For several years I lived in northern Cameroon. In this region, I knew people from various ethnic groups and of various religious backgrounds. However, these diverse peoples had in common the fact that they were all, in one degree or another, Bibleless.
Most of my neighbors did not have Scriptures in their language. A few had heard that portions or a New Testament was available in their language, but they didn’t have access to it. In fact, when I traveled to the capital city, I often went with money to buy French Bibles for some of my Christian friends.
Since returning to the United States, I have been struck by the realization that we have access to more versions of the English Bible than ever in the history of translation. And we can easily access thousands of other translations online with a few clicks. It shouldn’t be surprising that most Americans think that everyone has a Bible in their language.
However, my neighbors and friends in Cameroon are part of the millions without a Bible in their own language. Millions more don’t have access to the Scriptures that do exist in their own languages, whether due to persecution, poverty, or isolation.
Whenever I speak about the needs for Bible translation, it seems that most are caught off guard. Not only are they shocked, but they also want to be part of the response.
The problem seems to be clear—people without God’s Word. But is that truly the problem? Moreover, is the answer translating the Scriptures into their language? Could they access the Scriptures in another way? Could the Bibleless even learn to use an existing Bible?
Could they use an English Bible?
I realize it’s a little overwhelming to hear that a group of people don’t have the Bible in their language and, to make it more unbearable, to learn that the solution involves years of painstaking work, including developing an alphabet, teaching literacy, translating the Scriptures, and more.
In response to this long and difficult road, some wonder whether they could just give English Bibles to those who are Bibleless. With millions wanting to learn English, these Bibleless people might also want to learn English. Such an opportunity might open doors for advancement in many aspects of their lives.
It also happens that some ask me whether the Bibleless could just use the Bible of their neighbors or the Bible in the national language.
It’s not unlike suggesting that someone without a bike just use mine. I have an extra one. I’m glad to share. Or if that is not feasible, why couldn’t they borrow one from a neighbor. Given the urgent need, why not just take advantage of what is available already?
What surprises me is that some follow this line of reasoning even further and conclude that the Bibleless don’t actually need Scripture. It’s as though those who haven’t been blessed yet with a Bible in their own language are too late to the table. They will have to make do with reading the Bible in another language.
When I speak about the needs of the Bibleless, I am encouraged by those who take the situation seriously enough to seek a solution and even mention it to me. Yet the need of the Bibleless is difficult to solve because their need is, in fact, greater than Bibles.
Do the Bibleless only need Bibles?
I believe that those without God’s Word do need the Bible. However, we need to recognize that many of the peoples who lack Scripture may have even greater needs.
Many are unreached ethnic groups without any Gospel witness in their context. Many have some Christian witness in their language community but may not fully comprehend the Gospel message and Christian teachings.
Stepping back from the specific issues of translation, it’s important to ask what is necessary for a given language community to know Christ as the Lord and Savior and grow in their faith. Furthermore, what is needed to equip them to raise up the next generation of believers while faithfully witnessing to their neighbors and broader community?
I would suggest that the fundamental question is how to advance the cause of Christ in a specific language community.
It’s not about Bibles but believers. It’s about our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ having all that God intends for them so that they in turn know and glorify him.
Do the Bibleless grasp the Gospel?
When I hear that the Bibleless don’t need Bibles in their own language, I feel like millions are being dismissed without considering their most fundamental need.
Whether they need the Scriptures in their language or not, they must hear and be able to articulate the Gospel message in their own language.
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and empowered them to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of the pilgrims in Jerusalem. From that momentous event until today, the Gospel has been proclaimed in thousands of languages across the globe.
As missionaries take the Gospel to new language groups, it’s essential to learn the language and carefully translate and teach the truths of the Gospel. Key theological terms such as ‘grace’, ‘mercy’, ‘sin’, ‘worship’, and ‘glory’ may be difficult to explain and translate, but the Gospel can’t be proclaimed without them.
With the faithful proclamation of the Gospel, the new church will need the Scriptures to grow in their faith. It is also key to have the Scriptures for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel to their whole language community and to pass their faith to the next generation.
If no one takes the care to ensure that a people understand the Gospel in their own language and religious context, they are inviting confusion, misunderstandings, and ultimately syncretism.
Do we know what the Bibleless need?
The apostle John was imprisoned on an island called Patmos (Rev 1:9 ESV). At what must have been a very difficult point in his faith, he was allowed to see the eternal worship of God in a heavenly vision.
In Revelation 5:9-14, John witnessed the praise of Jesus Christ around the throne. He heard the heavenly beings declare that Jesus was worthy of all praise because he had redeemed a people for himself from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9 ESV). He not only redeemed them but has made them into a kingdom and priests.
We need to set our hearts and minds on the Lamb who was slain and who is worthy of all our praise. He is victorious, and we only glimpse a small part of what he is doing. He is expanding his kingdom, building up his redeemed by his Word as they comprehend and live by it in their respective linguistic contexts.
We have an obligation to proclaim the Gospel to the people groups or “nations”, ensuring that they have grasped the truths in their own language and can express and proclaim these truths to others in their group.
If Christ says they are his sheep and entrusts them with his Gospel, who are we to deny them the full counsel of God? And we shouldn’t ask others to live without the Scriptures in their own language when we hold our own translation so precious.
As the believers grow in their faith, they should be the ones to ultimately decide about translation.
Let’s join the Bibleless!
Instead of dismissing the Bibleless as not actually needing Bibles or accepting that the Bible alone is all they really need, let’s prayerfully place their need for Scripture in its proper context.
We should view Bible translation in the context of advancing the Kingdom and equipping our brothers and sisters in Christ with the Word for their spiritual benefit and the ultimate glory of God.
A Bible is not something we provide once and then are done. It’s not a problem to solve with a donation. It’s about more than a project to be funded. More than a book to be distributed.
In every generation, we need Bible translation, and those who are committed to this strategic ministry on behalf of the Church.
The Bibleless need to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. They need to hear the Gospel message in their own language and, in turn, be able to share that message with their whole language community. And if they decide to translate the Scriptures, we have the privilege of joining with them as the Lord directs.
Let’s not become overwhelmed with the needs of the Bibleless but rather set our mind on the eternal praise of our Lord and Savior, the Lamb who was slain and who redeemed a people for himself from among the Bibleless peoples.
He is building his Church through the Word, working in their hearts as he has in our own. Let’s lift Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain, up in praise and those he has redeemed in prayer.