Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Words Matter

Written by: on October 2, 2023

While in Oxford we heard Dr. Martyn Percy give a lecture that included calling into question the use of the word discipleship. This word, he pointed out, is not in the Bible, and furthermore, he stated the definition of a disciple was not, as many in today’s church believe, synonymous with a follower, but that a disciple was a highly technical term denoting someone who was a teacher—a called-out, next level type of leader who was close with a Rabbi and who would go on to propagate his message.

Most followers, Percy said, would be (and still are) nominal Christians who would never reach the status of a disciple, and we shouldn’t think that our ministry efforts would change that.

At least, that’s how I heard it. And after the lecture I considered multiple scriptural rebuttals to what I thought I was hearing, and I argued–in my head—for things like the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5); the call for all of God’s people to be equipped for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12); a leader’s goal to present everyone in the church mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28); the beauty of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s gifts in each believer (1 Corinthians 12), and the universal call to a Christian’s sanctification (1 Corinthians 6:11), among other things.

However, none of that countered the idea that the church may have technically misunderstood the word disciple and inaccurately extrapolated the term discipleship from it.

While I’m still wrestling with this revelation (and look forward to reading, and possibly dissenting, with Percy’s exegesis on this) that’s not the point of this blog. The point is that words matter. I may be able to argue for a need for maturity or sanctification, or ministry activity from Christians, but it remains important to determine if I’m wrong about the definition of a disciple or misinformed about how I use the word discipleship.

Evangelical is a word that has seen a rapid redefinition in the US over the last few years. When I was growing up, I didn’t want to tell people I was a Pentecostal, knowing that could bring up inaccurate images of snake-handling, swinging chandeliers, and rolling on the carpet… but I COULD tell people I identified as Evangelical, and they would generally “get it”. Many would correctly assume as an Evangelical I believed the Bible, believed in personal conversion, and wanted others to invite Jesus to give them new and eternal life, too (they didn’t NEED to know I spoke in tongues).

Ironically, I’m now more apt to tell people I am Pentecostal than Evangelical. Pentecostal currently has less baggage; in the US, Evangelical has largely come to be identified with a far-right political position instead of a theological conviction.

I’ve often wondered and agonized over how it came to be this way.

What I realized from this week’s reading is that the word Evangelical isn’t as pure as I imagined. Like “discipleship” I had a fuzzy concept that “Evangelical”, while not literally a word from the Bible, was fully biblical in its genesis. Furthermore, I assumed there had been a strong evangelical presence throughout the church since New Testament times.

However, D.W. Bebbington in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain[1] maps out how Evangelicalism became a force in both the church and the world 1700 years after Christ. And importantly, he defines what Evangelicalism is: Conversionism (being ‘born again’); Activism (works that proceed from a true conversion); Biblicism (a high view of Scripture); Crucicentrism (the central importance of Christ’s work on the cross).[2] While it’s possible to find elements of Evangelicalism from the New Testament period onward (ex: Augustine), Evangelicalism as a movement, defined by this quadrilateral, did not exist in the church until much, much later.

That was quite a revelation, and a challenge: If I am going to use a word, much less identify with it, I should more fully grasp what it means.

What stopped me in my tracks, however, was the third chapter of Dr. Jason Clark’s dissertation, Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship; in that chapter Clark (convincingly) started to unpack the idea that Evangelicalism was both a result of and a contributor to the growth of capitalism. If I am comprehending it right, in Clark’s view elements found in Evangelicalism both cultivated market forces and were accelerated by the success of those same forces. A result of this symbiotic relationship has been that the evangelical church has taken “a form captive to the logic of market imaginations.”[3]

There do seem to be positive implications regarding how Evangelicals counteract some of capitalism’s toxicity. For instance, Clark states, “The relationship of Evangelicalism to capitalism was indeed a ‘mixed bag’, as all forms of ecclesiology always are, being both captive to the worst of market forces, and yet at the same time, being able to transmit themselves through the market, effecting enormous change in resistance to those forces.”[4] But although there is healthy correction to capitalism that is generated from Evangelicalism, because they were birthed together and remain inexorably connected, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Evangelical movement has become so closely identified with consumerism, conservatism, and conspicuous consumption.

In simpler terms, I have discovered that my great angst about what I saw as the bastardization of the word Evangelical may be misplaced. It seems possible that how “Evangelical” is currently understood is simply a logical progression of its inception and trajectory.

This week was a doctoral-level lesson on the importance of understanding the words I use, the words I identify with, and the words with which I identify others.

In other words, words—and their definitions—matter!


[1] D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to the 1980’s (London: Routledge, 1989).

[2] Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 3.

[3] Dr. Jason Paul Clark, Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship(DPhil Thesis, Middlesex University, London, 2018), 75.

[4] Clark, Evangelicalism and Capitalism, 72.

About the Author


Tim Clark

I'm on a lifelong journey of discovering the person God has created me to be and aligning that with the purpose God has created me for. I've been pressing hard after Jesus for 40 years, and I currently serve Him as the lead pastor of vision and voice at The Church On The Way in Los Angeles. I live with my wife and 3 kids in Burbank California.

