Wait on Serving

It happened again. A misunderstanding traceable to the beautiful, excellent, and beloved—but now antiquated—King James Version.

A middle-aged, very sharp, but relatively uneducated woman with a significant Christian background came up to me after I preached on a recent Sunday. She had a question.

“If I have the gift of serving, why does Romans 12 say that I should wait to use it?”

We looked it up:

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching. (Rom 12:6-7)

The King James translators, of course, were not suggesting that people with the gift of ministry should hang on for a while before they exercise it. (Nor were they suggesting that those with the gift teaching do the same. That clause includes the “wait on” construction elliptically: “He that teacheth, let him wait on his teaching.”)

No, “wait on” is a phrasal verb (meaning that “on” is a necessary part of the construction), and it meant “to attend to (a business, a duty).” That’s what the exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary says. And then it adds three letters: “Obs.” In other words, no one uses the phrasal verb this way any more.

It has held on in one limited context, I think: waiting on tables. Waitresses “wait on” people, in other words. Ever heard of “waiting maids”? Same idea, just a bit broader—and who says that anymore?

It’s much more common to hear “waiting on” in a sentence like this: “We’re waiting on an answer from the insurance company.” You’re not “giving attention to” the insurance company’s answer; you don’t have it yet. You’re waiting. So the woman’s misreading makes perfect sense in light of her mastery of contemporary English—and ignorance of 400-year-old English, an ignorance nearly every English speaker in existence shares.

And this is my big point: the problem with continued insistence on use of the King James is not just that people will have to look up archaic words. That’s a big (and totally unnecessary) problem, but most people will recognize that when they come across such words—”besom,” “chambering,” “buggery”—they must pull out their dictionaries. The problem is that so many words and phrases in the KJV are still in common use today but mean different things than they did in 17th century Jacobean England.

My King James Only brothers, please don’t take God’s words out of the hands of uneducated people! Count this post another Plea for Realism.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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