runaway metaphors

I’m fluent in Christianese. That means I know to pepper my speech with holy metaphors. You know – vines, growing, planting, salt & light, fruitfulness.

Holy as they sound, I think we need to watch our metaphors in case they run away.

(speaking of Christianese, please don’t use fellowship as a verb – ‘we fellowshipped together’ – unless you also enjoy ‘friendshipping’ and ‘membershipping’. Sorry. rant.)

turtlesOf course it’s metaphors all the way down. All language – text or sound – is a representation or symbol for something else. The word ‘dog’ actually has nothing to do with those four-legged friends apart from our consensus to use it as a symbol. It’s only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can understand anything of God through human language. Communication really is a miracle.

I’m talking about metaphors in the more naive sense – just a figure of speech or word or phrase which is not literally applicable: ‘love is a rose’, ‘I am an island’, ‘my heart will go on.’

There are Biblical ones that we know are obviously metaphors – ‘stiff-necked’, ‘circumcised hearts’. They haven’t made it into Christianese and we know they’re metaphors.

But some have become so entrenched that they’ve lost their status as metaphors and become our only word for the concept; we forget they ever were metaphors (words such as ‘pastor’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘hell/gehenna’). This means the words can escape and take on whole new meanings other than what they had in their Biblical context. We lose the explanatory power which the metaphor was supposed to bring in the first place and get left with a fuzzy idea.

Here’s a list:

pastor/shepherd, deacon/servant, flock, body, head (of the wife or the ‘body’), lamb, hell, the prize, the crown, the good fight, salt and light, double edged sword, God’s hands, God’s heart, hypocrite/actor, living sacrifice, spot or blemish, filthy rags, dead works, weaker brother, tongues, rock, (sinking) sand, God’s instrument, God’s vessel,

to spur on, wash in the blood, finish the race, fall away, stumble, open one’s heart, soften one’s heart, harden one’s heart, backslide, be on fire, pay the price, pay the debt, count the cost, draw near, enter the throne room, abide, sow a seed, plant a church, grow disciples, feed on the Word, live in harmony, come to Christ, turn back, come home, put out a fleece, carry a cross, bear one another’s burdens

redeemed, born again, anointed, called, fruitful, lost, found, knit together, lukewarm…

Most of these I’m pretty comfortable with. But for many, I’m not exactly sure what they mean. And I’m not  sure that when we use them in our Bible-speak Christianese (make that NIV 1984-speak? Newspeak anyone?) that we use them in the same way they’re used in the Bible. Do we fill them with our own meanings?

Here’s some holy-sounding mixed metaphors for you to ponder:

Merciful Lord we come here to your table…Even though we are not worthy to eat the crumbs from under your table…

Was the Canaanite woman really saying she was too sinful to share the Lord’s Supper in Matt 15? Does it matter if we’ve taken the metaphor out of context?

When we were still far off, you met us in your Son and brought us home…

Far from what or who? Here the prodigal son meets the Jew/Gentile unity of Ephesians 2. It kind of works, but it’s out of context. Is that ok? Is it clear what it’s about?

It’s so easy to sound Biblical, but actually to be unclear on our meaning when we use metaphors out of context. Not to mention when non-Christians share with us they’ve got no way of understanding an out-of-context metaphor (‘will they not say that you are out of your minds?’). Or am I being pedantic? Perhaps a metaphor is best if we want to imply multiple valid meanings.


There were others phrases I wasn’t sure whether to put on the list of metaphors or not.

Living and active. Jesus (the Word of God) really is literally living and active. But the Bible isn’t literally living. Do you think it’s a metaphor or not?

Dying to sin and being alive in Christ. Jesus did literally die and was made alive. Are we literally dead to sin and now alive, or is that a metaphor?

There were a few which I thought were metaphors at first, but then on greater reflection, I decided that they’re the reality and previous experience has been a metaphor.

Bride of Christ. When Paul says that ‘one flesh’ is actually about Christ and the Church, perhaps he’s saying that marriage is a metaphor, a symbol and the Church’s union with Christ is the real deal.

Children of God. When we call Christians ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and God our ‘Father’ are we using metaphors? I don’t think so. Instead, the earthly family is the metaphor which points to the reality of our heavenly family.

Jesus’ death as a sacrifice of atonement. Jesus wasn’t literally sacrificed on an altar. But perhaps it’s better to think of the sacrificial system as a metaphor pointing to the real sacrifice

What do you think? Any metaphors I missed? Do you think any metaphors on my list are actually literal? Got any good examples of mixed Biblical metaphors or Christianese?

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