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Reverent Language in Prayer

This is a very hot topic in some areas. What’s the answer? Can we make a truly Biblical case for the use of this kind of language? Let’s see if we can shed some light on the actual facts behind the arguments made for and against the use of special language in prayer.

Allow me to self-disclose so that you can just read without having to try to figure out what my agenda is.

What Is My Agenda?

There’s really three aspects of our practice that come together to inform our behaviour when we meet.

1. Scripture

Assembly practice needs to reflect an honest commitment to upholding Scripture as our primary guide for practice. I feel this conviction very deeply, as I am sure you do.

2. Tradition

At the same time, I also want to respect the value that tradition brings in assisting with the orderly conduct of a New Testament assembly. It is not possible to have a tradition-free local church. Meeting at the same time, having some predictability to the order our meetings, using the same hymn book as the person next to you — none of these things are mandated by Scripture. All of these things can be changed and reviewed from time to time. These practices are tradition and yet it is helpful to have these traditions available to serve the people of God.

3. Personal Conviction

So: an honest commitment to following Scripture. Add to that a respectful attitude toward tradition. I think the third key piece is to recognize that there are a host of non-Biblical convictions we all hold as believers (notice, I said “non”. I did not say “un”-Biblical). These non-Biblical practices fall under the purview of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 where believers are required to be respectful of differences in conviction.

This Issue is About Tradition & Conviction

Bringing these three parts back to bear on this topic means that we need to understand that we are not dealing with a Biblical issue.

There is no Scripture indicating that English speaking believers should use “Thee” and “Thou”. This fact is beyond dispute. So it is not Scriptural. It is traditional, both in our assemblies and in some evangelical practice. It is also a matter of personal conviction for many and so those who pray this way are worthy of respect. So are those who do not pray this way.

The Gospel is at Stake

So what is my goal here?

I have no biblical basis for judging or condemning people who pray with “Thee” and “Thou”. Equally, I have no biblical basis for judging or condemning people who pray with “You” and “Yours”. I have prayed with both sets of pronouns in my lifetime (and was not struck by lightning in either case). There are precious assembly members I gather with every week: some use the traditional and some use the current pronouns.

So I am not lobbying for change in your assembly, nor in mine. In fact, I’m not even asking you to change how you pray.

My concern is with the teachers — and even more so, with the enforcers of this tradition.

Those who are promoting this practice are often guilty of compromising the truth of the gospel in the way that they do so.

Yes, I did just say that. And, again, I’m not concerned with the practice: just the teaching of it and the enforcing of it.

In fact, I’ll repeat it: My biggest concern is that those who are teaching this practice are often guilty of compromising the truth of the gospel in the way that they do so. I say this carefully: I can only hope that most, if not all, are only doing so out of genuine ignorance.  I’m not labelling anyone a heretic today: these teachers are in need of the very grace which they deny by teaching this behaviour in the way that they do. I’ll explain this concern later when I speak about this in light of the gospel.

Again: I really have little concern if you do pray this way or if you do not. Whatever your convictions are: you may hold those convictions.

I’m going to address this matter from a number of perspectives. I ask you to read through to the end before re-evaluating your own convictions on this. In the final section, I’m going to give you some guidelines for responding to this issue when it comes up in your assembly. This topic carries a surprising amount of passionate, and at times heated, discourse with it. I hope that in hearing me out today you will hear a voice of reason.

Reverence is Not an Option

One more important preamble before I start. I am all for reverence towards God. I do not believe that “flippant”, “superficial” or “disrespectful” should ever describe the way we speak to God in prayer. Hebrews 12:28 says, “…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (ESV). So, yes, I value reverence.

Let’s look into the reasoning for and against the use of “thee” and “thou” in prayer.

Biblical vs. Subjective and Arbitrary Reasoning

First, I want to point out that there is clear Biblical guidance for our attitude in prayer. As I just quoted, Hebrews 12:28 says, “…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (ESV). There’s no mincing words in this verse: this is plain, simple instruction. We are to present acceptable worship with reverence and awe.

However, I want us to note that the breakdown comes when we choose to define what reverence looks like based on purely subjective reasoning.

Allow me to share with you an excerpt from a written notice created by a Gospel Hall in the USA for those in fellowship and their visitors:

We do not believe it is appropriate, in our public gatherings, to address the Godhead using the more familiar terms, “You”, “Your” and “Yours”. Our desire is to maintain what we consider to be the more reverent and respectful terms, “Thee”, “Thou”, and “Thine”.

