Words have meaning and when organized in proper grammatical structures, that meaning is transmitted to provide communication. When words no longer hold to their meaning, then communication is hampered and misunderstandings arise. In addition, the context of the use of words is important for furthering understanding. At times, cultural cues along with colloquialism, figurative language, and literary genre redefine the use of a word determined primarily by the communicator’s intent and context. For example, if someone were to say, “That dog is sick,” they might understand it literally as the canine is ill or as a person who is awesome depending on the context.
When it comes to the written word, the same is true. The intent of the author as well as the author’s culture and the culture’s understanding of the language and words help in arriving at a proper interpretation. It is not a simple task to interpret the meaning of the written word, especially when the interpreter is outside of the context of the communicator and where different languages might impact understanding. For example, “Ce faci?” literally means, “What are you doing?” However, it is a colloquialism in Romanian that is understood as, “How are you?” Understanding language and culture is of paramount importance for the missionary.
In the 21st century, words and meaning are further complicated with postmodern literary devices such as “reader response.” To the postmodern, words and meaning are based on the reader’s understanding rather than the author’s intent. Therefore, what might appear as clear to one reader could be understood completely differently to another. In the postmodern milieu, both can be right even though the meaning derived by each are in conflict. Truth, then, becomes subjective to one’s preference and moral absolutes no longer exist.
As those who hold to the word of truth and are commended to teach sound doctrine, words are important to us as missionaries. Without the precision of words and their meaning, what we teach and how we disciple can become subjective based on the language, even theological, biases of the communicator.
Words and the Development of Doctrine in the Early Church
It was not uncommon in the early church for the meaning of a word to have a profound effect on the development of a doctrine. In the 200s, a doctrinal controversy surrounding the physical body of Christ enveloped the early church. The controversy revolved around the understanding of Jesus’s physical body: was it flesh and bone or did it just appear as flesh and bone. Ultimately known as Docetism, proponents argued that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body. Derived from a misunderstanding of John 1:14, the Docetists held that the “Word” appeared to be flesh rather than became flesh. The controversy centered around a single word in Greek: ginomai. In its lexical range, the word can mean “became” or “appear.” Ultimately, the church agreed that the intent of John 1:14 was that the Word literally became flesh and thus Jesus is both fully human and fully God, one person, hypostatically united in two natures.
In the early 300s, a non-trinitarian view of Christ arose and was based on the meaning of the Greek word “begotten.” Arius believed, while Jesus was the Son of God, the fact that he was begotten meant there was a time when he did not exist and was therefore subordinate to the Father. Jesus was of like essence with God, but not the same essence with God. Ultimately, the first council of Nicaea settled the argument and preserved the doctrine of the Trinity. This debate continues in the growth of non-Trinitarian religions like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostalism.
Nestorius debated the words Christotokos and Theotokos in relationship to Mary being the “mother of Christ” or the “mother of God.” According to what some say was Nestorius’ position, the Christ flowed through Mary and therefore Jesus did not have both a human and divine nature. The theological community of the day, namely the council of Ephesus in 431AD, determined that to maintain the two natures of Christ, Mary had to be the bearer of God, Theotokos. A single word was vitally important to the preservation of the doctrine of Christ as fully God and fully human.
At times, the misinterpretation of a word or phrase can have profound effects on theological development. For example, Augustine’s misinterpretation of “in whom” in Romans 5:12 indicating that all of humanity is culpable for Adam’s sin led the early church in a misunderstanding of the nature of original sin. This is a doctrine that the Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to hold. In his discussion regarding Augustine, Peter Kirk, former Wycliffe Bible translator, aptly comments on the importance of precision when interpreting Scripture.
