In Defense of the Word “Gentile”

April 10, 2006 | 29 comments
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I like referring to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.” Gentile is one of those Mormon terms that has come on hard times. It is seen as being archaic and offensive, perhaps even faintly ridiculous. (“It is so silly for Mormons to call Jews Gentiles.” Chuckle. Chuckle.) One will search Church publications in vain for its recent use to refer to non-Mormons outside of the context of scriptural quotations. Today, we are encouraged to use the less loaded “non-member.” I respectfully dissent for two reasons.

First, using the word Gentile defines church membership in a certain way. The word pops up quite a bit in the scriptures, where it is used to refer to those who are not part of the covenant people of God. In this sense, it invites Mormons to see their Mormoness in national terms. We are not merely an association. We are a people, a nation. Yet it is a peculiar kind of nation, one where membership comes via covenant and adoption rather than birth. (In this sense it is a very American conception of nationhood, as well as being a very Biblical one.) In contrast, “non-member” seems much more like the language of a club. It does not invoke the same imagery of peoplehood. Mormoness becomes more like joining the Elks Club, rather than cosmic adoption into the household of God.

Second, using the word Gentile defines the non-Mormoness of others in a certain way. In the Old Testament the word we translate as “Gentiles” is “gowy.” In the New Testament it is “ethnos.” In both cases it means something like “the nations.” Our English word “Gentile” has the same root, going back to the Latin word “gentes” which meant something like “tribes” or “nations.” (For example, the law of nations in Roman Law was called the “jus gentium.”) Tribes and nations suggest a rich notion of identity. We assume that a foreign nation has customs and ideas of its own, things to teach us and experiences that we could benefit from. In contrast, “non-member” is simply a negation. It implies that they are not us, but nothing more. To be sure, the idea of a foreigner can be dangerous. We can see them as the bad-guys in a way that a mere “non-member” is never a bad guy. On the other hand, a mere non-member offers nothing. He is simply a non-. I would much rather have the risk of an Other with the dignity of an identity.

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29 Responses to In Defense of the Word “Gentile”

  1. Brian Duffin on April 10, 2006 at 1:02 am

    May I respectfully suggest using the term “not-yet member” as a hopeful expression for those who have yet to “come unto Christ” and accept the ordinances of baptism and confirmation.

  2. Geoff J on April 10, 2006 at 2:31 am

    I like it Nate. I suspect that getting back to some of our more bold stances of yesteryear might actually help with church growth anyway — nothing wrong with proudly flaunting our status as a peculiar people occasionally. Offending people with bold talk is a Christ-like trait too after all…

  3. Mark IV on April 10, 2006 at 6:52 am

    Louis Zucker taught English at the University of Utah and was one of Gordon B. Hinckley’s professors. I heard him speak once about the experience of being an observant Jew in Utah, I think his talk was entitled “A Jew in Zion”. Anyway, he remarked how if felt so deliciously wicked to live in the only place in the world where he was a considered a gentile. That line got lots of laughs, his own along with everybody else.

  4. Bookslinger on April 10, 2006 at 7:56 am

    One problem with the use of the word “gentile” by LDS is that I’ve often heard it used in derrogatory context, mainly from missionaries (who probably picked it up from their parents or seminary teachers.)

    I think it is also highly improper to use the term towards people who are literal descendants of Abraham, but not (yet) members of the church.

    The Book of Mormon clearly and often uses the word “Jews” to refer to those literal descendants of Abraham (of all tribes) who have not yet embraced the Gospel.

    And it may be doubly improper or ironic for those church members (or descendants of those) who have been adopted into the house of Abraham to use it towards non-members who are or may be literal descendants.

    In the New Testament, Paul seems to acknowledge the existence of the labels “Jew” and “Gentile” among the believers, but wanted those labels to be dropped and have everyone be referred to as “of the household of faith” or “believer.”

    My understanding of patriarchal blessings is that they often don’t distinguish whether someone has been adopted or is a literal descendant of one of the 12 tribes. I believe the phrase “came through” can be interpreted either way.

    My admonition is to strictly avoid using the word to refer to non-members in public discourse. To the Jewish listener/reader, it connotes arrogance on the part of the speaker, implying that the speaker has arrogated (improperly assumed) membership in his club. To the Christian-but-non-LDS listener/reader, who is using the New Testament as his dictionary, the speaker is implying he is a literal descendant and looking down on those who are not, and again it connotes arrogance. The other impression it could give to a Christian-but-non-LDS believer would be that we don’t consider people of other faiths to be real Christians.

    I strongly urge against the use of “Gentile” to refer to non-LDS. As a Jew (tribe of Judah), as a former member of another Christian faith, and as a convert, its use as a synonym for non-member offends me, and I believe makes LDS look bad.

  5. Costanza on April 10, 2006 at 8:04 am

    Even “non-member” has come on hard times. I published an article in a book produced by the BYU press, and in it I used the term “non-member.” The editors asked that I change it. I wasn’t sure what to replace it with, but I toyed with “ecclesiastically challenged.”