These overseers, facing a specific set of circumstances known to them, have requested this tradition be respected in their assembly. There is sufficient Biblical support for overseers and missionaries to establish traditional values in their assemblies that go beyond the requirement of Scripture. Examples of this include Acts 15:19-21 and (in an extreme example) Acts 16:1-3. The apostles and elders in Acts did so in respect of the cultural challenges around them and also in the fear of God. However, the boundary around this tradition-setting precedent is that these cases in Acts did not compromise the truth of the gospel. More on that later.

But here is my concern: who taught these overseers that “Thee”, “Thou”, and “Thine” are more reverent and respectful? Who defined for them what reverence looks like?

More Reverent and Respectful?

Let’s be clear on this: God has never said that one set of English pronouns are more respectful than another set of English pronouns. Nor has God ever said that, across languages, a traditional set of pronouns is more reverent than a modern set of pronouns. Further,  has God ever said that the use of singular pronouns is more reverent than the use of plural ones? No. Or that plural ones are more reverent than singular? Not at all.

So God has not decided that “Thee”, “Thou”, and “Thine” are more reverent; these elders have decided this. That’s OK. As long as we’re all clear that this is only their subjective opinion. It is their personal conviction. And remember that having personal non-Biblical convictions is supported in Romans 14.

But let’s be very clear that the reasoning here is subjective, not objective.

These folks are by no means alone in following this subjective reasoning. A Q&A section in a 1996 Truth & Tidings magazine also presents and supports the same idea. There is a very clear assertion there — by men much more skilled in the Word than myself, and men I respect — that the use of “Thee” and “Thou” is more reverent. But again: this is a subjective assertion that has no basis in Scripture.

Well, It Just is More Reverent

Well, you say, everybody knows that this is a more reverent form of language. You say that since the King James Version, these words have always represented a reverent form of speech.

When you make this argument, you’re now arguing from history and culture and no longer from Scripture. Do we agree?

OK. Fair enough, let’s go down that road next.

The History of Thee and Thou

Let’s explore some fascinating history as it relates to these pronouns.

The history of the development of the King James Bible and its impact all the way through to contemporary literature is a fascinating story. Perhaps the best review of this history I have ever read is a fascinating account by Alistair McGrath in his book, In the Beginning .

Dr. McGrath is a Northern Irish (that’s a credential in itself, right?) theologian, priest, intellectual historian, scientist, and Christian apologist and also an excellent writer. He is very pro-KJV and respectful of the incredible legacy of this beloved translation.

Toward the end of his book is a fascinating section on the KJV pronouns, “Thee” and “You”. The first time I read this, it blew me away. So much so that I asked my research assistant to see if the information could be verified from other sources (more on that in a moment). So just follow me here.

Not What I Expected to Hear

McGrath notes that “Thou”, “Thee” and “Thy” are singular forms and “Ye”, “You”, and “Your” are plural. No surprises there. But listen to this quote:

The singular forms (thou; thee; thy) were used within a family, or to address children or people of inferior social class. The plural forms (ye; you; your) were adopted as a mark of respect when addressing a social superior. By the sixteenth century, the use of the singular form to address a single individual had virtually ceased in English, except in the specific case of family and inferiors. To address another as “thou” was thus to claim social superiority over him or her. There is considerable evidence that, at least in certain circles, it was used as a form of studied insult .

That’s right: if you wanted to insult someone during the time of the translating of the KJV, you would refer to them as “thou”.

When I first read this it blew me away. He is saying that there is no case to be made from early Middle English to support the notion that “Thou” is more respectful than “You”.

Is That For Real?

So I said to my research assistant: can you find other evidence to support or contradict this?

What I learned is that the most influential study of the use of the “thou” and “you” appears to be by Brown and Gillman which states, “in the past [thou] was the form of familiar address to a single person. At that time ‘you’ was the singular of reverence and of polite distance…”.

Another article by Hope  states “Characters with power (monarchs, the rich, men, parents, masters and mistresses) can be expected to give thou and receive you when interacting with those with less power (subjects, the poor, women, children, servants).”

So these are three sources providing corroborating evidence that the use of “Thee”, “Thou” and “Thy” in early Middle English was actually reflective of familiarity over formality.

This is precisely the opposite reason given by every person I’ve heard promoting the use of this special language in prayer. In every case, I’ve understood it is because “Thou” is more reverent — that’s what I have been told.

