The Apostle Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church about the disruption of glossolalia can extend beyond that particular controversy. Yes, I know applying those truths to issues other than the confusion speaking in tongues created in the early church is somewhat out of context. Still, biblical truth is biblical truth and what he communicated to them is instructive as the contemporary church engages the lost world around us. He wrote—
7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. (1 Corinthians 14: 7-11, ESV)
Language is an important element in our mission to be salt and light in this world. If it were not so we surely wouldn’t have translated the words of Scripture from the original Hebrew and Greek into the many more modern versions. Growing up in the fifties and sixties I hid God’s Word in my heart in King James English. Over many years the more modern translations, with the English Standard Version as my personal preference, have been valuable in preaching and teaching, especially to unbelievers and new believers. The up-to-date terminology and phrasing enable Scripture reading and understanding at a more intimate and familiar level.
The truth about language is best illustrated in missionary outposts around the world, where our standard vocabulary, speech patterns, and dialects are not spoken. Missionaries typically receive specialized training in cultural specifics and attend language school in order to communicate Gospel truth in the native language of the citizens in their assigned setting. In those instances knowing even the most elementary elements of the native tongue is basic strategy in telling the old, old story.
Speaking the language of those we are commissioned to evangelize and disciple isn’t some hidden spiritual mystery. The Apostle Paul asked the Colossians to pray that “God may open a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ…that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4: 3-4, ESV). It is debatable, but many believe that the Apostle Paul was at least trilingual, speaking Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew (and perhaps also Latin). It was an important element of his missionary assignment because he knew the joys of communicating clearly and connecting with people through language.
Language has been an interesting element of my semesters as an Adjunct Professor in the School of Christian Studies at Charleston Southern University. Previous seminary education equipped me with Greek and Hebrew instruction well enough to translate the original languages of Scripture. That training is helpful teaching New and Old Testament Survey courses, and to some degree instructing students in introductory Christian Education and Administration. But, teaching college students required me to go back to language school again. My native tongue is Southern lint-head Geezer English, which few of our students speak fluently or understand completely. Being their instructor has required me to learn Millennial and Gen Z dialects.
My deficiency in these new tongues was immediately obvious. One good example was when I administered an Old Testament exam. When they completed the test and turned them in, many were shaking their heads. I asked, “Hard?” One Millennial student replied, “Throw up”. A younger Gen Z student said, “hard.com”. I had to Google these answers to know they meant emphatically hard. You know, extra hard. My 91 year-old Builder Gen dad would have said, “hard as a brickbat”. I would have said, “tough as nails”. My Gen X daughter may have replied “Bad”. Go figure! But, this example underscored the difficulty of communicating when we’re operating from a different dictionary. Learning the particular languages of the generations has been a test. And, that leads me to my point.
Today many churches and their spiritual leaders have become obsessed with learning the languages and customs of culture. The weight of speaking the Good News with clarity to these younger generations, who are less church oriented according to most demographic studies, has become a significant shift in our assignment to make disciples of all nations. I remember the occasion when I used the phrase “Sponge Bob Square Pants” in a Sunday morning message. Afterward the children in that service mobbed me. They were surprised to discover that this old Geezer could identity such a cultural icon. Evidently I connected with them that morning is ways that I had not done previously. It reminded me that language is important when speaking the Gospel.
So, what is the problem? Well, my classroom students have revealed another element of this language thing. Except in rare circumstances, they generally don’t know the language of faith. Many biblical terms that I take for granted are foreign words and phrases to them. It’s when I decided that teaching them the basic language of faith was an important subtext of my instruction. As a result, I made a list of ten Bible and spiritual terms that I would teach them every semester. Now, we all have a list of our favorite terms and phrases of faith and mine may be too basic for a few of my peers. My list included the following—
plan of salvation
profession of faith
Learning and speaking the language of the culture is an important addendum to our Great Commission. Teaching truth to the world around us is central to our mission of making disciples. In this assignment, using the concept of the Apostle Paul, the bugle cannot give an indistinct sound. At the same time, our avid compulsions about learning and speaking the current trends cannot override the mandate of teaching the basic tenets and language of faith.
Paul’s simple words to Titus seem applicable here. He wrote, “But as for you teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1, ESV). In my heart, and I pray, in my teaching, this directs me to the language of faith, which I must declare faithfully.