  6. danithew on April 10, 2006 at 9:38 am

    I don’t like the word Gentile. It still has a pejorative feel to me.

  7. Wilfried on April 10, 2006 at 9:39 am

    Interesting post, Nate. “Gentiles” is indeed a multi-faceted word. And the relation between words and concepts is dynamic, plus tied to the many nuances in translations. I remember we did a study at the U of Ghent on that word, it’s etymology, multiple meanings according to times and places and viewpoints. I need to find that text back. But indeed, for Mormons, “gentiles” took the meaning of “non-Mormons”, partly from the Scriptures, but next it evolved to the pronounced negative connotation in the post-1850 dichotomy in Utah, which many people still “feel” that way. Basically it does not need to be negative. It identifies the belonging to clans, tribes, nations. And one conceptual aspect is positive, as “gentle” is derived from “gentile” — “Of good family; wellborn: a child of gentle birth.”

    And I also agree with Geoff J: “I suspect that getting back to some of our more bold stances of yesteryear might actually help with church growth anyway — nothing wrong with proudly flaunting our status as a peculiar people occasionally.”

  8. Mark B. on April 10, 2006 at 10:29 am

    One potential difficulty for the unwary: A relatively new member, a few generations back, taught a Sunday School class where the word “gentiles” was used regularly. Apparently nobody in the class had the temerity to tell him that the word was not pronounced “genitals”.

  9. DavidH on April 10, 2006 at 10:46 am

    Personally, I prefer to use “goy” and goyim”.

  10. Wilfried on April 10, 2006 at 10:46 am

    LOL, Mark (8)!

    By the way, how is “gentiles” translated in various languages? I suspect we can draw some interesting considerations from such comparisons. In French, the term “gentils” (without capital) exists officially as “name which the Jews and the first Christians gave to the pagans. Paul was the apostle to the gentiles” (Robert dictionary). But the French Bible version the Church uses (Segond) never uses “gentils”, only “paiens” (pagans) or “nations”. While in the French BoM and D&C, “Gentils” (with capital) is used where the English version has “Gentiles”. Same choice in Dutch between “heidenen” (pagans) and “volkeren” (nations), but no typical word for “Gentiles” like in French. The possibility to choose between various translations for “Gentiles” allows to nuance, but also to influence doctrinal perceptions.

  11. Geoff J on April 10, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    For what it is worth, there is some pretty compelling evidence (to me at least) that every living person on the earth today is a literal descendant of Abraham to one degree or another.

  12. Julie M. Smith on April 10, 2006 at 12:32 pm

    “A relatively new member, a few generations back, taught a Sunday School class where the word “gentilesâ€? was used regularly. Apparently nobody in the class had the temerity to tell him that the word was not pronounced “genitalsâ€?.”

    I went on splits with the sister missionaries once and the investigator made a similar mistake.

  13. Christian Y. Cardall on April 10, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    Nate, Elder Ballard also dislikes the term “non-member” (see his talk Doctrine of Inclusion): Second, I believe it would be good if we eliminated a couple of phrases from our vocabulary: “nonmemberâ€? and “non-Mormon.â€? Such phrases can be demeaning and even belittling. Personally, I don’t consider myself to be a “non-Catholicâ€? or a “non-Jew.â€? I am a Christian. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is how I prefer to be identified—for who and what I am, as opposed to being identified for what I am not. Let us extend that same courtesy to those who live among us. If a collective description is needed, then “neighborsâ€? seems to work well in most cases. However it seems he would find “Gentile” even more offensive than “non-member,” being a sort of polar opposite of “neighbor.” He clearly agrees with the notion of wanting and granting “dignity of an identity,” but I’d guess he wouldn’t see much dignity in “Gentile”; it seems to foster the clannishness he decries in the rest of the talk (as has President Hinckley on multiple occasions, including the most recent conference). Now that the isolated incubation period of geographic gathering is over, it seems time to move on.

  14. Christian Y. Cardall on April 10, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    Sorry, I messed up the blockquote tags. Let me try again so as to separate Elder Ballard’s words from my own:

    Nate, Elder Ballard also dislikes the term “non-member” (see his talk Doctrine of Inclusion):

    Second, I believe it would be good if we eliminated a couple of phrases from our vocabulary: “nonmember� and “non-Mormon.� Such phrases can be demeaning and even belittling. Personally, I don’t consider myself to be a “non-Catholic� or a “non-Jew.� I am a Christian. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is how I prefer to be identified—for who and what I am, as opposed to being identified for what I am not. Let us extend that same courtesy to those who live among us. If a collective description is needed, then “neighbors� seems to work well in most cases.