“But my real point here is the need to be very careful before basing any kind of doctrine on a translation of the Bible. It is almost impossible for a translation to be precise and unambiguous in its rendering of little words like prepositions. Augustine’s Latin translation was not really inaccurate, it was just excessively literal and introduced an ambiguity which wasn’t in the original, like many translations into English and other languages today. Sadly, too many exegetes and preachers today base their teaching on similar misunderstandings of inadequate translations, and don’t bother to learn the original languages. Not many of their mistakes will still be remembered 1600 years later, but there are serious consequences for leading just one person astray by wrong teaching.” (Kirk, 2007)
Many other examples could be enumerated. Nevertheless, the point of the importance of the use of words and their meaning can have profound effects on theological development.
Words and Church Planting Movements
By the time of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, there could have been as many as 300,000 house churches spread from Iberia to Asia Minor. Over the past decade, the number of church planting movements have grown exponentially. With such growth, words, particularly those that have the effect on what people believe, are critically important to the fidelity of the Christian faith. Of particular importance is the fact that church planting movements (CPMs) are starting in multiple languages and precision in the use of words has a greater importance. As such, avoiding colloquialisms and jargon as well as figurative language in our training material is vital to preserving theological orthodoxy. Equally as important is scrutinizing the words that we do employ in communicating biblical truth. Inaccuracies in word choice and meaning can easily result in misunderstandings that could lead to unintended theological consequences.
Teaching God’s word is a special responsibility and privilege of the church leader and missionary. To some extent, he or she will be held to a very high standard to teach it accurately (James 3:1). That standard is marked not just by the privilege of teaching, but also by a responsibility to accurately handle the word of God. With the religious diversity present in so many countries and people groups, not to mention the growth of heretical Christian religions, this task is vitally important to the long-term sustainability of church planting movements.
The importance is magnified as we focus on rapidly expanding movements. Just as we read in the New Testament, rapid expansion of the church can result in any number of issues that can threaten the ongoing success of a local group of believers. Those threats can be found in religious practices of a culture creeping into Christianity, ethnic tensions as different people groups that have been historically hostile to each other come into fellowship in the church, or simple personality conflicts so common in society.
The apostle Paul sums up the responsibility of teaching God’s word well, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). It then becomes of primary importance that stories of the Bible are told accurately and are aligned as closely with the text of the Bible as possible. To scrutinize these stories should be the first role of an equipping strategy.
Communicating Across Cultures
A proper communication model takes into consideration the use of words, meaning, context, and culture. Of primary importance is the assurance that the communicator is using words properly so chances of misunderstanding are reduced. Such a model might simply look like the following.
In order to ensure the communicator’s message is interpreted properly, the receptor needs to interact with the communicator to be certain that the meaning is what was originally intended. Such clarification is important to further reduce chances of misunderstanding. That model would look something like the following.
When a different language and culture are added to the model, the complexity of communication increases as well as the need for interaction between the communicator and the receptor. When a word is translated, the communicator must find a corresponding word. Then, in dialogue with the receptor, the communicator verifies that the word has the intended meaning. This model looks like the following.
This is a preferred model when related to cross-cultural equipping. When an equipping curriculum, such as a discipleship program, is developed, the trainer must verify the use and definitions of words to ensure that the meaning corresponds with the receptor’s culture. Even a literal translation might fall short of communicating the intended meaning. In such cases, a dynamic equivalence is employed in an attempt to preserve the proper meaning.
When we are telling stories, such as we might do in oral cultures, the same principles hold true. However, the accuracy of the story in the communicator’s language is of primary importance. If such accuracy is not upheld from the beginning, then there is no way to ensure proper interpretation. In these cases, the likelihood of variant understandings of stories might lead to the development of theological innovations.
Church history has shown us the importance of effectively communicating theological content. To ignore the lessons of those early theologians will certainly result in a reoccurrence of history. As missionaries or church planters, communicating the word of truth accurately across different cultures is of primary importance to the equipping strategy for maturing disciples, leaders, and church plants. Whatever scrutiny we give to our equipping material should be viewed as well worth the effort to ensure fidelity to the Christian faith. The Bible is not simply a book of words, but a book of God’s word. To be faithful to its accurate transmission is a non-negotiable as we move forward in equipping the saints for works of ministry.