Over time, a word can change its meaning, sometimes picking up an entirely new definition and sometimes expanding or contracting an existing one. It is not unusual to see a familiar word explode into contemporary parlance with a far more expansive definition than it has had in the past. Think about “tolerance.” For many years the word quietly meant something like, “accepting the rights of others to have a belief different from your own.” Then, suddenly, the word was everywhere and carried a meaning like, “accepting other people’s views without critique.” As D.A. Carson says, “this shift from ‘accepting the existence of different views’ to ‘acceptance of different views,’ from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, is subtle in form, but massive in substance.”
We still hear a lot about tolerance and the unpardonable sin of intolerance. And now, closely related, we’ve got a second word to describe the people who commit such an offense: They are haters. And, like “tolerance,” the word “hate” has taken on a new and wider meaning. It has always been used to describe an extreme, passionate dislike for another person. But suddenly it is being used to describe simple disagreement, especially when that disagreement is with society’s prevailing opinions and agendas. Any perceived intolerance is quickly drowned out by cries of “hate!” or “hater!” The problem, of course, is that if everything’s hate, nothing’s hate. As we expand the use of the word, it loses any meaningful definition.
If you express concern about transgendered adults using the same changing rooms as children of the opposite sex, someone will accuse you of hate. If you express careful, kindly-spoken disagreement with same-sex marriage, perhaps urging caution to such a quick change to an institution foundational to society, the cries of “hater” will be immediate and loud. If you urge freedom of conscience for people who hesitate to bake cakes or arrange flowers for certain festivities, you’ll be considered full of hatred. Coming to blows is hate, sure, but so is constructive critique. Berating and verbally abusing is hate—no one disagrees with that—but so is measured disagreement. In a few short years we’ve completely transformed what it means to hate.
This matters to Christians because words tend to worm their way from the outside of the church to the inside. “Tolerance” tried but, thankfully, Christians managed to cling to its long-standing definition. Today “hatred” is on the move, making its attempt to enter our parlance in its new form. A few days ago, I linked to a critique of a popular pastor and his woefully inadequate view of the doctrine of Scripture. This critique was careful, measured, and weighed against not only the Bible but also the long history of the church. Yet it did not take long before I was told the writer had expressed “vile anger” and was full of hatred. According to some, writing a critical book review is a form of hate, expressing measured disagreement with another evangelical leader is being a hater, and confronting sin is a sign of a deep hatred toward those who dissent from your viewpoint.
We need to resist this updated definition of “hate,” to keep the new, expansive form of the word out of the church. Otherwise, we risk confusing hatred with confidence about revealed truth—we need to have the ability to confidently declare what is orthodox and what is heterodox, what is consistent with the Bible and what is heretical. We risk confusing hatred with the obedient exercise of church discipline—we need to be willing and able to remove people from church membership who are clinging to sin or teaching error. We risk confusing hatred with caution—we need to be able to debate and discuss, especially as we wade into new moral waters and answer perplexing questions about gender, marriage, and sexuality. In these ways and many others, we need to be able to confidently explore, discuss, believe, and obey the Bible without being labeled as “haters.”
We guard against error not because we hate people, but because we love the truth and mean to defend sound doctrine. We enforce church discipline not because we hate sinners, but because we love the church and mean to protect her integrity. We proceed cautiously when evaluating current issues not because we hate homosexuals or transgendered individuals, but because we love purity and mean to live according to Scripture. We must be willing to love, even when we are told it is hate. We owe it to God and man to continue to love, no matter how it is perceived, no matter how it is described.