Words Worth Holding Onto

When my children were younger, their kindergarten teacher taught them this saying: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can also hurt me.” That’s not the version I learned when I was a kid: back then we were taught that words could never hurt us. I’m of two minds about changing that saying. There should, on the one hand, be a clear distinction between physical violence and verbal aggression, but it is also true that words can hurt us.

Words are powerful things.The letter of James says this:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.James 3:5-6 (Stop beating around the bush, James, and tell us what you really think!)

It’s certainly appropriate for us to consider our words carefully, and avoid using words that hurt people unnecessarily.

But at the same time, words do mean things. Jesus says not to heap up empty phrases when speaking with God (Matthew 6:7). When speaking with other people, Jesus says not to make oaths, but simply to let our word be “yes, yes” or “no, no” (Matthew 5:37). Sometimes, tjough,to avoid controversy, we deliberately choose less accurate words, or fuzz things up with great clouds of verbiage.

I understand that in the early days of the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s party began calling itself the Bolshevik (majority) party, and their opponents the Menshevik (minority) party. They picked those labels before they were accurate, but eventually the facts caught up with the words. It was a fatal error for the Mensheviks to allow their opponents to claim the “high ground” of majority-party status.

Over the centuries, parties within the Church have ceded three words to their opponents, and today we Mainline Protestants tend to avoid all three. I’d like us to begin to reclaim those words, because they’re too valuable to give up. These are the words I mean: orthodox, catholic, and evangelical. In my next article, I’ll talk about why they’re important.