Do not betray our faith with sloppy words

sloppy words

As Lent comes towards its climax in the celebration of Easter, we might revisit the energy of Ash Wednesday and renew our renewal for this final week.

This process of making changes in our lives, having a new outlook, repenting, converting, turning over a new leaf — all render the command, metanoeite — that we find at the beginning of the mission of Jesus as it is presented in Mark’s gospel (1:15): “Repent (metanoeite) and believe in the good news.”

Renewing our language

Renewal can take many forms: fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. These are the three classic Lenten practices.

But renewal can also take the form of becoming less sloppy with our language.

Language, as we use it in our everyday conversation, is usually imprecise. We use words without thinking about whether or not we are being true to what we mean or just using familiar short-hands.

Moreover, a word I associate with one meaning can convey a very different impression in the mind of the one listening to me.

Therefore, being careful with our language is a type of ascetic practice that can be an important part of our Lenten renewal.

But do we need to do this?

Surely most of the words we use, even within Christian discourse, are clear and unambiguous!

But it is a simple fact that words often become tired!

What might be a life-giving word that communicates the mystery in one age, is just religious jargon in another.

I suggest we just think about these two words: “Christ” and “Church”.

Sloppy words lead to sloppy thinking in matters of faith and can be a betrayal of the good news.


For many people, this is just a name or a surname! It answers the question “who is the central figure in Christianity?”

So we say: “in Christ’s time” or “as Christ said” or “Christ is”.

But the name of One whom Christians look to as their Lord is Jesus. His name was Jesus and he came from Nazareth.

So let us call Lord by his name when we want to name him: Jesus. Jesus is the name of the saviour “for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

What we declare to be the heart of our belief is that Jesus is the Christ – the anointed of the Father. The Christ, Jesus, is the one who presents us to the Father.

“The Christ” along with “the Lord” are the fundamental titles we give to Jesus.

The sloppiness of using “Jesus Christ” as the equivalent to “John Smith” results in our forgetting that when we want to refer to a historical individual, a rabbi from Nazareth, we should use his historical name.

But when we want to confess and relate to him as our hope and the one who presents us to the Father, then we should make our confession that he is, for us who are baptized, the Christ/the Anointed One/the Messiah.

At Eastertime the lectionary presents us with a continuous reading of the Acts of the Apostles, so let us note this “ideal sermon” that Luke — the author of Acts — places on the lips of Peter.

This is the first sermon preached on the day of Pentecost and its conclusion is worth quoting:

Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36).


The word means an assembly of people, a gathering, a group with a common identity.

But as we often use it, it means a building, an organization, or a shorthand for an ideology.

Well, surely, only those outside would confuse the community of the baptized – either in one place or the whole oikoumene – with a building!

Here is a little test.

Watch and listen for all the uses of the word “church” you hear or read between now and Easter.

How many times will it be for a building?

“The Easter ceremonies will not take place in this church but only take place in the parish church this year,” said a message on a notice board I saw yesterday.

How many times will it be used as an abstraction? For instance, “we must guard the separation of Church and state”.

How many times will it be used for the structures that minister to the churches? “The Church should speak out clearly,” we might say when, in fact, we mean the pope or a bishop should speak out.

Watching our language

I recall the number of times I was told as a child, “Watch your language!”

It was far more profound advice than I realized because sloppy language is often a sign of sloppy thinking.

Sloppy thinking in matters of faith can be a betrayal of the good news.

If we all are careful in how we use these two words — Christ and Church — we might find that we have helped people deepen their understanding and overcome their denominational fears – if they are already Christians.

And we might discover that we have helped those who are not Christians get a better insight into what Christians actually believe.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
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