Monday, March 30, 2009

Christianese (noun)

Christianese (noun) A language or linguistic style that is understood only by, or appeals only to, practicing Christians.

Judges 12:6 "Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Shibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce [it] right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

In Judges 12, the Gileadites find a way to distinguish between friend and foe by compelling captured refugees to say the word 'Shibboleth.' Evidently, Ephraimites couldn't pronounce it correctly, saying instead 'Shibboleth.' Those that said that latter were struck down while those who said the former were allowed to pass. Linguistically I am intrigued at the prospect of there being a language that even the people who are supposed to be using it don't understand! How cool is that? Pretty strange huh!

'Shibboleths' abound in society, including among Christians. Unfortunately, even among Christians, a Shibboleth isn't simply a quick way to distinguish where a person stands in relation to you but is used in a manner akin to the Gileadite's use, thankfully, of course, without the resulting slaughter. Sometimes we as Christians can speak language that others haven't got a clue what we are talking about. Its like our own secret language!!!

Often these are often the big theological words: atonement, incarnation, substitutionary, Trinity, creedal, Gospel, Sacrament, etc. Other examples might include "...just a blessing..." "if it's God's will"... and so on and so forth. Now, among Christians these terms generally make sense and at least there is enough understanding that one could talk for a little while before Shibboleths come into play. I am not denouncing the words, per se, only their application: with non Christians this sort of phraseology comes across as a whole new language, Christianese, if you will. In other words, Christianese is a Shibboleth in the ears of the nonbeliever. The moment you begin engaging in Christianese you are at risk of being dismissed or marginalized in the eyes of the person you are talking to.

The word ‘preach’ does not just mean ‘one-way verbal communication’ – as in a sermon or evangelistic address. It has a much broader sense - ‘to effectively communicate’. If the receivers have not understood the message, real communication has probably not occurred. Colossians 1:6 strongly implies that understanding on the part of the hearers is essential to true gospel preaching.

Do you know what the following means? Are there similar phrases that lose you? You would be surprised how many use these phrases without the recipients knowing what they are talking about.

Such as:



Alpha Course


Non Denominational



The World

Carpet Time

Born again

"I don't feel led ..."







Thus Saith the Lord

Five Fold Blessing



Have a burden



Legalism ...

and many more...That should keep us busy??!!!

What do you all think of Christian shibboleths? Should we be using a language more people can understand? I know I catch myself talking to non Christians different from my brothers and sisters... Any thoughts?


Wickle said...


Great post. It's very easy for us to get caught in jargon and make it very difficult for "outsiders" to feel welcome.

My worship pastor is very good about being sensitive to this kind of thing, and he has explained to me a whole philosophy of language used with different groups. Still, it's easy to do.

Tim said...

Its way to easy to do! Thanks for the comment!

Gayle said...

Do we use these words because we do not understand the words well enough to use substitute words that all others can understand? Just a thought.