Christian Living

Confusing Words That Mean Different Things to Different People

We Must Be Careful with the Words We Use

We must exercise caution with using these confusing words. These terms are more likely to cause confusion than clarity.

Consider the word cleave. It can mean to split apart or to come together. If a couple decides to cleave, what does that mean? Are they breaking up or committing to one another. Without clarification, we can’t know. Even worse, two people could draw opposite conclusions about what’s happening.

Here are some confusing words that I try to avoid in my writing. And if I must use them, I strive to make my meaning clear.


The first of our confusing words is charismatic. Its primary, general meaning is a person full of charisma, signifying their charm, magnetism, or enthusiasm.

Its second meaning refers to a branch of Christianity which emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit’s power within people. This includes speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing.

If we say that a minister is charismatic, either definition applies. As a result, it’s unclear if we’re talking about a personal characteristic or a spiritual perspective.


The second of our confusing words is progressive. In a general sense, it means moving forward, advancing, or open to new ideas. On the surface, these things seem positive.

Yet progressive often applies to politics, as well as education and economics.

If we say a church is progressive what does that mean? Is this a political statement or a spiritual mindset? Usually when I listen to progressive Christians, it’s a nice-sounding way to say they’re politically correct.


The word modern came up as a confusing word when I wrote my dissertation.

In a general sense, modern means relating to the present. Yet we also talk about the modern era, in contrast to the pre-modern era that preceded it or the postmodern era that follows it. Our world has largely left the modern era and moved into the postmodern one.

When we talk about a modern church, what does this mean? Is it a present-day church or one that’s stuck in the past—in the modern era—and resists postmodernity?


The word contemporary is another one of our confusing words. It’s used in the definition of modern. But contemporary is not without its own set of confusions.

When we talk about contemporary architecture, it refers to a style that started in the 1960s and continued into the 1990s. Though contemporary architecture still exists today, we primarily see it as dated, emanating from a prior era.

The same is true when the church talks about playing contemporary music. It’s more of a style than the music of our world’s present day.

Then there’s contemporary church services. At best this means they’re not traditional, yet these contemporary services often fall short of befitting present-day perspectives.


Liberal is another word that often causes confusion. In one sense it means generous. In another sense it’s a political perspective. In the third sense it’s progressive (see above).

So what does it mean when we talk about a liberal church or a liberal Christian? Ideally, it should reflect generosity. Yet it seldom does. Instead, it carries with it the connotations of liberal politics or progressivism.


For the penultimate word—another confusing word, which means second to last—we’ll talk about conservative. Conservative is the opposite of liberal. Or is it? The answer lies within how we define it.

Conservative can be in embrace of traditional values. From a Christian perspective this means embracing a biblical worldview.

Evangelical Christians—which we’ll cover in our final word—embrace a conservative perspective in studying, understanding, and applying scripture. Yet, for many the idea of a conservative Christian carries a political label and not a spiritual one.


The final one of our confusing words is evangelical. Evangelical is an embrace of the good news of Jesus and telling others about him. It’s that simple.

But to the world, many consider evangelical as a political label. And, indeed, it is increasingly that. In the past few decades well-meaning (and fearful) evangelicals took a stand against things, embracing politics to accomplish their goal.

As a result, evangelicals have become known for what they stand against, and not what they stand for: telling the world about Jesus and showing them his love.

Moving Forward

Our list of confusing words includes charismatic, progressive, modern, contemporary, liberal, conservative, and evangelical.

To communicate clearly, we must use these words with care. If we don’t, we’ll confuse the people we talk to. And what good is that?

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.

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