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Language borders

We need to learn to appreciate the richness of the language communities in our churches and neighbourhoods, and to build bridges over those borders.

VISTA JOURNAL AUTOR 331/Eddie_Arthur 27 DE ABRIL DE 2022 09:57 h
The Tower of Babel Alexander Mikhalchyk. / [link]Александр Михальчук, Wikimedia Commons[/link]

The start of the book of Genesis, and the story of the church from Acts onwards, are about humanity as a whole. In between, through the Old Testament and the Gospels, the focus is tightly on the nation of Israel.

It is interesting that at the two transition points of Genesis 11 and Acts 2, we have stories about language: the tower of Babel and the day of Pentecost.

At Babel, God confused the languages and scattered people around the world because of their rebellion. At Pentecost, people from around the world were astonished as Peter shared the Good News of Jesus, and they could understand it in their own tongue.


Accepting, communicating and dominating

It is often said that the day of Pentecost reversed the events of the tower of Babel because one brought confusion whereas the other brought comprehension. While this is true, Pentecost didn’t so much reverse Babel as reinforce it.

The languages which came into being when God confused human speech all found new reality and new meaning on the day of Pentecost when they became potential vehicles for the Good News of Jesus.

The day of Pentecost points to the fact that there is no sacred language for Christians, all languages can be used for evangelism, for liturgy and for prayer.

As Lamin Sanneh says, “Christianity is unique in being the only religion which is spread without the language of its founder.

The importance of every language is underlined in Revelation 7 where we find people from every tribe, tongue and nation gathered around the throne worshipping the Lamb. You don’t have to learn a special way of speaking to get into heaven.

The miracle on the day of Pentecost was the first miracle of the church age and it gives an important picture of God reaching out to different groups. However, it was also a one-off.

Through the book of Acts and the Epistles, we see the Apostles preaching and teaching in Koine Greek, the language of the Eastern Roman Empire. All languages can be used in Christian teaching and worship, but this does not mean that every language will be used at all times.

Pentecost, and the Apostles’ use of Koine, point to two ways in which the church can relate linguistically; firstly, accepting one another’s differences and secondly, communicating across language borders.

Before moving on, we need to briefly return to Babel where people speaking one language arrogantly attempted to take the honour that belonged to God alone; their attitude was one of domination.

This principle of domination of large Empires on nations around them is seen in the Bible (for example Egypt, Babylon and Rome) and throughout history, with imposition of the Empire’s language as a tool of domination.


Language borders

I started my ministry as a Bible translator working among an isolated people group in Côte d’Ivoire. Language borders are a part of my life; they are used to identify people groups that don’t have access to the Bible, or those who have never encountered the Gospel in the first place.

There are plenty of maps or lists of “Bibleless” or “unreached” people groups that you can find online, although it is worth noting that the reality on the ground is generally far more complex than simple maps or lists indicate.

In Europe, these language borders are not our primary concern. For the most part, Europe’s language communities have been evangelised for a considerable length of time and most European languages have had a Bible available to them for hundreds of years.

While we would agree that Europe remains in need of further evangelism, simply crossing language borders or providing the Scriptures for the first time is not a major concern in the way that it is in other parts of the world [1].

Despite this, languages and language borders do not play an important role in European mission.

First of all, we have to recognise that language borders and national borders are not the same thing. Indigenous European languages are often spoken in more than one country. German is an official language in Austria, Lichtenstein, Italy and Switzerland in addition to Germany, itself.

Likewise French is spoken in Belgium and Switzerland as well as France, and the list could go on. There are also indigenous language communities within countries, such as the Bretons in France and the Catalans in Spain, not to mention significant communities of immigrants from Africa and Asia now established in many European cities.

Language communities migrated across Europe before our current national boundaries were drawn and they continued to do so. In many places, you are as likely to encounter a language border when you cross the street as when you cross a national frontier.

But what has this got to do with mission, apart from implying that sometimes missionaries will need to learn a new language and culture? To answer this question we need to consider the ultimate goal of mission.

Revelation 7 paints the picture of an eschatological community drawn together from every tribe, tongue and nation.

This is not a picture of a uniform gathering with all racial, linguistic and national characteristics erased. It is a vision of incredible diversity as people worship The Lamb in their own tongues and music styles.

The people are united, but they are not identical. Here, right at the end of the biblical narrative, the people groups who were dispersed at Babel are united with a common purpose; to bring glory to Jesus.

There is a clear missional imperative to cross language borders with the gospel, be that to unreached groups in the Muslim world or to European minorities that may be looked down on by wider society.

Ideally, we will do so in the manner of Pentecost: accepting one another’s differences (though we will probably have to do the hard work of actually learning languages, rather than receiving a supernatural gift).

However, like the Apostle Paul, we might also use a trade language in order to reach people: communicating across language borders. What we should never do is dominating: forcing others to speak our language as part of their discipleship; whatever our language is.

In addition, we must build bridges across these language borders in anticipation of the eschatological community of Revelation 7. This can sometimes be straightforward; though it almost always takes an effort and rarely happens spontaneously.

However, in many cases building such bridges involves overcoming suspicion and prejudice and is far from easy. There are times when bridging language borders can actually be hazardous, as in the need to show unity between Russian and Ukrainian believers in the current context.

However, when believers in these situations show unity, it is a powerful witness of the truth of Jesus’ message. Like the miracle on the day of Pentecost, this sort of event can only occur when empowered by the Spirit.

As Europe becomes increasingly diverse and divided, the need for believers to accept and communicate across language borders becomes ever more pressing.

We need to learn to appreciate the richness of the language communities in our churches and neighbourhoods, and to build bridges over those borders.

This involves welcoming strangers and refugees, but also the more mundane task of getting to know the people across the road who speak a different language and making space in our worship services for songs from other languages and cultures.

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:22-23


Eddie Arthur worked in a translation project with SIL in Côte d’Ivoire and has served in a variety of leadership and training roles in Africa and Europe. He has a PhD in Mission Theology and is the author of Mission Agencies in Crisis (Regnum 2020).

Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Vista Journal.



1. It is important to note that there are still groups in Europe where it is still necessary to cross language borders in order to reach them with the gospel; these include immigrant and diaspora groups as well as minority indigenous and sign language communities.




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