Even the very well respected book from our late brother Norman Crawford, whose ministry I deeply appreciate and respect, states the following:

The English language does contain reverential and respectful forms of the second person pronoun which allow us to show reverence in speaking to God. It has been a very long tradition that these reverential forms are used in prayer. In a day of irreverence, how good to display in every way that we can that “He (God) is not a man as I am” (Job 9:32) .

I guess it comes back to the same concern: there is no historical evidence to support this claim.

Consequently, I think we need to be honest and state that the only reason why “Thou” is more reverent than “You” is because we ourselves have chosen to believe it is.

You may think that is good enough reason: but you are valuing something that God has expressed no value for. You have no divine, Biblical or historical support for your belief. Let’s examine the Biblical aspect a little more closely, by asking the question:

Does God Use Special Pronouns in the Bible?

The Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible only concern themselves with plural and singular. There is no two-tiered pronoun system where you have a familiar set of pronouns and a reverential set of pronouns. So the example of Scripture is clearly different than what we have been taught to practice in our prayer.

With regards to the King James Version, it is interesting to follow McGrath’s historical information further.

He points out the well-known fact that:

The King’s translators were thus forbidden to depart to any significant extent from the text of the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. Yet what were the instructions given to those who prepared the Bishops’ Bible? To use the Great Bible of 1539 except where it did not accurately represent the original texts. The directions given to the translators over the years 1539-1604 were thus virtually guaranteed to ensure continuity of language over a period in which the English language itself underwent considerable change and development….The King James translators simply did not believe that they had the authority to make changes reflecting developments in the English language, and so continued to reproduce the English of nearly three generations earlier .

In other words: the translators did not retain “Thee” and “Thou” because they held the belief that these were more formal or reverential ways to speak to God. Rather, they held to these forms because they were instructed to do so by King James, not because they were instructed to do so by God.

Again: we have no evidence that God purposefully intervened in the English language to identify and uphold a form of language because this was deemed more reverential.

So what? Can we not just have our language and teach this anyways?

The Most Serious Charge

The most serious charge I have against teaching the use of “Thee” and “Thou” in prayer is with regards to the gospel.

I am troubled by the fact that the use of this form of prayer is frequently connected to the notion of godliness. As if to say that there is an extra-Biblical behaviour, not required by God, that we are required to perform in order to please God or to be more godly.

Honestly if someone came up to me and said, “I just pray this way because I prefer it” then I could make no objection to that. If the tenderness of your conscience toward God is reflected in this manner: that is just fine.

But when we as overseers, or as teachers of the Word of God, require something from the people of God in order for them to gain approval from God, or link it to pleasing God, and that thing which we require is not actually required by God himself, then we have now added to the Gospel.

Am I saying that this is deliberate? Am I laying a charge of heresy? No. Not yet, anyways.

I believe this is presently more an error of omission. I know for myself that I am prone to repeating what I hear from others and often fail to validate the information myself. I do think this is an error of omission for most. But it is important to show where it is leading because this is just the leading edge of the wedge that could push us away from the core of the gospel and towards a religious system where approval by God is based on a system of works rather than the propitiatory work of Christ.

For that reason, I feel the need to point out that there are actually some potentially serious implications of continuing to promote this extra-Biblical tradition.

What About Older Saints?

The issue that often comes up is: what about older saints who are offended by using “You” in prayer?

It is jarring to first hear folks praying with “You” and “Your” if you’ve never really heard it in your own assembly. Especially if you’ve always been taught it’s wrong to pray that way. I think it’s good for younger folks to recognize this and to be sensitive to it. I would encourage you to compassionately consider what it’s like to be told one thing all your life and then have to accept something different in that part of your life where you are comfortable with the status quo. That’s difficult — and it requires those who are younger to show as much grace as you expect to receive from those who are older.

Should It Polarize?

The other thing that is good to remember is that while the prayer language can appear to be a polarizing issue, it doesn’t necessarily need to be. Often those who are praying in this older language are not as judgmental as we might assume them to be. Some just prefer to pray that way. They are allowed to prefer that. I have heard others say that they recognize there’s no Biblical basis for using “Thee” and “Thou” but this is how they’ve always prayed and they don’t feel the need to change. That’s fine. There is room for both in the local assembly.

It Offends Me

The issue that I most commonly see raised is this particular argument: what you’re doing offends me and therefore you must stop. I think hearing people out in this situation is valuable: we can honour their place and role in the assembly by allowing them room to explain themselves. But: at the end of the day, if you don’t have a Biblical basis for your conviction then you have no Biblical reason to take offence. In other words, your offence is not justifiable: it is possibly just an attempt to coerce others into behaviour that you prefer.

