My Greek at the Retreat Incident …

How I tried to act intelligent and demonstrated otherwise …

Several years ago, I was asked to be a group leader at our church’s annual men’s retreat. The retreat that year invited men from another nearby church. Part of my Biblical Studies degree at Biola included two years of New Testament Greek. I remember the last day of that second year, the professor congratulated us. Then he warned us that we were now quite dangerous, since we thought we knew Greek and were likely to misuse it.

Not long before the retreat, our Sunday School class had featured a guest missionary who shared that he had new believers read through First John several times, each in a single reading. I started to do that and realized that it might be a good opportunity to refresh my Greek, since it had now been several decades since those classes.

I had been doing that for a week or so, looking up words in the abbreviated lexicon in back of my Greek New Testament. I had donated the textbooks from the class to a book drive for India, so I wasn’t getting very deep into this study; nothing into grammatical syntax or conjugation of verbs. Since I had just begun this not-so-systematic review when time for the retreat came, I decided to take my Greek New Testament along, hoping to spend a little quiet time with it in the mountains.

The men were divided into groups, including men from both churches in each group. The program included assemblies of everyone for worship and a message, followed by break-out times for the groups to discuss questions about the topic. One of the questions asked us to discuss a certain passage of scripture. I don’t recall the verses. What I do recall is that it centered around three words or phrases and we agreed to consider them on our own and come back to them at our next group session.

I thought, “Cool! I brought my Greek New Testament with me. I’ll look up those words and come back with hopefully an intelligent, if not impressive answer. I took Greek!” So, I did. Well, I did the first part. I looked up the words, and I prepared myself for an observation about them. Those observations, however, turned out to be not so intelligent, and I certainly did not make a good impression when I shared them with my group!

Remember that I was the “leader” of this group. When we regathered for our next breakout, I shared my “insight”: “All three of these words have the same root.” One of the guys from the other church said, with authority, “No they don’t!”

What I think I can say about New Testament Greek without getting myself into more trouble is that it is a very precise language. That’s because a lot of the nuances of meaning are communicated in changes to the spelling of words, depending on how they are used in the sentence. So, the reader can tell if a noun, for instance, is masculine, feminine, or neuter; singular or plural; whether it is the subject or belongs in the predicate; and a few other things that help communicate details of the author’s meaning. English has very few such devices. Articles, for instance (a, an, the). That’s it. Just three. Greek has 24, at least! I seem to recall that there are more, but remember, I’m trying to stay out of trouble.

I still had a bit of memory about those articles. That involved a lot of memorization after all. But I forgot that the same changes applied to the nouns they referred to as well. In fact, the articles changed because the nouns made those changes. That was the case in the passage we were discussing. They all had the same ending, not the same root as I boldly professed in the group.

My proclamation might have had its intended boost to my ego had there not been a teacher of New Testament Greek in my group.

I can only imagine the effect this had, not only on my reputation, but the reputation of our church. “They must let anybody teach!” “What else has this guy been teaching?” I have not seen this guy since that retreat nearly a decade ago. I assume that I have since been used as an example of the very thing my own Greek professor warned about the dangers of thinking you know more about the language than you do. I hope so. I tell it myself if I bring up a Greek word when I teach. Unless I am quoting directly from a real authority, I warn the class that I know just enough Greek to be dangerous.

So, why do I re-expose myself to this humiliation? I do so because our believability is one of the most important assets we have. When we speak beyond our understanding, and are caught, we ruin our credibility. We become known as someone who treats the truth carelessly and who spreads misinformation. Anything else we say is rightfully received with suspicion. How can we be trusted with anything else that we say?

When we share something that we see on social media, we also share in its credibility, whether good or bad. We build or damage our own credibility based on the truthfulness of what we share. With most of what I see, it damages it.

If you can’t, or don’t want to take the time to investigate the claims of a post, for the sake of your own credibility, don’t repost it. Your reputation is too valuable to entrust to someone else.

If the guy who had the misfortune of being in my group at the retreat reads this, and I hope he does, I want him to know that he taught me a powerful lesson. Fortunately, I had only begun my trek back into re-learning Greek prior to that blunder. And I hadn’t been in the practice of making such references to the text in my teaching. Because of that incident and realizing that I am an “old dog”, I decided any further effort to become expert in Greek would make me even more dangerous. So, I didn’t take it further. I now resort to quoting from established experts who know what they are talking about. I do wish that I had kept up with Greek all along and had deepened my understanding and proficiency of it. But I’m truly thankful for the lesson learned. Thank you, brother, whoever you are.

Because He lives,
Gary Crocker
August 2020 (edited 8/8/20)