Why is ‘Pious’ a Dirty Word?

We were driving to church yesterday morning when a thought occurred to me, “Why is piety such a derogatory term?” You’ve probably heard it applied to rigidly religious persons who do not seem to know the Life and Spirit behind their religion. This is only one meaning of the word…so why is the only one we tend to use?

I posed the question to Jeff. He recalled his supervisor (a ministry director) using pious negatively just this last week. We mulled over it for a while…but came up with some reasons but no solutions.

The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary gives these first three definitions of Pious:

1. Godly; reverencing and honoring the Supreme Being in heart and in the practice of the duties he has enjoined; having due veneration and affection for the character of God, and habitually obeying his commands; religious; devoted to the service of God; applied to persons.

2. Dictated by reverence to God; proceeding from piety; applied to things; as pious awe; pious services of affections; pious sorrow.

3. Having due respect and affection for parents or other relatives; practicing the duties of respect and affection towards parents or other near relatives.

The last definition is:

4. Practiced under the pretense of religion; as pious frauds.

Somehow Piety has been turned from meaning a reverential action to self-righteousness. I’ve heard in Orthodox Christian circles that pious, as applied to people, is still a compliment. In my Christian realm (Evangelical Protestant), it seems to be a Bad Thing to appear to be Good.

I think there is some unspoken rule, a rule of Mediocrity, that every one must meet in order for all to feel Comfortable. If you happen to dress modestly or keep your children from attending a “Harvest Party” at church or pray fervently in public, you become a target of the Gossip Police. They enforce Mediocrity. They only judge by their own standards which God will measure upon them at the Last Day.

Piety is used once in the KJV, in reference to caring for widows in 1 Timothy 5:4, where families are, “…to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.” [See also the third definition above.]

The best defense of Piety I can use is from Luke 18, where Jesus gives us the illustration of the Publican and the Pharisee at Prayer. The Publican was humble and contrite; the Bad Pious Pharisee was pompous. Jesus’ audience would have declared the Publican still a sinner. Instead, God justified him. The actions of piety will bear the fruit of humility or of pride; Attitude is the determining factor.

I’d like to be Webster’s 1-3 Christian, how about you?


2 Responses to “Why is ‘Pious’ a Dirty Word?”

  1. 1 Kristen July 16, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    This is really good. I really enjoyed reading it.

    God bless

  2. 2 Gemaecca August 7, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    I didn’t know that “piety” had become derogatory somehow, and I’m about as far from religious as you can get. Interesting.

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"I can't say I don't believe in your God, but I don't believe He meant the world to be as it is." ~Nicholas Higgins. North and South.

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." No idea where that last quote came from, but I like it!

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