Of course, not everyone reading this is an overseer. If you’re not, and this issue comes up, it would be wise to pass the matter back to your overseers to handle. Overseers should be the first-line defenders of Christian liberty, not younger believers.

At the end of the day, we should all be pursuing reverence. So let’s come back to that.

What Does Reverence Look Like?

For all the emphasis we place on it, the word ‘reverence’ is used just once in the King James Version in reference to our approach to God. This is in Hebrews 12:28, which says, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (KJV). The fact that reverence is mentioned right after the phrase “let us have grace” should not be lost on us too quickly.

Reverence is defined as “a feeling of profound awe and respect. Because of His majesty and holiness, God arouses a feeling of reverence in those who worship and serve Him” .

I ended up checking a handful of different Bible dictionaries and what I saw (which I admit I was not expecting) is that reverence is an emotion.

It is purely an intrapsychic experience. It is something I feel.

In other words, God describes so much of His nature and His works in the Scripture that the normal spiritual response is one of reverence. We feel awe towards Him when we know who He is and what His character is like and how great His power and works are.

It is Internal, Not External

But the point here is that reverence is a correct internal perspective that reflects one’s knowledge of God. In other words, it is not externally defined by a prescribed set of behaviours that have been arbitrarily determined by culture or creed. When you define external requirements you merely create formalism, religiosity and compliance. That approach fails to create conviction and commitment.

So to answer the question, “What does reverence look like?” Well: the question is invalid. Reverence does not have a look. Rather, it is felt. You know when it is there and you know when it is not. Remember our definition: reverence is a feeling of profound awe and respect. At the end of the day you should be most concerned with your own sense of felt reverence, not someone else’s.

How Do We Change?

In writing this episode up, I’ve been continuing to ask myself the question: what is my goal here?

It’s the same as I stated above. I’m asking the enforcers and teachers to stop.

My goal is not to take this familiar method of prayer away from those who would prefer to use it. Nor is my goal to move those who use modern pronouns back to “Thee” and “Thou”.

I believe my goal is first to defend the gospel and to stand firm in the liberty which we have in Christ (Galatians 5:1). Which means that believers may choose to pray in any way that reflects their reverence towards God.

But it also means I am going to call on overseers and Bible teachers and conference speakers to stop teaching and requiring the use of this language as something that God wants us to do. I do not think that this an honest representation of divine values. To say this is something God wants and then to have no way of validating that claim is at worst, dishonest, and at best, a naive and unfounded claim.

How Can Elders Address This?

Now: if you’re serving as an overseer in an assembly that has recommended and even enforced this practice, you may be wondering what your next step is.

The council of Acts 15 lends reasonable precedent to the notion that it is worthwhile getting your fellow overseers on board by examining the situation in your assembly and holding this issue up against the light of Scripture.

Once you’re all clear that this is a matter of personal preference and that reverence is something felt rather than prescribed, then it’s time to inform the assembly of such.

I believe that it is OK — in fact, I believe it is brilliant — to say something like: we have reconsidered this practice in light of Scripture and believe it is no longer appropriate to require or teach that “Thee” and “Thou” should be used in prayer. You may continue to use it if you prefer, or you may choose to pray using contemporary English. We do uphold the importance of reverence toward God as a Biblical principle.

To inform God’s people that you are more concerned about Scripture and the outworking of the Gospel than you are about the status quo — that should give a great deal of hope to the members of your assembly.

If There’s Emotion, Slow the Process Down

However, in some cases this may be a very, very sensitive matter. In that case, you may wish to announce the shift in values but also state that you would prefer not to actually change the practice until a month or two later after which you have had a chance to hear feedback from the saints. This allows you to take a two-step approach where you alert and educate them of the change without actually implementing it. This gives you some breathing room to gauge the response. It also allows some of your congregants who hold this personal preference on par with “thou shalt not commit adultery” some time to adjust their value system. And then at a later date you would announce that you have not received any Biblical reason to redact your new position and so the saints are welcome to pray reverently in the public gatherings in the way that fits their personal preference.

At this point it is just a change management issue. And that is about knowing your flock and carefully leading them through change. In many assemblies, elders have just stopped policing the prayer language. I think that’s OK to a point — but I do believe it is healthier to be open and forthright about dropping this non-Biblical value.

Letters to the Editor

Just a quick reminder: I would love to hear from you. Just be informed about my Letters to the Editor policy.

 

 


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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.