Different Names for the Same Thing

An amazing number of disagreements are caused by definitions.

I saw this in a recent conversation on complementarianism.

In the Protestant world, complementarianism refers to the idea that men and women are created differently with unique gifts. This is often interpreted to mean that men are to lead, women are to submit and that society is best served when men and women follow narrowly defined gender roles. (Or is that Biblical Patriarchy? I prove my own point.) The opposing view is egalitarianism, which believes that we all have our own unique gifts and we are all equal before God


Not quite sure where this couple fits in…

The Catholic Church also believes that men and women are different with unique gifts, but concludes that this is a call for equality because if you leave out women’s gifts, you are only getting half of the image of God.

Catholics generally don’t use long English words for theological concepts. (People who complain about consubstantial aren’t going to handle an eight-syllable word very well.) Therefore, the Catholics I have seen discuss the subject assume complementarianism means that men and women complement each other, and that this logically requires valuing the “feminine genius”. They assume egalitarianism refers to some form of “socialist” equality that denies the differences between the sexes and tries to make women into men.

(No, women can’t say mass or govern the Church, but this is based on the doctrine of apostolic succession, not a theology of male/female differences. Women can do everything else. As a married man, I’m in pretty much the same boat. But that’s another post.)

So a Protestant woman writes about the benefits of egalitarianism, a Catholic responds, defending complementarianism. The two are rather puzzled by each other’s stance before realizing that they actually agree.

Such is the importance of definitions. We won’t even get into the difference between the Protestant and Catholic definitions of “faith”, “work”, “grace”, etc. Ecumenism is difficult when you don’t speak the same language.

The Definition of Marriage

Then there is the debate over gay marriage? Are we talking civil marriage or holy matrimony? Few bother to ask.


Save Traditional Divorce: One Man – One Woman!

Gay marriage supporters want “Marriage equality”. But they are less specific about the meaning of “marriage” or “equality”. This could mean they are arguing for basic contract rights, biological absurdity, or anything in-between.

Gay marriage opponents don’t want society to “redefine marriage”, but don’t seem to notice that marriage has multiple meanings. I doubt anyone in the “marriage movement” supports the definition of “One man, one woman, witnessed by a public official, until one decides they’ve had enough of the other.” that is the reality of civil marriage.

The Modesty Myth?

Another tricky term is “modesty”. Modesty can mean that women must dress in a carefully proscribed way or be responsible for the reactions of the men who lust after them. It can also mean a sort of good fashion sense, for a woman to have her clothes convey the message that she her mind, her personality, and her entire self are important—not just her sexuality. Or it refer to a more general virtue, one where we do not bring undue attention to ourselves, of which women’s dress is only one part.


So, someone who is rightfully standing up against the injustice of modesty (1) can sound like she is promoting a dangerous message to someone who is thinking of modesty (2), while someone talking about how important it is that young women understand modesty (2) can sound like she is promoting oppression to someone thinking of modesty (1).  Meanwhile modesty (3) gets forgotten in the battle of warring definitions.

More Multiple Meanings

There is “lust” that means “sexual desire” (generally good) and there is “lust” that means “sexual objectification” (bad).

There is the kind of chastity (purity) that is about sexual self-control and self-discipline, and the kind that is about a sort of “cleanliness”. The first kind is a virtue that will grow with practice and maturity, the second is a state of being that can only degrade over time.

And then there was a conversation about “privilege” where no two people could agree on what “privilege” actually meant.

So, what is the point of all this?

It’s very easy to make assumptions that people mean the same thing that we do because they use the same words we do. But words have different meanings and their meaning may not be the same as our own.

If someone has a view that seems unusual or unexpected, check to see if they are talking about the same things you are. There is a good chance that your biggest differences may be in your definitions, not in your ideas.

Have you ever been in a situation where definitions have made a difference?


3 thoughts on “Different Names for the Same Thing

  1. Excellent! The first memorable discussion that Josh and I ever had was based on us each using a different definition of “beauty” and then arguing about whether it is in the eye of the beholder. For real.

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