“Y’all” is one of the finest words in the English language.
It is an inclusive and precise term.Y’all is a second-person plural, meaning it is a plural version of “you.” So, for example, somebody would say: “You want to go to the game?” if referring to a single person, and “Y’all want to go to the game?” if referring to a group of people. The distinction seems to me as linguistically important as the distinction between “I” and “we” and between “he/she” and “they.”
At one time, English used “thou” as second-person singular and the word you as the plural form, but that usage faded in America about a century and a half after the Mayflower dropped anchor, leaving Americans with the imprecision of you performing double duty. Southerners came to the linguistic rescue of their fellow countrymen with the wonderful word “y’all.”
It is common for those outside the South to malign and misrepresent Southerners’ use of the word y'all. Famed Southern author Lewis Grizzard explained once,
The biggest mistake people from outside the South make in the y'all area is they don't think we say y'all at all. They think we say “you all.” A Southerner visiting the North surely will be mocked the first time he or she opens his or her mouth and out comes a Southern accent. Northerners will giggle and ask, “So where are you all from?” I answer by saying, “I all is from Atlanta.” … Southerners rarely use “you all” in any situation but they never, never, ever, ever, use it when addressing just one person.
My primary interest in the word y'all is its theological importance. Here is our persistent problem: The Bible is most often written in the plural but most of us read it in the singular. We tend to come to Scripture for individualized answers to individualized questions. We read the Bible as if it is all about us as individuals. Thus, every time the Bible uses you we most often read it as a second-person singular when it is almost always a second-person plural — y’all. Our captivity to individualized grammar makes the gracious gift of cruciform community largely unintelligible.
In The Unnecessary Pastor, author, educator and Northerner Marva Dawn perceptively explains “We all need to become Southerners to read the Bible correctly, because to inhabit its world is to speak about our lives as ‘y’all’ (plural), instead of ‘you’ (singular).” She further notes, “To distinguish between ‘you’ as an intimate acquaintance, ‘you’ as someone I do not address in intimate terms because of respect or a less-developed relationship, and ‘you’ as a larger group in which I am but a part helps me to have a more truthful sense of my place in the whole.” Dawn adds, “It takes a long process to change the Western individualized vocabulary that is ruining our church.
Inhabitants of Western culture tend to view the world with self at the center of everything, but there is no room for radical individualism in the church. Christianity provides an alternative concept of the individual, one that locates the individual’s identity and value in Christ, his Kingdom and his church. The three are inextricable. The New Testament goes so far as to say Christ does not even reckon himself complete apart from the church. In Ephesians 1:23, Paul describes the church as “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” John Calvin, in his commentary The Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, explains the implications of the same Pauline verse:
This is the highest honor of the Church, that, until He is united to us, the Son of God reckons himself in some measure imperfect. What consolation is it for us to learn, that, not until we are along with him, does he possess all his parts, or wish to be regarded as complete! ).
If Christ does not even reckon himself complete apart from the church, how can the individual Christian do so? The individual believer is a citizen of “the Kingdom of his beloved Son” and is a part of a community of believers who are called to fight the spiritual battle together, not as isolated individuals (Col. 1:13, Eph. 6:10-18). The believer initially comes to Christ individually by faith, but no follower of Christ should envision living the Christian life outside of Christ or his Kingdom outpost — the church. Even our thoughts about corporate church life tend to be too often individualized, as though the church exists as an instrument to fulfill our personal needs rather than as the body of Christ to transform the cosmos.
Our individualized thinking and imprecise grammar have served to eclipse the subversive nature of Christian community, faith and living. When someone conceives of Christianity in an isolated and individualized manner, the tendency is to focus on personal contentment and survival. When we disregard the fact that Christ purchased our unity with himself and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22), we lose a sense of the grand eschatological story of Christ that we have been swept into, and we often vainly attempt to co-opt Jesus for our own story. This is why we often think a sermon podcast is as good as being in the corporate worship service; after all, we still get the biblical information we personally need to live our best life now.
But what if we thought about our lives in the plural and acted on that plurality? What if we thought of preaching as a gathered flock communally hearing the voice of our Shepherd-King, who is forming us together as cruciform community by the authority and power of his word? What if we thought about the Great Commission in terms of cosmic warfare to which we have been summoned together as an army of good soldiers of King Jesus? What if we thought of sanctification itself as a community project, rather than an individual experience?
Consider how a more theologically precise gospel grammar rescues us from the hopelessness of thinking of ourselves as a church of one:
- This mystery, which is Christ in y’all, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
- Y’all count it all joy, my brothers, when y’all meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2).
- Finally, y’all be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Y’all put on the whole armor of God, that y’all may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:10-11).
The power of Christian community is profound. Together we hope, together we count it all joy, together we are strong in the Lord, and together we put on the armor of God. As individuals we will struggle, but our lives are woven into the fabric of the Gospel community. That is Good News so “Keep on rejoicing y’all” (Phil. 4:4).