15 responses to “Words Matter”

  1. Travis Vaughn says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Tim. Words, and their definitions, matter. I do wonder how long one should seek to defend an existing word and the word’s “original” meaning vs. letting go of a word as it loses its meaning as culture shifts.

    Though it wasn’t the main point of your blog post, I too wrestled with Martyn Percy’s statements around discipleship. That conversation, including the conversations I had with other students following his lecture, probably needs more discussion. Likewise, I would be interested to read his exegesis around the word “disciple,” as I struggled with how he came to his conclusions. At any rate, I think we do make assumptions about the words we use and the way they may (or may not) fall on the ears of those we talk to. I’m curious…what do you think might be a better word or words in our current cultural moment — and I know that our “moment” is quite complex — in addition to or other than words like “evangelical” and “discipleship?” Have you experimented with other words in your context?

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Great questions, Travis.

      I have allowed how I use words to change with cultural adjustments. As important as the meanings of words are, when everyone understands a word a certain way I don’t think it’s always helpful to fight for the original usage.

      Case in point: I remember a conversation a few years ago with Pastor Jack Hayford who had taught globally and written on spiritual warfare for decades. He told me he had decided to start using the phrase “spiritual struggle” instead, knowing that a rising generation could misunderstand “spiritual warfare” for an earthly militaristic political position.

      I thought, “wow, if an 80 year old can adjust his language to be more clear, I need to be able to do that as well”.

      Not sure the implications for the word evangelical or discipleship, but if the word does’t communicate the meaning well anymore, it’s time to consider one that can.

  2. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I know many of us were wrestling, internally and in conversation, with Martyn Percy’s re-definition of “disciple”. I eagerly opened the article he recently published on the topic but in the end I wouldn’t exactly call it an exegesis and it certainly didn’t convince me to stop working to make disciples in my context. That said, I have begun to favor the term “follower of Jesus” more than I used to. But here’s where I’m not sure I agree with your definition, Tim. I wouldn’t equate being a “follower”, even if that does imply something lesser than “disciple”, with being a “nominal” Christian. When Jesus invites people to follow him, it involves self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and living as citizens of the Kingdom. While, as Percy argues, not all followers are called to go out to all nations and do the work of discipleship, I think all followers are expected to live a life radically transformed by Jesus.

    Thoughts? How do you nuance this without it feeling like a vending machine of options for our churches (as in, press 1 to become a disciple, press 2 to become a follower, press 3 to become a nominal Christian…).

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Kim, thanks for that thoughtful post and questions.

      To be more clear that I may have been in my post, I don’t embrace the definition of follower as a nominal Christian, that’s just what I thought Percy was suggesting.

      I believe all of us as followers of Christ are called to surrender, sacrifice, pick-up-our-cross and lay-down-our-lives reality. In fact, I’m wholly convinced that we are all, as christians, called to ‘be sent’, some around the world and some around the corner, and that the church and its leaders exist to equip the ‘saints’ (all of us) to the work of ministry.

      Though people give their lives to Jesus every week at our church, my main goal is to equip believers to be mature in Christ and effective in their faith. And while we always give space for those who may not be there (and might be more “nominal”) there is always an invitation to go deeper.

      I hope that partially answered your question.

  3. mm Russell Chun says:

    HI Tim,

    Dr. Clarks work bears a more complete read. His linked concept to capitalism was taught to me in one of my Global Leadership classes at Dallas Baptist University. I remember graphs and colored maps photos that reviewed the progress of the spread of Christianity along the trade routes.

    I remember the warning of “rice cup Christians.” And in Bratislava, I was told that I (and perhaps my missiological purpose) was based on power (economic). Sigh….oh what a tangled weave.

    I accept the influence of Capitalism on the spread of the Gospel, but like Joseph I think…Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

    To far a reach?


  4. mm Tim Clark says:

    Russell, I don’t think it’s too far a reach, at all. In fact, as I was reading Clark I kept thinking about the Pax Romana and the Roman Roads… the beneficial manifestation of a broken Roman culture made it possible for the gospel to be spread. But eventually as Rome embraced the Gospel, the church became compromised with Rome.

    God uses imperfect things to accomplish HIs will right? I mean the internet is a dumpster-fire but we are learning on it for the Glory of God right now!!


    • mm Russell Chun says:

      I am adding this as an after thought. Thoughts on the new Israeli war? Had the Jews killed those God told them to would we be in this current situation?

      Time to revisit Walker’s Holy Violence?


  5. mm John Fehlen says:

    Welp, we both used the word “bastardization” in our posts this week. We knew the day would come when two best friends in their doctoral degrees would bastardize each other.

    Not sure if that came out right.

    Quoting you: “If I am going to use a word, much less identify with it, I should more fully grasp what it means.”

    How many things do we say, believe, quote, recite, explain, and identify with that we simply have no idea what it really means?

    This last week I did a workshop on our “Pentecostal Ethos” at a Foursquare Leadership gathering. Like “evangelical” the term “pentecostal” needs some re-defining. Many in our constituency are working from inaccurate or outdated models or definitions.

