Church cannot shrug about language


By Rev. Schalk Strauss

In South Africa, the Afrikaans language is a hot topic. It is often politicized and used to label its users and polarize communities. Being Afrikaans nowadays has as much of a mouse-dog smell as being white. This even affects faith communities’ use of it, so that synods often debate for hours about which language should be used as the language of instruction during the meeting.

In a recent article on RNews, reports on a meeting of the Afrikaans Language Council (ATR) during which concerns were expressed about the abolition and curtailment of the use of Afrikaans in churches. Several examples were mentioned of churches which, for the sake of greater inclusivity, chose to use English instead as the language of instruction. The basic point of view is that most people understand English and that it therefore makes sense to do everything in English instead, so that as many people as possible can be reached with the gospel.

During the ATR’s discussion, dr. Braam Hanekom emphasizes that the proclamation of the gospel is the church’s first task and not a language. Carel Boshoff from the Freedom Foundation joined him and said that it is not a faith community’s job to be language activists.

Although both of these statements are technically correct, they have the potential to be misinterpreted, as they lead people to the conclusion that language does not have to be important to believers and the church in any way. In some cases, the position will even be maintained that believers must be prepared to give up their language for the sake of the gospel. Unfortunately, this is the premise of those churches that choose English as the medium of instruction for the sake of inclusiveness. Language is, as it were, set against the proclamation of the gospel as if it were an obstacle to it. It is argued that anything that prevents the preaching of the gospel and excludes people must be removed.

However, the consequences are often an impoverishment and even a deprivation of people’s intellectual property. Dr. Hendrik Thys of the ATR referred to examples of churches where the majority of believers were Afrikaans-speaking, but then it was chosen to switch to English as the language of instruction in order to include a small minority who did not understand Afrikaans.

Such a decision is often praised as an “act of love”, but one cannot help but wonder if it is not rather unloving. For the sake of a small minority, the majority was expected to give up their intellectual property. The result is that many of the members no longer come to church, says Thys, because they just don’t understand the sermons in English.

How then should believers think about language? Acts 2 helps us with this when we read about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Due to Roman dominance, Greek at that time was the lingua franca. Almost everyone in the Roman empire could speak and understand it. It would therefore have made sense if the church had decided to use Greek as the language of instruction.

This would have “included” most people and it would have drastically increased the effectiveness of spreading the gospel – so we would argue from our current context. Yet the opposite is true. When the Spirit was poured out, the apostles began to preach the gospel in different languages. People were surprised because they heard the gospel in the language in which they were born.

These events confirm a certain truth that the church does not dare to ignore for the sake of political correctness or inclusiveness. In a supernatural way, God himself sanctified the languages ​​and diversity of his children. This means that He has set aside spiritual goods, such as language (and culture), so that they can be used to glorify Him with them.

It is the vehicle through which the gospel of grace is brought to people in a way that captures their hearts so that they can break out into praises about the great deeds of God. Was God unloving when He let everyone hear the gospel in their own language on Pentecost Sunday? Was it unloving of Him when the Cretans did not understand the apostle who preached the gospel in Arabic? Did they feel left out?

Of course, language should not be the core business of the church, but as a sanctified gift, the church should not shrug its shoulders over it either. If God has sanctified our spiritual possessions and placed them in his service, who are we to decide they are trivial? In the church there has always been a sameness and a differentness just as there is in the Trinity – three Persons, but one Being; clearly distinguishable and unique and yet one.

The two do not exclude each other, but rather underline the uniqueness of the church of Jesus Christ in which sameness (unity) is worked by the Holy Spirit, without believers being expected to give up their otherness (diversity).

God does not like his praise to be plucked to just one tune. In Psalm 96:7 He instructs that the generations of the peoples must give glory and strength to the LORD, while Christ himself commands the church to make disciples of all the nations to make (compare Matthew 28:19). God’s glory is like a diamond that is illuminated from different angles (peoples, languages, cultures), so that its glory increases as the rays of light that fall on it increase.

If we start to think more in line with Scripture about our spiritual goods and their use in the church, there will be no need to worry about Afrikaans (or Xhosa, or Sotho, or Zulu, or…) as a language of faith. After all, the eternal God’s praise will resound for eternity from various mouths and in different languages ​​when the redeemed, as Revelation 5:9 teaches, from every tribe and language and people and nation will sing a new song in honor of the Lamb.

  • This article is posted courtesy of the AP Church.
  • Rev. Schalk Strauss is the editor of The Messengera publication of the Afrikaans Protestant Church.