Arguing About the Meaning of Words: Avoid Conflict and Strife

Words are important. We use them to communicate. But if we don’t have a common understanding of what words mean, communication will be challenging. If everyone understood words in exactly the same way, communication would be clear. But unfortunately that is not the case.

Take the simple word ‘bow’. What does it mean. Does it mean bending over toward someone, a sign of respect? Or is it a tool for shooting arrows? Or is it the pointy end of a boat or ship? Context is the key to understanding in this case.

But context does not always help. Sometimes you need to know what tribe a person is from. Are they a doctor, a scientist, an engineer, a mother, or a teenager? Each have their own meanings for some common words.

The Meaning of Theological Terms

This is true within theology as well. We might think we always mean the same thing with the words we use, and generally do. But some words have distinct meanings to different groups, or tribes, of theologians.

Take the word ‘sovereignty’ for instance. Most theologians would agree that it means God is in control. But the tribe I belong to understands God’s being in control differently that some other tribes.

We believe that a sovereign God would be able to grant some level of autonomy to created creatures without losing his sovereignty. In other words he could create people with free will without surrendering his sovereignty over them.

Other tribes believe that if God granted free will to humans that he could not be sovereign. These tribes tend toward determinism, that everything that happens is according to God’s divine plan, set down from creation.

To be clear, the two tribes mean something different by the term ‘free will’ as well. Mine means libertarian free will; the ability to have chosen other than what you did. The other tribe means compatibilist free will; choosing to freely do what you want, but not otherwise. Compatibilist free will is free will that is compatible with divine sovereignty. God works in our desires so that we want to do is what he has determined we should do.

Strife and Arguing Over Words

I am not arguing here which view is correct. Rather that our differing use of the same words causes communication problems between us. And, unfortunately, it extends beyond simple communication issues.

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

1 Timothy 6:3-5 NIV

In 1 Timothy 6:3-5 Paul gives Timothy instruction concerning false teachers looking for monetary gain through their teaching. I am not accusing either side of this debate of being false teachers looking for profit. But something Paul said about them is something we need to guard against.

They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction.

Resolve as Brothers, Not as Competitors

All too often our quarrels about words end in strife, malicious talk, and friction. Our words are important. And we are not both right in our understanding of them. But we should be able to discuss them in a reasonable fashion without resorting to name calling and casting doubt on salvation. Something that I have seen happen all to often.

We both serve the same God, the God who holds all truth. Let’s work together in a loving fashion to discover and hold to that truth. Let’s not fight and quarrel amongst ourselves like the false teachers Paul warns about.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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