Word Wrangling

Many of us pastors have trouble staying out of the ditches and onto the road.

A scholar friend says, “Truth is a ridge on either side of which are vast chasms to be avoided at all cost.”

It’s one thing to love word-study and to delight in finding a particular word in Scripture that turns out to be a well-spring of insights and applications, and a far different thing to fight over the meaning of some obscure Greek word.

Somewhere in my past I encountered a translation of I Timothy 6:5 that warns God’s leaders of “word-wrangling.” This morning, looking that passage up in various translations and commentaries and other study helps, no one has it that way, but more as “constant striving” and “chronic disagreement.” (The Greek word—ahem, here we go now–is ‘disparatribai,’ a double compound word which according to Thayer, means “constant contention, incessant wrangling or strife.”)

“Thayer” refers to a well-respected Greek-English lexicon used for generations. In the above quote, he used the word “wrangling”. Maybe I got it from him.

What started all this in my mind was two things.

The image of wrangling suggests a cowboy roping a dogie, jumping off his horse, and wrestling the animal to the ground.

Some of us do that with words. We capture them, hogtie them, and put our own brand on them. The result may be to make the word mean something entirely different from the writer’s original intention.

And since our audiences–that would be the men and women of our congregations–are not knowledgeable about the Greek and Hebrew (most don’t have a clue what a lexicon is!), when we start parsing (ahem) these words in sermons, they either shift into neutral intending to catch up when we return to the main highway or they stand in awe, assured we must know what we’re talking about since we use phrases like “the original Greek says” and “my Hebrew professor used to say this word means.”

Why our people put up with this stuff is beyond me.

They shouldn’t.

The other thing that drove me to turn on the computer this morning and drive down this particular lane was Acts 2:40 where Peter told the Jerusalem crowd to “save yourselves.”

Yep. That’s what he said.

“With many other words he warned them and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.'” (Acts 2:40)

Those who love word wrangling, the sport of delving into the murky meanings of biblical words and finding hidden, hitherto unknown insights and applications no doubt have had their fun with this one. Save yourselves? Are you kidding me?

However, no word study is needed here. The clear meaning of the expression refers to persons taking responsibility for their present and future situations and “getting up and leaving this place.” Leave the saloon, break the stranglehold of your surroundings, end your addiction to this depraved culture. Decide to change!

Anyway you want to say it.

The crowds in Zion’s streets understood what Peter was saying. We know that because immediately after he said it, three thousand of them got up and came to him, “accepting his word” is how Luke put it, and were baptized into the family of Jesus Christ.

Can a person save himself? In one way, yes. In another, no.

How about this one….

A member of the tiny American denomination known officially as Primitive Baptists and unofficially as hard-shell Baptists descended on my office for a little session in word-wrangling. His wife was a Southern Baptist and to keep peace in the family, he often attended with her. But in no way did he worship. He resented the organ and piano, he grimaced everytime we mentioned Sunday School, and he found fault with half the stuff in my sermons.

” You talk about soul-winning,” he said. “We can’t win a soul to God! That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. You’re teaching error.”

I said, “He that winneth souls is wise.”

He said, “What are you saying? I don’t understand.”

I said, “You would if you knew your Bible. I was quoting Proverbs 11:30.”

He said, “Does it say that?”

“It does in mine.” I showed him.

It said the same thing in his.

“That’s not what it means,” he insisted.

I said, “Have you talked to Solomon lately? How do you know what he meant by it?”

He sat there for a moment and said, “I can see there’s no point in discussing Scripture with you. You’re so close-minded.”

Eventually, he and his wife divorced. Someone was close-minded all right, but I don’t think it was the preacher.

I have two contributions to make to this discussion today, principles we could wish every pastor and Bible scholar would bear in mind in the relentless pursuit of Truth. Or better put, our relentless pursuit to understand the Truth which God has revealed to us in His word.

1) “Words do not have meanings; they have usages.”

Dr. Ray Frank Robbins, now in Heaven, taught New Testament and Greek at several of our SBC institutions over a long career. He possessed two doctorates, including one from Oxford in England. He taught at Samford University when it was Howard College, at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when I was a student, and later at Mississippi College. He was as good as they come, as sharp as any knife in the drawer, and yet a sweet and gentle brother in Christ.

The quote above is from Dr. Robbins. Remember it; it’ll come in handy.

Pastors who have taken a few semesters of Greek (or less!) or who have taken none at all but have in their possession a book or two claiming to understand all there is to know along those lines often go to great lengths to tell their hearers “what the Greek means here.”

Be careful here, friend.

Words do not have meanings; they have usages.

Anyone who has lived in America as long as forty years has seen the meanings of quite a number of words change drastically. Case in point….

–“My, you’re looking gay today.” Hmmm. Are you saying your friend has a pleasant appearance this morning or that he is sporting a lavender outfit and carrying his pinkie in the air?

–“I’m pro-choice.” That’s good, if you are staring at the menu of your favorite restaurant. You have the freedom to choose anything you can afford. However, if by that innocuous expression you mean you retain the right to carry a baby to term and give birth to it or to put it to death without any consequences whatsoever, that is another thing altogether.

–“I’m a liberal and proud of it.” President Harry Truman would say that and have no qualms about it. In those days—the 1940s–‘liberal’ was an honorable word and if anyone went ballistic over it, I don’t recall it. These days, only the left-fringe seems to brag about being liberal. “Moderate” and “conservative” in our denomination have also come to imply (to some at least) “liberal” and “fundamentalist.”

