Mark 12:26-27 (ESV)
The ability to make distinctions is a critical skill for adults. It can spell the difference between propaganda and insightful comments; or between slander and constructive criticism. In the above passage, Jesus demonstrates this skill answering the pharisees who were questioning him about the resurrection. His response is subtle. He points out the verb tense of the phrase, “I am the God of Abraham . . . ” In the Hebrew, and the Greek, that “I am” is present tense, not past tense. This means the dead patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are not stuck in the past tense–once alive, but now annihilated. No, God is Lord over them today because they are still alive in some resurrected sense.
Jesus drew a critical distinction down to the verb tense of a single word, and that distinction meant the difference between resurrection theology and some heretical alternative. Words and even parts of words matter. Apologists can policy and improve their craft by discerning those distinctions that spell the difference between heresy and orthodoxy, or between insightful descriptions instead of shallow insults.
- “Pro-choice” isn’t identical to “Pro-abortion”
- “Pro-life” isn’t identical “Anti-choice”
- “Atheist” isn’t identical to “Pagan”
- “Republican” isn’t identical to “Nazi”
- “Democrat” isn’t identical to “Fascist”
- “Free speech” isn’t identical to “Racism”
- And so on.
These are just a few examples of labels that, when we misapply them, they can wreck a conversation and ruin a ministry opportunity. But this isn’t simply about avoid offense. Of course we shouldn’t add offense when it’s unnecessary. But we also err when our loose unguarded choice of words misidentifies the truth, obscures the truth, or obstructs conversation and repels other people.
The author of the book of James understood the critical importance of guarding our speech. At one point he seems fatalist, despairing over the apparently incurable tongue: “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). But, just a few verses later he answers this lament with a divine prescription. Perhaps no human can fully tame the tongue by God can tame our tongues with “wisdom from above.” James says, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (3:17-18).
The words we use should be at least reasonably accurate and, where possible, inoffensive, so we aren’t wrecking ministry opportunities before they can even launch. We will not be perfect in this regard, but we can be perfectable if we are pleading in prayer for God to give us His wisdom (James 1:5). When we are conduits of God’s wisdom our conversations can be a God-honoring artpiece instead of an inglorious mud fight or or sacrilegious shouting match.