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FIRST-PERSON: How’s your linguistic aptitude?

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–A lifetime of listening, reading and writing doesn’t make a person a linguist. However, one of the occupational perks of a pastor, preacher, writer and public policy advocate is a love for words and their meanings.

Last month when I was confronted by a Louisiana state representative for the improper use of a word, my attention was pricked. The representative claimed that in my testimony to a House committee, I used the technical term “homosexual” to describe persons who engage in same-sex practices. He informed me that using this term to describe this group of people was equivalent to using the derogatory n-word to describe an African American person. His analogy was offensive to me but in deference to his office, I took on the role of a learner.

When asked what word was preferred, he said the word to use is “gay.” I shared with him that my understanding was just the opposite. Namely, that “homosexual” was more acceptable than “gay.”

A quick look at the Associated Press style guide indicates that “gay” is preferred, except the word “homosexual” is preferred when used in a clinical context or in reference to “same-sex activity.” That created a challenge for me because calling groups of people names is not my practice. So the clinical term is more my style.

The writers and editors at Baptist Press have wrestled with the word because they, like most Baptists, want to express compassion for people even when we do not embrace their behavior. They generally avoid the word “gay” because it is a subjective description — like a gay mood. Baptist Press uses the term “homosexual” when describing a person or group of persons who engage in same-sex activity. They also found that in medical and legal publications — and even mainstream news publications — the term “homosexual” is still widely used.

After consulting my testimony notes from the hearing, the representative and I were both right and wrong. The key is to determine the context then apply the correct word.

Several years ago, I was privileged to hear a genuine linguist speak about a couple of terms in the Christian vernacular. Dr. Josif Tson, a Romanian pastor with the scars of persecution still fresh, spoke to a group of pastors about the potential changes on the horizon for his country following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was very precise with his words.

This godly man stated that when a new word gains prominent usage in a culture it always replaces another word and usually the replaced word has the more accurate meaning. Tson noted that in the 1970s a new word appeared in the context of evangelism publications. People were asked to “commit” their life to Christ. He demonstrated that the word “commit” was a contractual word that a person uses to participate in a binding agreement. However, if either party feels that the agreement is not working for whatever reason, the contract is broken.

What word did “commit” replace? Tson found that the word “surrender,” as in surrender your life to Christ, was the preferred term prior to 1970. This word is biblically and theologically superior because it conveys the idea that when one is redeemed, his/her life is not their own. They are bought with a price. A believer’s relationship to Christ is secured by the blood of the Lamb of God.

The challenge that becomes mine is — do I use the more precise term or do I use the term that is more palatable to the culture? By using the less accurate term in my witness, do I actually do a disservice to the people who hear my presentation of the Gospel?


When speaking about all kinds of Baptists (American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Missionary Baptists and the other 100-plus Baptist groups), the accurate term is “denomination.” However, when specifically speaking about or to the Southern Baptist Convention, our forefathers were very careful to use the word “convention.” Why? Because we are a convention of churches who band together to accomplish common goals.

Churches that participate in the Southern Baptist Convention have created an extensive organizational structure to fulfill their goals of reaching the nations, reaching the states and cities, providing theological education, designing discipleship resources, providing minister retirement services and holding forth a biblical moral standard in a declining culture.

Over the course of years and decades, our churches expanded the size and scope of our cooperative ministries so that we could fulfill our Great Commission purpose of reaching the lost and discipling the saved in every time zone of the world and in every major city of this great nation. Every church of every size has value in a convention because the organization exists to facilitate the work of every church.

Each time I hear or read an article, report, resume or speech by someone who is heralded as a Baptist leader and they use the word “denomination” incorrectly, I want to raise my hand and offer a correction. A leader’s grasp of Baptist history is on the line with his use of this word.

Why is this so important? One reason is future generations of Baptists must know the difference between the use of the word “convention” and “denomination.” Southern Baptists are not a denomination in and of themselves and it is presumptuous for us to act as if we are. There are many other Baptist groups around the world doing effective ministry.

Another reason to use the word “convention” is Baptists have a history of resistance to top-down management styles common in most denominations. The “convention” process is our preferred organizational style. It is messy, it is relational, and it is generational. It gives autonomous, yet cooperating churches the power of collaborative ministries that are more extensive than any one church or association of churches could accomplish for generations.

So how’s your linguistic aptitude? I’m always working on mine. “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).
John L. Yeats is director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • John L. Yeats