Linguistic borders, evangelical orientation
The beginning of the book of Genesis and the history of the church from Acts is about mankind as a whole. In between, throughout the Old Testament and the Gospels, the focus is narrowly on the nation of Israel.
It is interesting that at the two transition points of Genesis 11 and Acts 2 we have stories about language: the tower of Babel and the day of Pentecost.
At Babel, God confused the tongues and scattered the people throughout the world because of their rebellion. At Pentecost, people all over the world were amazed when Peter shared the Good News of Jesus, and they were able to understand it in their own language.
It is often said that the day of Pentecost reversed the events of the tower of Babel because one brought confusion while the other brought understanding. While it’s truePentecost did not so much overthrow Babel as it strengthened it.
the the languages that came into existence when God confused human speech all found new reality and meaning on the day of Pentecost when they became potential vehicles for the Good News of Jesus.
The day of Pentecost indicates the fact that there is no sacred language for Christians, all languages can be used for evangelization, for the liturgy and for prayer.
As Lamin Sanneh says, “Christianity is unique in that it is the only religion that spreads without the language of its founder.”
The importance of each language is highlighted in Revelation 7 where we find people of all tribes, tongues and nations gathered around the throne worshiping the Lamb. You don’t have to learn a particular way of speaking to enter heaven.
The miracle on the day of Pentecost was the first miracle of the church age and it gives an important picture of God speaking to different groups. However, it was also a unique piece.
Throughout the book of Acts and the Epistles, we see the Apostles preaching and teaching in Koine Greek, the language of the Eastern Roman Empire. All languages can be used in Christian teaching and worship, but that does not mean that every language will be used at all times..
Pentecost and the Apostles’ use of Koine indicate two ways the church can relate linguistically; first, to accept each other’s differences and second, to communicate across language borders.
Before continuing, we must return briefly to Babel where people who spoke a language arrogantly attempted to take the honor that belonged to God alone; their attitude was one of domination.
This principle of domination of the great empires over the nations around them is found in the Bible (for example Egypt, Babylon and Rome) and throughout history, with the imposition of the language of the Empire as a tool of domination.
I started my ministry as a Bible translator working among a group of isolated people in the Ivory Coast. Linguistic borders are part of my life; they or they are used to identify groups of people who do not have access to the Bible, or those who have never encountered the Gospel in the first place.
There are many maps or lists of “Bibleless” or “unreached” people groups that you can find online, although it should be noted that the reality on the ground is usually much more complex than indicated. simple maps or lists.
In Europe, these linguistic borders are not our primary concern. For the most part, the linguistic communities of Europe have been evangelized for a very long time and most European languages have had a Bible available to them for hundreds of years.
While we agree that Europe still needs evangelism, simply crossing language borders or providing scripture for the first time is not a major concern as it is. in other parts of the world. .
Despite this, languages and linguistic borders do not play an important role in the European mission.
First, we must recognize that linguistic borders and national borders are not the same thing. Indigenous European languages are often spoken in more than one country. German is an official language in Austria, Lichtenstein, Italy and Switzerland in addition to Germany itself.
Likewise, French is spoken in Belgium and Switzerland as well as in France, and the list could go on and on. There are also indigenous linguistic communities within countries, such as the Bretons in France and the Catalans in Spain, not to mention the large communities of immigrants from Africa and Asia now established in many European cities.
Linguistic communities migrated across Europe before our current national borders were drawn and they have continued to do so. In many places, you are as likely to encounter a language border when crossing the street as when crossing a national border.
But what does that have to do with the mission, in addition to implying that sometimes missionaries will need to learn a new language and a new culture? To answer this question, we must consider the ultimate purpose of the mission.
Revelation 7 portrays the image of an eschatological community made up of all tribes, tongues and nations.
It is not the image of a uniform gathering where all racial, linguistic and national characteristics have been erased. It’s a vision of incredible diversity as people worship the Lamb in their own languages and styles of music.
the people are united, but they are not identical. Here, at the very end of the biblical account, the scattered groups of people in Babel are united in a common goal; give glory to Jesus.
There is a clear missionary imperative to cross linguistic boundaries with the gospelwhether they are unreached groups in the Muslim world or European minorities who may be looked down upon by society at large.
Ideally, we’ll do it the Pentecostal way: accept each other’s differences (although we’ll probably have to do the hard work of actually learning the languages, rather than receiving a supernatural gift).
However, like the apostle Paul, we could also use commercial language to reach people: to communicate across language boundaries. What we should never do is dominate: forcing others to speak our language as part of their discipleship; whatever our language.
Besides, we need to build bridges across these language borders in anticipation of the eschatological community of Revelation 7. Sometimes it can be simple; although it almost always takes effort and rarely happens spontaneously.
However, in many cases, building such bridges involves overcoming suspicion and prejudice and is far from easy. There are times when crossing language borders can be dangerousas in the need to demonstrate unity between Russian and Ukrainian believers in the current context.
However, when believers in these situations show unity, it is a powerful testimony to the truth of Jesus’ message. Like the miracle on the day of Pentecost, this kind of event can only happen if empowered by the Spirit.
As Europe becomes increasingly diverse and divided, the need for believers to accept and communicate across linguistic borders is becoming more and more pressing.
We must learn to appreciate the richness of language communities in our churches and neighborhoodsand build bridges across these borders.
This involves welcoming strangers and refugees, but also the more mundane task of getting to know people on the other side of the road who speak a different language and making room in our worship services for songs. other languages and cultures.
I gave them the glory you gave me, so that they might be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, so that they might be brought into perfect unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and loved them like you loved me. John 17:22-23
Eddie Arthur worked in a translation project with SIL in the Ivory Coast and held various management and training positions in Africa and Europe. He holds a doctorate in missionary theology and is the author of Mission Agencies in Crisis (Regnum 2020).
Vista is an online journal offering research-based information on mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each thematic edition covers a variety of perspectives on mission-critical issues. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of the Vista Journal.
1. It is important to note that there are still groups in Europe where it is still necessary to cross linguistic borders to reach them with the gospel; these include immigrant and diaspora groups as well as indigenous and sign language minority communities.