Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is an Insistence upon Heart-Languages Biblical?

The New Testament was written in Greek. You've probably read some speculation that one or two New Testament books may have been written first in Aramaic, but it is clear that the preponderance of New Testament books were written originally in Greek and that all of them existed almost exclusively in the Greek language relatively quickly in the history of Christianity. Although it was, at that time, the ROMAN Empire, the apostles did not, as far as I can tell, make any effort to write in Latin. Although Asia Minor was polyglot and the gospel was spreading into Africa and across all of the diversity of the Mediterranean Basin, the apostles were entirely content to evangelize and disciple in Greek.

Greek was the "heart-language" of Thessalonica and Corinth, but apart from them, I'm not sure that it could be considered the "heart-language" of any of the recipients of the other New Testament epistles or books.

I'm presuming that we've all heard sermons and lectures extolling this attribute of the Greco-Roman world—the availability of Greek as a common language throughout the empire—as one attribute of the "fulness of time" that God exploited in revealing the gospel at just the time that He did. And yet, people who affirm that idea and preach that kind of sermon, we will turn right around and say with regard to this day and time that the gospel has not been proclaimed somewhere and the Great Commission has not been obeyed somewhere until we have proclaimed it in the "heart-language" of that people-group. Is it OK for me to wonder aloud whether that insistence is biblical?

Let me make some things clear:

First, I'm not saying that I'm AGAINST the translation of the Bible and the propagation of the gospel into every language known to man. I'm IN FAVOR of that. I'm contributing to make it happen. I'm a fan and a supporter. I'm in favor of a lot of things that are advantageous to the Great Commission. The question is whether translation into "heart-language" is ESSENTIAL to the Great Commission—that until you've done that, you cannot have fulfilled the Great Commission among a people-group.

Second, I'm not denying that there are people in the world who speak and understand no language whatsoever in which the gospel is available. There are people like that. For them, we must provide gospel resources in their languages or we have not obeyed the Great Commission until we do so.

So, what I'm asking is none of those questions, but this: Suppose there is a tribe of people in Central America somewhere, living in a country for which the official language is Spanish. They also have a tribal language that is, compared to Spanish, obscure. The preponderance of people in that tribe speak BOTH their tribal language AND Spanish. One might accurately describe the tribal language as their "heart-language," but they are entirely functional in Spanish, conducting their lives and business in it with regularity. About such a people-group, I ask:

  1. If Spanish Bibles are available for this people-group, is it accurate to say that they have no Christian literature available to reach them?
  2. If a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation is in their vicinity, is it accurate to say that they have no Christian churches?
  3. If Christians have carried the gospel to these people in Spanish, has the Great Commission been carried out and has the gospel been proclaimed to them?
  4. How are they different from, for example, the Galatians, whom the apostles were content to evangelize and disciple in Greek?
  5. How are they different from, for example, a tribe of Sioux in North Dakota who might have received English Bibles, may have professed faith in Christ in English, and might attend English-speaking churches?

I'm not shooting at ANYBODY with this post. It's just that, our church having embarked upon this Embrace initiative, I as a pastor am in a position to need to have thought more carefully and to greater depth about my own understandings of Biblical missiology. I'm trying to work that out, and I'd appreciate constructive dialogue.

17 comments:

Baptist Theologue said...

Bart,

One key issue is how well most of the people know the market language. The Great Commission includes teaching as well as sharing the plan of salvation, so our work entails much more than just proclaiming the plan of salvation. Critical contextualization requires us to make our evangelism and discipleship messages understandable without compromising Scripture. We must clearly contrast the Christian belief system with the non-Christian belief system in order to avoid syncretism.

Jim Slack and Lewis Myers of the IMB discussed this issue in "To the Edge: A Planning Process for People Group Specific Strategy Development":

"In most cases, where Gospel communicators have chosen to work in a trade or market language and not worked in the heart language of the people the following results have been present. Syncretism is common in almost every case. Discipleship has been very difficult which tends to lead to horrible backdoors occurring in the churches. . . . Churches planted through the use of a market language tend to be filled with fringe people rather than people who come from the ethnolinguistic core of the people group." (page 5 in section 3)

Bart Barber said...

Mike,

I don't have any doubts that the level of comfort with the "market language" is an important factor. Indeed, it would be an important factor in determining whether it is the kind of situation that I'm talking about or is not (e.g., if the people have only the most rudimentary of skills in the other language, then they probably fit in my #2 situation mentioned above).

