Those Who Cannot, Should Not


In 2015, Nigel Richards won the French-language Scrabble World Championships. Nigel Richards does not speak French. He won by, more or less, memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary. Given his knowledge of French words (or at least how to spell them), Mr. Richards could surely type random French words into a document, but the odds of the result making any sense are indistinguishable from zero. If he were to learn[1] French pronunciation, then he could surely walk into a French restaurant and start yelling random French words, but the odds of this resulting in a plate of food are significantly lower than the odds of his having to have a chat with the police.

There is more to (usefully) employing words than knowing how to spell them.[2] At a minimum, one must know the meaning of the word and something of context to use such word properly. This is all the more true when employing technical terms in a technical context. Further, the use of technical terms in a non-technical context may prove more harmful than helpful. If I were explaining the basics of antitrust/competition law to someone, I would surely not employ such terms as "Bertrand competition", "Cournot competition", and "Herfindahl-Hirschman index". I know what those terms mean, and I know what I mean when I employ them. Does that do you any good? Of course not.

All good teachers tailor their teaching to the audience. It is, at best, pointless ego stroking to use terminology the audience does not understand.[3]

Now, if I were to confuse the average person with technical language concerning monopolies, it is unlikely that any actual harm would result. Most people will go their entire lives without having anything to do with market regulation.[4] But this is not the case in all fields. If a pastor, a (church) teacher, or a theologian misleads[5] or confuses, the consequences may prove disastrous. A bruised reed or a smoldering wick may read the careless words of a teacher and despair — or worse. It is incumbent on pastors, teachers, and theologians to be careful with their words — and this includes knowing one's audience.

Social media and online services have made it trivially easy for many teachers to reach wide audiences. The harm of confusing ten men in a room during a Bible study is relatively limited in terms of scope; the potential scope of the harm that may flow from spreading false teaching via the Internet is virtually unlimited. Yes, certainly, false teaching may spread outwardly from almost any interaction, but the Internet is unmatched in terms of potential audience size and potential speed of transmission or spread.

Errors do, of course, occur — and they must be corrected as soon as possible after they are discovered —, but what is really in view here is something else. There are those who feel a need to sound smarter than everyone else in the room (or at least to attempt to do so), and one way in which this can be achieved is the use of technical language. I will not bother with the psychology, et cetera, here, but suffice to say that many people can be bamboozled by complex or technical language (sicut hoc[6]). I do not deny that some subjects are technical or complex, but I would advance that a topic that cannot be presented at a 'lay' level should almost certainly not be presented to 'laity' at all.[7] Which master are you really serving if you confuse the sheep or embolden the goats? If you cannot explain the matter in a way that the audience can understand, then all parties would be better served by your holding your tongue.

There is, of course, the possibility of embarrassment — even shame — in error, but in pride — in the refusal to recant or to correct — there is the possibility of high-handed, impenitent sin. If you err in handling the things of God, then it is incumbent upon you to retract your error and — if possible — to correct it. You may not necessarily be duty bound to correct misunderstandings, but you should surely strongly consider doing so, and you should consider revising your approach to avoid such confusion in the future. God's things are not toys and you are not free to do with them as you please.

It surely means something to be 'apt to teach'; and surely it is not 'confuse the sheep until they doubt'. Not all are fit to be teachers, and it is surely better to err on the side of caution, than to boldly and pridefully err. The sheep are to be fed, watered, and protected. The Shepherd will surely have some questions for you if you spend your time leading His sheep into treacherous terrain — particularly if you yourself do not even truly know the way.

  1. If he does not already know it. ↩︎

  2. Although, yes, you should also know how to spell words correctly and not simply rely on autocorrect. ↩︎

  3. It is, of course, entirely reasonable to employ technical terms when and where they are necessary and there is an opportunity to explain them. ↩︎

  4. In fact, for some, this article may be literally the only time they encounter these things in their lives. ↩︎

  5. It matters little if such misleading is intentional or unintentional. ↩︎

  6. Did you think this was an important term or phrase? It just means 'like this'. ↩︎

  7. At the absolute least, teachers who are incapable of presenting material at an appropriate level for the audience should refrain from attempting to teach such matters. ↩︎