How Now Shall (or Can?) We Write

Bethany Jenkins | August 27, 2014

The English language has a special class of verbs called modals: will, would, can, could, shall, should, may, might, and must. Although modal verbs are useful to express various tenses, moods, and conditions, they can be minefields.

  • Christians must do this.
  • Pastors shall do this. 
  • Men or women should do this.

Modals like must, shall, and should imply certainty, obligation, and necessity. They can impede dialogue and close the subject. They sometimes invite antagonism because most of us don’t like being addressed in demanding tones.

But not just discussion and tone are at risk with modal verbs. So is the authority of God.

Traditions of the Elders

The religious leaders of Jesus’s day had a bad habit of using must where may was appropriate. The law of Moses commanded certain things, like observing the Sabbath or celebrating Passover, but the religious leaders added their own rules that were more detailed and concrete than the principles of the Bible. These regulations tended to distract people and, in some cases, even contradict the law.

In their Gospel accounts, both Matthew and Mark tell a story about some religious leaders who asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders…

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