It’s important, I’m confident, to get at the root of a word and see what it “means” in the original Greek or Latin or whatever. But when we get that, we don’t necessarily have a whole lot. Next, we will want to know how the word was used and what it meant to the speaker or writer.

2) Always back off and look at the bigger picture.

It’s possible to find single words in the Bible that suggest new applications of Scripture and exotic avenues of doctrine. Many a heretic has built a career in just that way, by “going to seed” on one word or phrase in some biblical text while forgetting everything else the Bible has to say on that subject.

This is why Scripture itself cautions us that “no Scripture is of private interpretation.” (II Peter 1:20)

Now, not to drive anyone mad here, but we have to ask ourselves what that means. What was the writer saying about the interpretation of Scripture? Was he saying that no one should get off by himself and find his own way of understanding the Word of God, but to stay within the context of the larger congregation of believers in order to have their counsel and balance? That seems to be a correct thing to do. That is, unlike you lived in the early 16th century when the larger church was corrupt and more worldly than the world.

Or does it mean something else? The NIV has II Peter 1:20 read, “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.” This would make the caution apply not so much to the reception of a text on our end as the giving of the text on the prophet’s end. The next verse in the NIV reads, “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”


My point here is to stay within the congregation, within the larger body of faithful believers, and not to allow yourself to drink too deeply of the heady elixir of finding-a-verse-that-has-eluded-the-scholars.

Doubt is such an egotistical thing. You find some flaw in Christianity–some “contradiction” in Scripture, some line of logic that “proves” Jesus could not have been Whom He claimed to be–and from that moment on, you’re on a holy crusade. The doubt within becomes your deity, the defining principle of your life. You smugly wonder why no one has ever thought of this before.

When the Bible looks at such human tendencies and frailties, it dismisses them with one word: “fool.”

Likewise, when we find an interpretation of some minute point of Scripture we’re sure no one has ever seen before–or at least, only the truly brilliant like ourselves–be careful here.

Tread softly. There is quicksand in the area.

When you encounter some new doctrine–whether you found it all by your lonesome or someone else pointed it out to you–do this:

1) ask yourself what that doctrine does to the major affirmations of the Christian faith: the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Jesus, the purity of the Gospel, salvation by grace through faith, that sort of thing.

2) ask yourself what the saints of old as well as the saints of the present–those teachers and expositors of the Word you esteem highly–would say about this. Then, go ask them.

Pull up a chair. Get ready for a history lesson.

You’d be surprised how many of them have trod this same dead-end road you now find yourself on and in what detail they recall the hubris now flooding your soul from the doctrinal discoveries you have made. They laugh at what naive greenhorns they were (and by implication, you “are”).

Then, listen as they tell you of how the Pelagians or the Gnostics or the Arians or another off-shoot of the Christian faith made the same discoveries as you and played that hand out to its full extension, only to find it barren and lifeless.

As a young believer who sometimes struggled with doubts on the Bible and its record of Jesus, it gave me a comforting assurance to observe that many of the people I admired most for their brains and common sense were devout disciples of the Galilean.

I sat in the home of a young husband who had been taken in by the “elders” who had knocked at his door one evening when his wife had been at work. He was bored and had nothing else to do that night, so he let them come in and then soaked up all their false doctrine and accusations. By the time his wife came to me–I was not their pastor, but the husband had sat in our congregation often as a teenager and she felt he had confidence in me–he was well locked into that false religion.

I asked him, “Jimmy, when they began telling you these things that you’d never heard before, doctrines so different from what you’d been taught in your own church, did it ever occur to you to ask someone about that? Did you think of calling your pastor or some other Bible teacher?”

His answer was revealing. “I didn’t think there were any answers to what they were saying.”

Doubt and conceit have that in common: they are confident no one has more of the truth than they.

Keep the bigger picture, friend. Ask other believers. But do not wrangle over words and sound all the alarms when the preacher or the visitor in your living room begins to do so. He may be on solid ground, but he’s also playing around quicksand where one must tread softly.

Let’s leave wrangling to the rodeos.

7 thoughts on “Word Wrangling

  1. I love this post! Last week, I was listening to a preacher, and he uttered one of my favorite lines (I’m being sarcastic): “Now, I’m no Greek scholar, but . . .” Ok, if he’s not a Greek scholar, why did he feel he had the authority to give us a lesson in Greek? Oh, and what he said about the Greek in that passage was dead wrong. Interestingly, when Greek scholars preach, it seems they make much less of the little hair splitting linguistic issues than the non-scholars. As you said, Joe, context–the big picture–is crucial.

    And about new doctrines. I once had a professor who used to tell us, “Men, if you find a meaning in the text that no one in 2,000 years of biblical scholarship has found, the odds are that you are wrong.”

  2. Joe,

    This is one article that I will save for future reference, especially when I might begin to think I have discovered something new.

    The quote in the above comment by Mike Miller is priceless: “And about new doctrines. I once had a professor who used to tell us, ‘Men, if you find a meaning in the text that no one in 2,000 years of biblical scholarship has found, the odds are that you are wrong.'”

  3. I read your article “Pastors and the Prohibitive Practice of Word Wrangling” and some of the points you made I agreed with and others I felt to take issue with your viewpoints.

    I am not a pastor, but I love studying the Bible and especially in the original languages and when I share that with the congregation I use the languages to build up people and I do not make up doctrines nor do I wrangle over minute details.

    I have found that using Greek, Hebrew and Latin have been the most useful tools for studying the Bible.

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