    However it seems he would find “Gentile” even more offensive than “non-member,” being a sort of polar opposite of “neighbor.” He clearly agrees with the notion of wanting and granting “dignity of an identity,” but I’d guess he wouldn’t see much dignity in “Gentile”; it seems to foster the clannishness he decries in the rest of the talk (as has President Hinckley on multiple occasions, including the most recent conference). Now that the isolated incubation period of geographic gathering is over, it seems time to move on.

  15. J. Stapley on April 10, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    I think it is an important word that should be used sparingly. It is a great word that demarcates us and them – something that should be done on occassion. It is useful in building up Zion and for limiting economic intercourse with those outside its territory. That said, I think it would be un-healthy to consistently maintain an “us and them” world-view.

  16. Kirke (Kiskilili) on April 10, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    Maybe I can be persuaded otherwise, but I currently think the term “non-Mormon” has some utility; “not yet Mormon” sounds much more arrogant and offensive to me. The fact is that there are occasions for which the distinction between church members and non-church members does matter, and it’s convenient to have a handy term to convey it. In so many ways the church polices its boundaries and puts effort into maintaining distinctions between its own practices and beliefs and those of others; why eradicate that distinction in the language?

    When religion is a point of discussion and an individual can be identified positively by the religious system she or he subscribes to (“Catholic”) rather than negatively (“non-Mormon”), I’m all for it. But often this cannot be conveyed quickly or easily without recourse to terms such as “non-Mormon” or “not a member of the church.”

    Sometimes I think we mistake everyone agreeing with each other for tolerance, and in pursuit of this we attempt to eliminate terms focusing on differences. But distinctions between our members and others matter to our doctrine and practice. So in my opinion it’s wrongheaded to jettison terms reflecting those underlying distinctions that actually are significant to us.

    The real challenge, the real “tolerance,” is to recognize the very real differences and still respect and validate other groups and individuals.

  17. Dan Richards on April 10, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Re: #10

    Wilfried, in German the word used for Gentiles is “die Andern,”–”the others.”

  18. Last Lemming on April 10, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    In my day, the German word for Gentiles (at least in the Book of Mormon) was “Nichtjuden,” or Non-Jews. Probably not in keeping with Elder Ballard’s preferences.

  19. Jonathan Green on April 10, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    …or, in the translation I have at hand, “die Heiden” = “the heathens.” I don’t think that would work well at all as an alternative for “gentiles” in Mormon usage.

  20. john f. on April 10, 2006 at 3:16 pm

    Did the newest German BoM translation keep “die Andern” from the Luschin translation?

  21. john f. on April 10, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    – and what does the Einheitsübersetzung of the Bible use? I haven’t got my German scriptures handy.

  22. Adam Greenwood on April 10, 2006 at 9:17 pm

    “I like referring to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.â€? ”

    Me too. Much gentler than ”stiff-necked son of belial’.

  23. Adam Greenwood on April 10, 2006 at 9:22 pm

    ” I believe it would be good if we eliminated a couple of phrases from our vocabulary: “nonmemberâ€? and “non-Mormon.â€? Such phrases can be demeaning and even belittling. Personally, I don’t consider myself to be a “non-Catholicâ€? or a “non-Jew.â€?”

    Neither do I, but it didn’t bug me much when my Catholic friends talked about non-Catholics. In many contexts, it was useful. Much more to the point than saying ‘jews and evangelicals and mainline protestants and, uh, Mormons and the various Orthodox faiths and Buddhists and Sikhs and Jainists and Hindus and Shiites and Sunni and agnostics and atheists and deists and Shintoists and Taiping and, uh, other people who aren’t Roman Catholic or maybe Uniate”

  24. Kimball Hunt on April 11, 2006 at 1:19 am

    And, David H., SCHIKSA for gentile “girls” (women).

  25. mullingandmusing (m&m) on April 11, 2006 at 1:31 am

    This post actually strikes my funny bone a bit, in light of the fact that there are two definitions of the word “Gentiles” as used in the scriptures. I know the common use of the word “Gentiles” is to mean someone not of covenant Israel. But, in the Book of Mormon, “Gentiles” more often means those who are not from the land of Israel — those who are not “cultural or geographical Israelites.” So, in Book of Mormon terms, all of us who don’t live around the land of Israel are all Gentiles!

  26. Doug on April 11, 2006 at 5:49 pm

    Thanks Nate…I fear we are losing a part of our linguistic heritage….here is one of my favorite stories:
    It’s about the Jewish “Yentile” Governor of Utah, Simon Bamburger:

    http://www.ajhs.org/publications/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=292

  27. Jose on April 12, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    Similar to the (d)evolution in our terminology from “gentile” to “non-member” to “friends-of-other-faiths”, we have also gone from “apostate” to “inactive” to “less-active” to the nascent term “non-attender”. As for me, I prefer the Brighamite terms like gentile and apostate.

  28. Kimball Hunt on April 13, 2006 at 6:22 pm

    How bout Mo and no Mo? And for apostates Mo no mo?

  29. mullingandmusing (m&m) on April 14, 2006 at 2:01 am

    #28
    LOL

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