Should we translate for the world, the languages of the world, or the church?
I’ve been exploring essential questions about Bible translation, including the ultimate purpose of Bible translation.
Thus far, I have proposed that the purpose of Bible translation is to equip the church to read, preach, and teach the Word in the languages of the nations to the glory of our triune God.
But why highlight the church?
Isn’t the Bible for everyone? Why not translate for the whole language community?
And what if there are no churches in a language community? What do we do then?
To answer these questions, let’s begin by considering what the Scriptures are.
What are the Scriptures?
The Scriptures are the Word of God, a message from God Himself. In 2 Timothy 3:16, the apostle Paul describes the Word as “God-breathed,” which is also translated as “breathed out by God” or “inspired by God.”
God’s Word has its source in God, just as our breath and words originate from us.
Because the Scriptures are God’s Word, they have the qualities of God—they are inerrant, infallible, authoritative, and eternal.
The Scriptures are a message from God, delivered to and through His spokesmen, whether prophets, apostles, or even Jesus Christ, God’s Son and the Word in flesh.
Finally, the Word of God is a message entrusted to God’s people for their own redemption in the broadest sense and also for them to declare to those outside the people of God.
It’s important to note that the Word of God is for Gods’ people, but the gospel is a message they are to declare to the nations. There are countless commands to proclaim the gospel to all creation, but not one verse that commands that the Scriptures be given to the nations.
If you want to read more about this point, please check out my blog posts on a theology of Bible translation.
What is the church in relation to the Scriptures?
The church is made up of the people of God, redeemed by Christ and commanded to meet regularly around the Scriptures.
In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul reminds Timothy that he is to read the Scriptures aloud to his congregation, preach to them, and teach them. Timothy was, in short, to devote himself to the ministry of the Word.
The importance of the ministry of the Word is highlighted in Acts 6:1-7. In the early days of the church in Jerusalem, the apostles had to resolve a complaint about the daily distribution of food to the widows. They decided that seven men should oversee the distribution but insisted that they couldn’t do it themselves. The apostles noted twice that they had to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word.
For a group of believers to live in obedience to the Scriptures and for their leaders to follow the example of the apostles, they must have the Scriptures in a language they understand.
With those Scriptures, they are to regularly minister to their fellow brothers and sisters in the faith and to their community at large.
It follows that translating for the church is essential to equipping the church and enabling them to truly know what faith in Christ entails and to steadily grow in their faith. It also equips them to proclaim the gospel in their own community and beyond.
What about translating for the larger community?
It’s not uncommon for translators to say they are translating for a language community.
In many cases, they are expressing their vision that the translation will be a blessing to the whole community, not just the local believers.
For such translators, the phrase “for the church” might be taken to mean only for the church and not for anyone else.
However, I have found that if I ask these translators about the members of their translation team, I find that many of them are pastors and leaders in the local churches.
Furthermore, if you ask how their work is impacting the community, they might share about how one of the translators read a draft to a church group and was overwhelmed by the response. Or they might share about a believer who is using a newly translated passage in evangelism.
In other words, believers are building others up in their faith with the translated Word. Beyond the Christian community, the truths of Scripture are being shared with those who have yet to put their faith in Christ.
These translators are seeking to bless the whole language community; to the extent that it is actually happening, it’s because they are equipping individual believers with the Word.
In short, their translation is equipping the church to minister with the Word in that context. As a result, they are also a blessing beyond the walls of the local churches.
What about a language community without churches?
By highlighting the place of the church, are we suggesting that there isn’t a need for Bible translation on behalf of unreached ethnic groups? Not at all.
But the importance of the church does affect how translation in unreached groups progresses.
In many translation projects among unreached groups, the church-planting efforts take the lead with the translation work following in support.
However, other translation organizations work as specialists who focus primarily on translation. In their case, they proceed with translation regardless of whether a church exists or even if any church-planting activities are underway.
In many cases, these translators complete significant portions of Scripture without any believers in the group. They may then ask other missions or national churches to assist in reaching the language group with the gospel.
If we view the ultimate purpose of Bible translation as equipping the church, we should integrate church-planting and translation efforts so that the translated Scriptures support a growing church.
How does this relate to you?
It’s important to have a clearer understanding of the purpose of Bible translation and especially the relationship between translation and the church.
With a more in-depth understanding of these issues, you are more informed as you pray and support mission work.
In fact, the Christian community, especially in North America, has supported many translations that were undertaken without any supporting church-planting work. Unfortunately, boxes of unused New Testaments too often sit as a silent testimony to the need for change.
We need to encourage those actively translating to prayerfully consider how they could strengthen the existing churches or support pioneering church-planting efforts, so that their work is received by believers eager to use it in ministry.
Finally, we need to be wary of exaggerated claims of what the church can do when unleashed and put in the translator’s seat. New strategies that put “church” in their name may not always have the church in the right place.
With a firmer grasp of the issues surrounding Bible translation, may we bring greater glory to God as we seek to advance His Word by lifting up His servants and church in prayer.