Shallow Worship At The Altar Of Semantics

I once took a college spring trip to Key West, FL. A buddy from church and I left out on a Friday and made our way down to the tip of the Continental United States. We stopped off at Marathon Key and got a campsite for the first night. Being college students, this was going to have to be a budget trip. If I recall, that campsite cost us $70 a night (and this was back in the 90’s). We both realized quickly that we didn’t have the money to last a full week down in the Keys. On Sunday morning we got up and, having nothing else to do, we went to church. I recalled seeing an Assemblies of God church on the main drag so we stopped in there, arriving just a little late for the first service. With nothing to do and nowhere to go (we were after all college students flying by the seat of our pants), we stayed for the second service as well. During the second service I remember hearing the pastor mention the name of their sister church down in Key West. When he mentioned the name of that church, I knew within myself, that’s where we need to head next. Long story short, we made great friendships that week with some beautiful Assemblies of God brethren and even got to spend the rest of the week sleeping in one of the Sunday school rooms. God provided housing for us at no cost. At the nudging of God’s Spirit, we went down there to have fun, but God did so much more. During that divinely appointed Spring Break, I had the honor of personally leading 25 people to Christ through simple street evangelism. My friend led two people to the Lord. We came back a week later with 27 salvations under our collective belt (that’s far better than what most college kids do on Spring Break).

 

Upon our return, we were so excited to tell everyone what God had done (this was the 90’s, we didn’t have cellphones, and Zuckerburg would have been in middle school). In those days, the group of believers I ran with called the positive fruit of evangelism, “getting someone born-again.” And so that’s we said when we returned from the Keys. Them: “How was Spring Break?” Us: “Awesome! We got 27 people born-again.” Most people were so excited to hear such a testimony, but inevitably there was Brother Semantic ready to extinguish young college zeal. His retort would have sounded something like this, “Brother, you didn’t get anybody born-again. It is Jesus that saves, by the power of the Holy Spirit. You were either sowing, or watering. It is God that gives the increase. You sound so prideful when you talk that way.” Eh, maybe we did sound prideful. Or maybe it was just shear excitement and exuberance at such a wonderful Spring Break.

I think everybody knows a Brother or Sister Semantics. And maybe you are that brother. Semantics is, of course, the branch of linguistics that studies the meaning of words. In modern English, semantics has somewhat come to mean arguing over which words mean the same thing in an attempt to find some semblance of unity. The entire experience with Brother Semantics taught me this.

 

semantics

Consider for a moment how many different ways the various sects and denominations in the Body of Christ today refer to salvation: some Christians call it a “decision for Christ,” others call it “being born again,” others refers to it as “being saved,” or “receiving salvation,” or “giving their life to Christ,” or “giving their heart to Christ.” I’ve heard yet others talk about their “born-again experience” in connection with their “confirmation,” and another group of believers would respond to a salvation altar call by expressing their desire to be water baptized (it was how their heart had been trained to respond). I think we get the picture. You may whole-heartedly identify with one or more of these terms and you may totally reject one or more of them. The thing we must see it that each of those terms is seeking to describe and relate the experience of the singular moment when “old things are passed away; behold all things are become new. And all thing are of God,” (2 Corinthians 5:17,18a)—what many call “the born-again experience.” To dismiss any of these terms or exalt one over the other would be called “arguing semantics.” And yet so much division in the Body of Christ today isn’t over doctrinal differences but over semantics. It seems to me, any Christian with a continuous bone to pick with anybody outside of their Christian sect may need to stop and take a look at this thing called semantics and ask themselves this question, “ are we describing the same doctrine but using different terms?” Besides, nobody has perfect doctrine anyway. Paul said we only know in part, and he never even said how big a part that was (1 Corinthians 13:9). It may be the only part the Lord has given me to know is a really just a small part.

 

One of my spiritual mentors was a dear Nigerian pastor. He lived through the Nigerian civil war of the 1970’s called the Biafra War. He started and oversaw many churches over 35 years, so his advice, wisdom, and knowledge were not just limited to Google searches. One of the greatest lessons he gave me was that of church administration. He pointed out to me in his deep rasping African accent, “Brother, you take up offering at the beginning of your service. I receive our offering in the middle of the service accompanied with music. It is a diversity of administration. And the Lord does not care.   The offering is received. The Lord is glorified and the people are blessed. Who cares when it happens?” This understanding of the diversities of administrations has helped me tremendously as missionary pastor. It has helped me to see that not every church has to be like mine in form, fashion, order of service (so long as there is order in the service), etc. This applies to water baptism. Some churches baptize once a quarter, once a month, at the river, in the pool, at the lake, after 6 weeks of classes, or immediately upon salvation. American churches often take water baptism lightly, while in the Middle East, converts are not considered Christian until they have been water baptized. Diversity of administration also applies to preaching styles: some preach exegetically, some preach topically, some preach textually—all are accepted methods.

 

According to 1 Corinthians 12:5,6, Paul tells us that there are differences of administrations, but it’s the same Spirit at work. There are differences of operations, but it is the same Spirit at work. I would hope every church operated a little differently. I would hope every minister administered a little differently. Paul also said there are eyes, and ears, and noses, and feet, and hands. Each of these members operates by the same process yet produces a different result. Each of these sensory members is empowered by blood flow from the heart and neurological signals from the brain. To this end they are the same, yet their functions couldn’t be anymore different. The eyes use the power given them to produce sight. The ears use the power given them to produce hearing. The nose uses the power given it to produce smell. And they all report their findings back to the brain via the same nervous system. This is just like different churches, ministers, or members in the Body of Christ—Paul said so. One church produces smelling by the Holy Spirit. Another church produces sight by the same Holy Spirit. A third church produces hearing by the Spirit of God. If we could ever learn that the Body of Christ is much bigger that just the ear or foot that the Lord has set us as, it would really keep us from falling into semantical idolatry.

 

Those Christians that choose to fight and argue over Christian semantics reveal themselves to be ignorant at best, prideful at worst. In my experience it has been the Christians who isolate themselves, refusing to fellowship with the saints, and negligent in the actual doing of the Word, these are they that fall pray to this shallow worship around the altar of semantics. With nothing better to do, they become self-anointed, self-self-apointed heresy hunters.  I share all of this because, as the title of this blog implies, this is all about the theology and teachings of Mark T. Barclay. If you’re going to be a critic, it helps to know not just what to look for, but, if you find something you disagree with, it help’s to know why it’s there.  In the end, the disagreement may just be semantics.

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