, and, whenever possible, get away from jargon and use terms people understand. For example, if one of the main evangelistic events is a "gospel meeting," let us ask ourselves: do people know what a "gospel meeting" is? Would they know what to expect at a "gospel meeting"? How can we expect anyone to attend a "gospel meeting" if they do not know what it is?

Another example of this is the phrase, "the watery grave of baptism." For believers "in the know," it is a way of speaking of baptism in terms of Romans 6:3-7, making clear that it indicates immersion and what its purpose is. But if someone is entirely ignorant of Scripture and Christianity, what does "the watery grave of baptism" sound like? Does it sound like anything in which they would want to participate, or does it sound more like an event in a horror movie and therefore something to avoid?

We could go on and on, but the point ought to be clear. We are supposed to take the message of Jesus Christ to all people and help them to understand who Jesus is, what He has done, and why it should be of the greatest importance to them (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 10:13-17, 1 Timothy 2:4). Would we ever dream of going out and trying to teach the message of Jesus in Greek to Americans who speak English? Of course not! Therefore, why would we try to teach the message of Jesus to people today in terms that people do not know or understand without any sort of explanation?

Jargon is a part of life. It is not wrong, but we must be careful to make sure that we "make the message plain" and make sure that people understand the ideas and concepts behind the message of the good news of Jesus Christ. We cannot assume that people automatically understand the words we use, and therefore we should give consideration how to best present the Gospel of Christ to all men. Let us do so, becoming the servant of all, so that some might be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry
April 2011