Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Language of the Debate (1)

“Language matters because whoever controls the words controls the conversation, because whoever controls the conversation controls its outcome, because whoever frames the debate has already won it.” So says writer Erica Jong, though we should probably give George Orwell credit for the underlying concept.

Sad to say, debate is very much out of fashion in the world these days. Online or in the streets, we go straight from perceived outrage to mob rule with very little in between other than furious accusation, name-calling and intimidation. The time from the trigger event to the full-blown social media blame-and-shame frenzy may be measured in minutes. One errant tweet on a plane and you may find yourself disemployed by the time you hit customs. Be assured no discussion will be had.

Thankfully, that is not the way Christians do things. Not yet anyway.

Christians in Disagreement

The New Testament records for us a number of differences of opinion between believers — Paul vs. Barnabas over John Mark, Paul vs. Peter over the latter’s inconsistency toward Gentiles, the circumcision group vs. the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, just for starters — and while some these debates involved strongly held positions and are described in fairly strong language (“condemned”, “hypocrisy”), what we can say with confidence about them is that there is zero evidence either side ever used language manipulatively or deceptively. To the extent these issues were resolved by discussion, both sides laid their positions on the table in plain language without the use of sophistry or rhetoric. In fact, Paul makes the case that this should always be how Christians conduct ourselves. He says, “We are ... men of sincerity ... in the sight of God we speak in Christ,” or again, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

That is not always the case today. Professing Christians involved in many of today’s debates about morality use language designed to circumvent debate altogether. Their word choices frame the issues for us, shape and control the conversation, and assume conclusions without evidence. In adopting their chosen language, we are accepting their default assumptions and allowing them to dictate what may and may not be discussed. Manipulating others is off the table for men and women who ought to be speaking in Christ in the sight of God — and that is truly where we are — but allowing ourselves to be manipulated is not exactly a great look either.

In this series of posts, I hope to analyze a few of the new, catchy words and phrases in use among believers, hold them up to the word of God and see how they look in its light. When we make a regular habit of this, we will find there are some expressions in common use that we are better off avoiding. We will also find we are much less easily deceived and much less at risk of inadvertently leading other believers astray.

So here goes ...

1. “Gay Christian”, “LGBTQ Christian”, etc.

Incidental or Self-Condemning?

Any time I hear the word “Christian” with an adjectival modifier (or, for that matter, used to qualify some noun like “music”, “youth” or “literature”), my ears perk up. We understand why such terms are coined: they are convenient conversational shorthand, and most of the time we use them without feeling the need to add a bunch of lengthy disclaimers or qualifications to them. When we refer to a “Christian bookstore”, for example, we do not generally stop to make the point that not everything you find in a “Christian bookstore” is particularly Christian, let alone edifying; some of it is fairly odious. Or when we refer to a “Christian youth group”, it is understood that there are probably any number of unsaved, girl-chasers and other tag-alongs who may attend. To call such things “the store where I get some of my commentaries on books of the Bible” or “the youth group attended by a bunch of saved and unsaved teens that has a prayer and Bible study component” is way too much work and simply pedantic. We will annoy everybody we deal with if we insist on talking like that or, far worse, correcting them every time we believe they may have misspoken.

All the same, we have to be careful we do not get too lazy in our language and accept glaring contradictions for the sake of economizing in our speech. To be a follower of Christ is to possess an identity that transcends any other earthly brand, name or association; an identity that brooks no rivals and tolerates no adulteration. First, foremost and always, we are Christ’s. Everything else we might say to identify ourselves is either comparatively incidental or else potentially self-condemning.

Black Christian, White Christian

Let me explain that a bit. Expressions like “black Christian”, “white Christian”, “Chinese Christian” are usually incidental. They do not and should not matter in any significant way. There will of course be all manner of practical and cultural differences between me and my Indian, Hispanic or Filipino brothers in Christ, but none of them should cause me to be reluctant to associate with them or they with me. We don’t choose the color of our skin or our national background.

Now, I say such things are usually incidental. Our skin and kin are not intrinsically in conflict with our Christianity. They may certainly come into conflict if we allow them to. For example, if we insist on obsessing over the history of racial oppression in America on every possible public occasion, we will probably find ourselves with fewer opportunities for fellowship. That will not be entirely the fault of our fellow believers. But our lesser and greater identities need not be in conflict provided we do not let our natural, fleshly instincts off a very short leash. There is nothing essential about blackness or whiteness that sets them in opposition to the Christian faith, and thank the Lord for that.

The Christian Liars Club

However, some such expressions are not incidental at all. Not ever. Some secondary identities are intrinsically antithetical to the Christian faith. I absolutely guarantee that self-identifying as an “adulterous Christian” or a member of the “Christian Liar’s Club” will cause your fellow believers to look at you askance. Good. It should. So then, what exactly does anyone mean when he uses a self-identifier like “gay Christian” or “LGBTQ Christian”?

Let me suggest what he probably does not mean. He is probably not telling us he is a follower of Christ who, like all of us, has made the occasional moral slip since his conversion, has repented of those acts, and by the grace of God is determined not to fall again. If he were, he would probably be as likely to declare himself gay as to declare himself a lush, a pickpocket or a street thug. No, he is saying that “gay” is how he sees himself and how he wants the world to see him. If the adjective is not specifically a source of open pride, then it is certainly a declaration that he is locked in perpetual conflict with his own nature, and that this conflict is what defines him. He is telling us that he has two masters, and we know how well that works out.

Perpetuating Faulty Self-Identification

Likewise, to call someone else a “gay Christian” or “LGBTQ Christian” is to unwisely accept their own faulty, unflattering, self-contradictory form of identification and perpetuate it. We do not do them any favors in that. If they are fighting a natural inclination they recognize as sinful, we do not help them by reminding them of their weakness at every turn. By using that expression we are basically saying, “There’s no hope for you, bud. You will always be that way. And when everybody here looks at you, that’s what they see.” How is that Christian kindness?

On the other hand, if their self-identification is a point of pride, or if they are telling us they are a practicing homosexual, we have just become their enabler in a second sin or series of sins. John tells us plainly, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” Such a person is either saying, “I’m sinning, I know it and I don’t care” or else, “I’m not sinning because gay sex is not a sin.”

Game Over

Either way, when somebody speaks of “gay Christians” or “LGBTQ Christians”, they are telling us the debate over the morality of homosexuality is already over. When we use their language, we are conceding that there is no element of choice in what we fantasize about, prefer or hope for in a partner, or even, perhaps, what we do with our bodies. But such a view is held by faith; science has yet to rigorously demonstrate it. And even if the existence of a genetic predisposition toward men or women could be proven beyond dispute, the fact is that what we prefer, sexually or in any other way, does not become either moral or profitable simply because we prefer it. It certainly does not become Christian.

Using their words assumes their conclusion. Don’t do it.

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