[box]RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life. [/box]
I have received a request to write about the word charismatic. This is a word used both to describe 1) a person seen as inspiring or charming, and 2) a somewhat loosely defined Christian movement. Hopefully, after this presentation here, the reader will have a better understanding
- of the true meanings of the word
- of how it is translated in the Bible, and
- how the usage has changed over the last century
To begin with, the short answer to the question in the title is that the Greek word charis (sometimes spelled kharis using our alphabet) is usually translated to the words “favor” and “grace” in the English Bible. (see Vine’s Expository Dictionary entry for grace at studylight.org)
Add the ending -ma, and you get the word charisma, an English word which means either “the gift of God’s grace” or “a special quality of leadership.” That is, if a person has charisma, he is charismatic.
Let me take time to point out two details that can help with keeping the definitions straight, as well as explain the difference between the Biblical and more colloquial uses of the words. First, the word charismatic is formed by adding the suffix -tic, a variation of -ic, to charisma. The suffix -ic means “behaving like” or “having the characteristics of.” (see quora.com’s What does the suffix -matic mean?) Thus, it is used in words like barbaric and dramatic. The ‘t’ is added in front of the ‘-ic’ when a word ends in a vowel. When a word has an ‘-ma’ at the end, it can give the impression that the suffix is -matic, which may not be the case, so it is good to know what the root word is.
The second helpful fact is that the use of the words charisma and charismatic in the sense of a person who has exceptional and motivating charm is a relatively recent usage. This variation was introduced in the early 1900’s by a renowned German sociologist, Max Weber. As a sociologist, he was examining how people interact. Before his books were published, charisma was much more strongly associated with the Bible and the concept of grace.
To understand the word charismatic from a Christian perspective, one also has to look at how the original Greek meaning results in some current cultural labels. Since the 1970’s, the descriptor “charismatic” has been used to specify Christians who believe that God bestows supernatural gifts in our current age, not just the time of Christ. This definition is true to the original Greek, which carries with it the meaning of “something given as a gift, by the favor and goodwill of someone uniquely able to do so.”
Since all true Christians believe they are the recipients of God’s supernatural gift of grace, technically they are all “charismatic.” That is, they have and are developing the characteristics of living according to the grace given them. But as a social and cultural label, charismatic is generally thought to mean a subset of (purported?) Christians who are known for displays of speaking in strange languages, or other evidences that the Holy Spirit has “fallen” on them. Unfortunately, this is often seen as unnecessary and forced drama by non-Christians.
The “charismatic movement,” as it is sometimes called and advertised, seems to attract people looking for an emotional experience in hopes of making themselves feel more spiritual. When “services” are held for the sole purpose of providing such experiences, many real Christians are hesitant to be part of what often becomes theatrics and peer pressure to appear spiritual enough to display a supposed gift. (read my RVWD article about the term church service here)
Still, man’s misrepresentation or misunderstanding of God’s gifts does not negate their reality. God being God, can give gifts any way or any time He chooses. A discussion of “spiritual gifts,” however, will be saved for another RVWD topic. For now, I will say that I have to conclude that, based on ALL the parts in the Bible about how Christians should relate to each other, that the emphasis of any special abilities or gifts should probably be for the good and encouragement of all the Christians present at the time. (1 Corinthians 12:7).
It gets back to the idea of grace. In Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (I find the hard copy easier to use for more in depth research), the concept of grace is explained more fully. Grace is something given that is meant to bring pleasure, delight, and joy. It flows from a kind heart with a spontaneous freedom and willingness to bestow said grace. It is in the sense of it bringing joy that it became a Greek greeting, implying “may you rejoice” because of the favor you have (from God). And, as such, may you all, because of the wondrous mercy of God to make us His children, be charismatic!