    It helps to go back to the origins. How did it start? What was the intention at the inception?

    I won’t bore YOU, of all people, because you grew up in Foursquare, however, for the purpose of this post I will mention something that our founder Aimee Semple McPherson wrote in an article in the early 1920’s defending her understanding and outworking of “Pentecostalism” within her ministry, and the denomination she was founding at the time.

    “To be Pentecostal in Spirit, however, is something far different than what many suppose.” “…to be Spirit filled is to be splendidly sane, clean, wholesome, sober, godly, pious, wise, loving, fearless, consistent, balanced, Christ-exalting, soul-winning, gentle and teachable; and not that wild-mirth-provoking, ridiculous, jumping, screaming, mut- tering, egotistical, unteachable, impractical, reproach-bringing which some call ‘Pentecostal’.” (The Narrow Line by Aimee Semple McPherson)

    Again, to quote you from your post…this statement from McPherson is so freeing for me, and “Ironically, I’m now more apt to tell people I am Pentecostal than Evangelical. Pentecostal currently has less baggage; in the US, Evangelical has largely come to be identified with a far-right political position instead of a theological conviction.”

    Amen to that.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Love that McPherson quote!

      And while we (Foursquare) fall squarely into Bebbington’s quadrilateral, I’ve always felt like there was a generosity of spirit that transcended to, added to, and in some ways even diminished a little bit the militantly hard lines of definition of evangelicalism.

      Maybe to “bastardize” the phrase generous orthodoxy from theologian Hans Frei, our tribe at our best are known as “generous evangelicals” as well as a “winsome pentecostals”.

  6. Kally Elliott says:

    Yes! Language DOES matter!

    Funny/Sad story: When I graduated from college I taught fifth grade at a private Christian school. Students had to memorize scripture for a bible test each week. Since they were fifth graders and developmentally concrete thinkers I used to “change” the wording of the assigned scriptures to include boys and girls – wanting the girls to KNOW they were included in what Paul or other authors were writing to the church. So, for example: if a verse said, “Brothers…” I would change it to “Brothers and sisters.” I did this because LANGUAGE MATTERS. I think language creates the worlds we live in! But, I got called to the principal’s office and told I couldn’t do this anymore. So, to remedy the situation I started choosing scriptures that didn’t have any gendered language. I was not doing this to be a jerk. I was doing this so that all students would know they were included.

    You write: “If I am going to use a word, much less identify with it, I should more fully grasp what it means.” Your comment on my blog post asking about the difference between the PC(USA) and Evangelicals made me think about this. I realized I was flippantly using the words, “Evangelical” “progressives” “liberal” “conservatives” etc. without really thinking about what they meant. If language creates our worlds I don’t want to use it to divide but rather build up the Church. Thank you for your thoughts and for your questions.

    Anyway –

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      I love your generous spirit that worked to be inclusive. Ironic, isn’t it, that later (I’m assuming later, I don’t know when you were in college) the NIV would update its language to include “brothers and sisters” in those very passages.

      Which underscores the point: words matter, but meanings adapt and evolve. I think it’s important that as leaders and thinkers we keep walking the tightrope of both.

  7. Adam Harris says:

    Really appreciate this post. Words truly do matter, and their meanings certainly shift over time. I’m with you, I have had a hard time categorizing myself as an “Evangelical” at times with all the recent talk of “Ex-vangelicalism” and issues surfacing within these contexts. I think people are more running from certain versions of Evangelicalism that have become associated with the lists of things you gave in your posts. Bebbington, at least for me, did a good job of identifying different streams and versions that have existed and still exist that are closer to what I can get on board with and seem to channel energy into healthier things.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Adam I really appreciated Bebbington’s pointing out all the different streams, too. When our definitions are too narrow and reflect only what we are currently experiencing, we lose some of the rich heritage and history that we can lean into that may vary from what we currently understand, and can present an alternative to others, too.

  8. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Tim, I so appreciate your willingness to wrestle out loud! I think you are exactly right, words do matter. I feel like in this time where we can “anonymously” say whatever we want on whatever topic, whenever we want lends to a culture where we are just microphones:). Integrity is we are who we say we are when no one is looking. Who we say we are, the words we say about ourselves, matter, but doesn’t it also mean who we are when we have no words matter more? What does it mean to show up in the world without words? I think I resonated with the heart of Percy when he talks about discipleship. I wonder if in the purest form of that word it’s a select few who can wear that mantle? What if more people in leadership weaned themselves out of leadership because they knew it wasn’t a good fit and they didn’t have to conform to someone they think they ought to be instead of being who they authentically are? Leadership is hard and I’d say being a Disciple is hard too? Thanks for wearing your heart outside of your shirt!

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Thanks for the encouragement. Telling me I wear my heart on the outside is one of the highest praises I can get. It’s what I aspire to.

      And while I’m still wrestling with the disciple idea (and will be wrestling for a while), I 100% agree with what you say about leadership… in fact I think far too many people are told they should be ‘leaders’ when that is not their call or gift.

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