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Top 7 Biblical Words We’ve Redefined

CS Lewis once expressed the idea that when studying texts of any kind, if you tell me what the hard words mean, you’ve done more for me than a thousand commentaries. (paraphrase from An Experiment in Criticism). And the reverse of Lewis’ point is also true. If you don’t know what key words mean in a passage, more study, more commentaries and even more teaching will usually just serve to deepen your misinterpretation.

Well, there are some very important words in the New Testament that have been almost totally redefined. And unless we go back and challenge these devolved definitions, we will never grasp what the New Testament means in passages where these words are used.

So here is my take on, what it seems most modern people think when they read or say these 7 words, then I describe their typical biblical meaning, and lastly I give a rough guesstimate of the percentage of time, in my personal experience, people seem to be using these words to mean the modern instead of the biblical meaning.

Note: I’m not claiming to be Noah Webster and my definitions are not exhaustive of what the term can or does mean in every instance. I’m trying to express the heart of the modern usage and the heart of the biblical usage to expose the difference between the essence of each definition.

So here’s the list in order of least redefined to most redefined –

#7 Salvation

  • Typical Modern Usage: Accepting Jesus into your heart to avoid hell and go to heaven after you die.
  • Typical Biblical Usage: God’s rescue plan to save people and all of creation from sin and death to himself.
  • Biblical Example: “Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here.” Romans 13:11-12
  • Common Greek Definition – sōtēria: “deliverance from the molestation of enemies”
  • Extent of Redefinition 80%

#6 Faith

  • Typical Modern Usage: Agreeing intellectually that something is real or exists.
  • Typical Biblical Usage: Belief that rises to the level of increasing trust in a promise or person (beliefs that you lean or put your weight down on).
  • Biblical Example: “The righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:17
  • Common Greek Definition – pistis: “Belief with the predominate idea of trust (or confidence)”
  • Extent of Redefinition: 85%

#5 Elders

  • Typical Modern Usage: An advisory board or board of directors who sets vision and helps to make strategic decisions for a worship service ministry.
  • Typical Biblical Usage: The group of mature, well-respected fathers recognized as protectors of the doctrine and relational cohesion of the church in a given city.
  • Biblical Example: “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…” 1 Peter 5:5
  • Common Greek Definition – presbyteros: “advanced in life, an elder, a senior, forefathers”
  • Extent of Redefinition: 90%

#4 Church

  • Typical Modern Usage: A building where you go to attend a worship service or the group of people who regularly attend worship at the same place under the same leaders.
  • Typical Biblical Usage: The one, united body of Christ-followers, called out of the world and the regional and local expressions of that one body.
  • Biblical Example: “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” Matthew 16:18
  • Common Greek Definition – ekklēsia: “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly”
  • Extent of Redefinition: 95%

#3 Deacons

  • Typical Modern Usage: The board of facility and/or finance managers for a worship service ministry.
  • Typical Biblical Usage: Spirit-filled servants who develop city-wide ministries initiated by an apostolic team.
  • Biblical Example: “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve [diakoneō] tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:2-4
  • Common Greek Definition – diakonos: “one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master, a servant”
  • Extent of Redefinition: 98%

#2 – Preach

  • Typical Modern Usage: A 25-50 minute monologue in order to teach biblical truths.
  • Typical Biblical Usage: The heralding or proclamation of the good news, usually in public, and most often to those who have never heard (in the Bible it’s typically took 1-10 minutes).
  • Biblical Example: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God,and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:14-15.
  • Common Greek Definition – kēryssō: “to proclaim after the manner of a herald”
  • Extent of Redefinition: 99%

And the #1 biblical word modern Christianity has almost completely redefined…

#1 Pastor

  • Typical Modern Usage: The person or people in authority over a group of Christians who attend the same worship service.
  • Only Biblical Usage: An equipper who trains believers in different regions how to shepherd the disciples under their care.
  • Biblical Example: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service…” Ephesians 4:11-12 (Note: this is the only place in Scripture the word is translated “pastor” so this passage that refers to multiple “pastors” who equip God’s people is the only passage from which we can derive the biblical definition).
  • Common Greek Definition – poimēn: “a herdsman, esp. a shepherd”
  • Extent of Redefinition: 99.9%

Please consider carefully how you use these words.

The decision to redefine words (or to passively allow the definitions of important words to devolve over time) changes the meaning of Scripture more than any other practice. It’s so dangerous because it’s so subtle. People who defend the typical modern usage of these words feel they are defending the Bible when in reality they are defending a distortion and misinterpretation of biblical concepts.

A very early step toward finding paths that will return us to biblical practices is to understand what key biblical words really mean within their biblical context. And that begins by each of us choosing to use biblical words only in a way that reinforces their biblical meaning.

To dig deeper into paths of return for the church check out the ReChurch section