My basic struggle is in coming to understand this biblically—to reconcile this with the apostolic phenomenon that I've highlighted (the use of Greek in that context). I'm curious about your thoughts on that topic. Surely Greek was a "market language" to a Roman, for example, wasn't it? Could an apostolic practice—indeed, the practice that gave us the New Testament—be an example of bad missiology?

Baptist Theologue said...

For a New Testament situation to discuss, we might want to examine Acts 14:6-20. In response to the healing of a man in Lystra, the crowds of people "raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, 'The gods have become like men and have come down to us.'" (NASB) Unfortunately, Paul and Barnabas did not understand what they were saying. The priest of Zeus showed up to sacrifice to them, and finally Paul and Barnabas understood and tried to correct the misunderstandings.

David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen commented, "If our interpretation is correct, we have here not only an example of language-related difficulties, but also a failure to take into account cultural differences (the Lystrans' beliefs in classical legends). Both factors were at the heart of the rather significant misunderstanding. Once the apostles realized what was happening, they responded with a contextualized message (Acts 14:15-17)."

from Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models, page 9.

Baptist Theologue said...

P.S.: For short-term missionaries, it is of course difficult to thoroughly learn the language and culture of a people group. For long-term missionaries, it is very important for them to study the language and culture so that they can avoid misunderstandings and syncretism. When I was a long-term missionary with the IMB, the short-term folks helped me a great deal. They had skills that I didn't have. We utilized baseball and basketball coaches and even a businessman to get us into situations that we could not have accessed in any other way. Being long-term missionaries, however, had its advantages. We could prepare the way for the short-termers, and we could make sure they were understood while they were on the mission field. We could also do adequate follow-up after they left the field.

Bart Barber said...

Mike,

That's good and helpful information. I agree that:

1. The gospel can be misunderstood in a "market language," as happened to Paul and Barnabas.

2. It is always a commendable and helpful thing to translate the Bible and to preach the gospel in as many languages as is possible.

But pardon me for pulling at the threads here. This is how I learn.

It does seem to me that the example of Paul and Barnabas cuts both ways. It is evidence that misunderstandings can occur in market languages (as they can in "heart languages" too, right? How many Americans misunderstand the gospel delivered to them in English?), but it is also evidence that misunderstandings can be corrected in market languages, as well, right?

Also, I find helpful the long-term/short-term differentiation. There's no excuse for a missionary serving with one people group for a long time not to learn the best language for reaching the group, if possible. This is a good and helpful practice.

I suppose the rub comes in the fact of limited resources. Shouldn't we reach everyone we can reach in the market language first, count those people as reached, and then go back and do the heart-language detail work after we've covered all of the bases that we can in the quick way?

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

Bart,

In your last paragraph you identified a continuing controversy among missiologists. The controversy involves how much discipleship/nurture is necessary before the missionary can move on to a different group. In search theology, the emphasis is on speed (reaching the unreached as quickly as possible). In harvest theology, there is less emphasis on speed and more emphasis on thoroughly harvesting a receptive field and doing thorough discipleship (reaching and teaching).

I highly recommend Dr. David Sills' 2010 book, Reaching and Teaching, for a wonderful discussion of this controversy. Dr. Sills is Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology at Southern Seminary.

A couple of quotes to illustrate the differences:

David Garrison (search theology): “Church Planting Movements are rapidly multiplying movements of people. People can multiply truth or error. The secret to keeping them on track is not to slow them down long enough to indoctrinate all of their leaders before they are allowed to reproduce.” (Church Planting Movements, page 269)

Donald McGavran (harvest theology): “God sometimes gives the precious beginnings of a people movement to his servants working ahead in the exploratory phase of missions. If they miss the early signals there is a danger that the new churches will be confirmed, not in the faith, but in ignorance and nominalism. This is not the fault of the way non-Christians turn to Christ, but a failure of shepherding. People movements to Christ require special care.” (Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed., page 235)

Bart Barber said...

Thanks for helping everyone to know who David is. He's a great blessing.

My struggle is still with regard to the work of Paul and his missionary organization (apparently) exclusively in Greek. Do you struggle with this? What do you think about it? How would you categorize Paul's work as it pertains to the question of languages?

