Why I don’t like works of piety

What I don’t like is the name, specifically the word “piety.”

First, no one outside church knows what it means. In fact, many in church don’t, or they don’t agree on what it means.

Second, its Latin root pietas bugs me. The word refers to a Roman virtue for a man who observes his duty to the gods, his family, and Rome. It is a man who knows his place in the good Roman order. The early Christians made a habit of taking Roman words and ideas and turning them inside out and upside down, but we are too far removed from those early Christians to do this trick with Roman words.

The Latin word just smells of conformity and propriety and a bunch of people who know better than to rock the boat. I’m not at all opposed to propriety – in its proper place – but Christians should be boat rockers.

In more than one word, the concept meant by piety is “love of God.” Or, at least that is my understanding. Works of mercy – the other piece of Wesleyan works – is “love of neighbor.” These phrases could work as substitutes. Instead of “works of piety,” we might say, “loving God.” Instead of “works of mercy,” we might say, “loving our neighbors.”

I think those both translate outside the church and mean what we want them to mean.

3 thoughts on “Why I don’t like works of piety

  1. John:

    No one outside the church knows what piety means… so what? They don’t know much of our language period. Should we jettison all that as well?

    The Roman root– If that is a problem then let’s get rid of the word “sacrament” which in the Roman context referred to the oath of loyalty the soldiers took toward the emperor.

    It smells of conformity? Really? I would wish for more pious Methodists. It seems that the opposite is the conforming problem on this one.

    Loving God and neighbor instead of works of piety. If there is one word more misunderstood than “piety” its “love.” The latter is often defined as sentimental niceities. At least with piety, it is not something easily known and therefore subject to some serious discussion.

    Just some thoughts in response.

    1. Great points. Why do we use all kinds of Latinate words that have no meaning – and even Christians can’t agree what they mean. Lots of fodder for verbal arguments, but I’m not sure what that does for discipleship or spiritual growth and formation?

      Love is misunderstood, perhaps. Piety is alien. It would be like saying “rectify your snortblatt” and expecting people to understand or connect in any way to it.

      The early church adopted all those Roman terms because it was using the language people knew to explain something that could not be easily explained. Why have we held on to the old language – other than our sentimentality and force of habit?

  2. If there is one word more misunderstood than “piety” its “love.”

    Allan, this is my very point.

    The early Christians took words people already knew – pietas, charitas, sacramentum – and poured new meanings into them. But the base words were well known and part of the lives of the people. They were given new life.

    Love is exactly like that. It is a word that everyone thinks they know and understands. It is a word no one feels awkward saying. It is a word you don’t have to explain before you say what it means. But it is a word that takes on new meanings when spoken by Christians.

    Maybe my suggested phrases are not good. I’d prefer one word to two or three. But for the sake of communicating, I am interested in using “plain English” rather than jargon.

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