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

P.S.: I don't think search and harvest theologies always must be in conflict. We don't have enough IMB missionaries to reach all the unreached people groups at the same time. We can, however, prioritize the unreached groups that are currently receptive. Receptivity waxes and wanes. This is a matter of good stewardship. If you have a truckload of seed, you don't want to dump it all on a parking lot. Resistant, hardened areas must first be plowed before seed can be sown and crops harvested. Discipleship (teaching) cannot be ignored if we want to be obedient to the Great Commission.

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

Bart, in answer to your question, I interpret the New Testament gift of tongues as the supernatural ability to speak a language (such as the heart language at Lystra) that the New Testament Christians with this gift had not previously studied. Apparently Paul had this gift and used it to good effect on the mission field. In situations where he was not able to speak the heart language naturally or supernaturally, he apparently used a translator or a market language that he knew.

I've got to head to church. Talk to you later.

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

P.S.: I believe that gift of tongues ceased a long time ago.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Brother Bart, it seems to me that the essentially of "heart-language" does not take into account enough the very things you have suggested in your post.

If Spanish Bibles are available for this people-group, is it accurate to say that they have no Christian literature available to reach them?
My first thought in reference to this question is that during New Testament times Bibles were not available to them in any language. Yes, there were the epistles that were written to the specific churches, but what literature was there for the lost world? Wouldn't that imply it was not necessary to have Christian literature to reach them? By this I'm not saying that we want to go back to a time when the Bible was not yet compiled. But if they could evangelize before the Bible was compiled, why can we not today with the word even if it is not written. Oobviously there would be the need to communicate.

If a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation is in their vicinity, is it accurate to say that they have no Christian churches?
No, this is not accurate. Language barriers might be the one legitimate reason to "segregate" churches (assuming inability to communicate). It might be great to have a church in their "heart-language", but we cannot say there is no church for them if there is one there and they understand that language.

If Christians have carried the gospel to these people in Spanish, has the Great Commission been carried out and has the gospel been proclaimed to them?
Yes, absolutely. That doesn't mean we have to stop and cannot follow-up with the native-tongue at a future point.

How are they different from, for example, the Galatians, whom the apostles were content to evangelize and disciple in Greek?
It is not different in principle. As far as we can tell (and I think this is a quite strong "we can tell") the disciples evangelize in the Roman empire using the Greek language.

How are they different from, for example, a tribe of Sioux in North Dakota who might have received English Bibles, may have professed faith in Christ in English, and might attend English-speaking churches?
This is not different in principle, either.

The case of the Lycaonians in Acts 14 is an interesting one. Hesselgrave and Rommen point out language-related difficulties, and cultural differences Paul and Barnabas failed to "take into account". What would we have them do? Not preach the gospel? Not heal the cripple? Seems to me the language difficulties were not particularly related to the Greek language. They had preached the gospel. The crippled man was listening to him. When Paul told him to stand up he understood it. The language difficulty was when the Lycaonians spoke in their own language, one which Paul and Barnabas did not understand. It was mainly the act (or the power of the act) that the Lycaonians did not understand, rather than the language. With the language they could communicate in, Paul convinced them not to view them as gods. That they "scarce restrained" them probably had little to do with the language barrier and more to do with the frenzy of the moment.

These are short quick answers, but I hope will add in some measure to constructive dialogue.

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

I think one of the main missiological issues deals with determining when the missionaries can leave after they initially engage an unreached group. Doing a worldview study, learning a language, and working out a method of contextualization so that the plan of salvation can be understood takes time. In order to make disciples, the plan of salvation must be clearly explained. The Great Commission also includes baptizing them and teaching them. Baptism and teaching should be connected with a local church, and thus church planting is called for in regard to an unreached people group. People from the unreached people group should be able to clearly understand the language used in this local church. In addition, the biblical officers of this church (pastors and deacons) should meet the biblical qualifications. The pastor must be able to teach and not be a novice/new convert (1 Tim. 3:2,6). He must be able to "exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). He must be beyond the spiritual baby stage and able to feed himself from the Word of God (Heb. 5:12-14). He must meet the moral qualifications in regard to his family, etc. Discipleship takes time, especially with people groups that have had little or no exposure to biblical truth. If such qualified men are in place as church officers, however, they can adequately disciple other church members, and the missionary can leave.

I heard or read an analogy recently that is appropriate (source unknown). Imagine that a woman gave birth, brought the baby home, and then put the baby in the crib upstairs. Now imagine that she turned to the baby on the way out of the room and said, "Hey, I'm going downstairs to eat supper. Come on down and join us whenever you get hungry." Unfortunately, in many of our churches we make that same mistake with new converts who are not yet self-feeders. More mature Christians must give them special attention until they are able to spiritually feed themselves from the Word of God. The same thing is true on the mission field.

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

P.S.: I know that new converts can read the Bible for themselves and gain insight from it. We often ask them to start with the Gospel of John. It is also true, however, that they can easily misunderstand passages even in the Gospel of John, and thus they need help feeding themselves. For instance, consider John 3:5: "Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God'" (NASB). Obviously, a new convert might reach the conclusion that physical baptism is required before he can be saved. A more mature believer is needed to help the new convert understand such passages.

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

Back to the situation we talked about earlier--Paul was forced out of Lystra (Acts 14:19):

"But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead."

Paul, however, did not give up. A church was eventually planted in Lystra (Acts 14:21):

"After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.' When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."

We don't know how long it took to find and develop qualified elders at Lystra. We know that Paul taught the elders at Ephesus for three years, night and day (Acts 20:27-31).

johnmclamb said...

Bart,
I don’t read many blogs but a friend of mine asked me to read your article and respond since I serve in Mexico and are currently learning an indigenous language. Let me first say that I applaud your desire to think through these difficult issues before leading your church into something like Embrace. It is a major commitment. The question you raise about the NT role of Greek in missions is something I, too, have thought about.

Before I give my 2 cents to the questions you posed, let me give this disclaimer. Every situation is unique. I believe some groups must be reached in the heart language. In other situations, the trade language may be sufficient. In my particular situation, we are planning a dual language strategy, utilizing both Spanish and the indigenous language we are currently studying. When we (missionaries, missiologists, etc) think that our theories, strategies and practices are true for every situation, I believe we are putting our personal convictions about missions equal to what Scripture says about missions. I know guys who think I’m wasting my time to learn another language and others who think I’d be mistaken to use my Spanish to try and reach the people. I think they are both wrong.

If Spanish Bibles are available for this people-group, is it accurate to say that they have no Christian literature available to reach them? This is the situation in my people group. Firstly, I don’t know anyone who would say this. I would say that they have no Christian literature in their (heart) language. In my area, Spanish works for some folks and not for others. Age and education are the big determiners.

If a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation is in their vicinity, is it accurate to say that they have no Christian churches? In my town, there are about 35 believers. 4 of them attend a Spanish speaking church in another town. It would be inaccurate to say that there are no Christian churches. That said, we must also wonder why the percentage of lostness among the indigenous towns and villages is so much less than the Spanish speaking populations in the same area. In addition to language, I’m thinking cultural, racism, etc also contribute to this.

If Christians have carried the gospel to these people in Spanish, has the Great Commission been carried out and has the gospel been proclaimed to them? I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Statistics can be manipulated either way to prove the sufficiency or insufficiency of Spanish to reach these people. I have a friend who trusted Christ by reading Spanish literature. I know other people who understand relatively little Spanish beyond the basics. And these people live in the same town.

How are they different from, for example, the Galatians, whom the apostles were content to evangelize and disciple in Greek? I have no clue how proficient the Galatians were in Greek. Speaking only for my little corner of Mexico, I would be uncomfortable attempting to make this comparison as the language here varies so much from town to town and people group to people group.

How are they different from, for example, a tribe of Sioux in North Dakota who might have received English Bibles, may have professed faith in Christ in English, and might attend English-speaking churches? I don’t know anything about how much of their indigenous language the Sioux speak.

Ed Lauber said...

Let me disagree with RL Vaugh when he says, "My first thought in reference to this question is that during New Testament times Bibles were not available to them in any language". This is clearly not true. The Apostles and all new believers had the full Old Testament in Hebrew and in the widely used trade language, Greek. For the most part, the Apostles did their evangelism in an environment where there was already a widely accepted translation of the Scriptures as they existed at the time.

There are lots of good comments here. If I were asking your questions - and I would indeed ask all of them - I would add some. For example, has the Gospel witness in the language other than the language of the heart had much effect? If not, then there is reason to ask if language is part of the reason. It often is. Here in Ghana some groups in the north resisted Christianity until it came in their own language. I do not pretend that is a universal, but it is also not infrequent.

Love your blog.

Bart Barber said...

Great additional questions, Ed. Great points to consider! Thanks for visiting.