What Kind of Church do we want? Learning the Languages at GWC
Dr. Nathan Lovell, GWC Lecturer, Old Testament, Biblical Hebrew, Missions
BEng Hons (Newcastle, Australia), BDiv Hons (Moore College, Australia), PhD (Griffith University, Australia).
A few years ago, GWC made a choice that raised some eyebrows. We decided that everyone who came to us for a degree in theology would study Greek and Hebrew, no exceptions.
At the time, a few questions were asked. After all, we are a Bible college serving the African church, and even many colleges in the developed world don’t require the languages any more. In every context, Greek and Hebrew can be one of the most intimidating things about studying theology, and this is definitely true for us as well. Some of our students come from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, and some even have English as a second language, let alone Hebrew and Greek!
So why did we do it? There are plenty of benefits to reading the Bible in the original languages, and people blog about these all the time. You can find some here and here, or just try typing “why study Greek and Hebrew” into google. People talk about how it adds precision to reading the Bible and depth to preaching. People talk about the languages as spiritually transformative. And it’s true that even if we forget the languages in the context of a busy ministry, just the simple act of having learned them once shapes the way we read our English Bible.
All of that is true, and any of these reasons are good enough to justify the effort of studying the languages. But there’s another one as well, and it has to do with the kind of church that, under God, we’re trying to build.
Let’s imagine a typical graduate of your local Bible College, we’ll call him Mareko. Mareko loves Jesus and his church, and went to college so that he could go into full-time pastoral ministry. He does pretty well, and he throws himself into his job in his first years out. His church love him, he cares about people, and he preaches solid sermons. The church is growing, and at this point Mareko is glad that he didn’t take the Greek and Hebrew options at college because it freed up time to study other things that he uses now every day.
But, a few years in, there’s trouble. Mareko is preaching about marriage, say, or the atonement, or baptism. It doesn’t really matter what the issue is. In any case, what he says doesn’t make sense to Peter, a congregant, who thinks very differently. Peter starts talking about it with his friends, and lots of them agree, and pretty soon the church is divided into two camps. Now, assuming Mareko thinks the issue is important, and assuming he is convinced that hasn’t made a mistake, what will he do? He has to appeal to something to unite the church. But he’s only got two options.
He might appeal to his position as leader of the church. Maybe he’s charismatic, or popular. Maybe he has a “big man” mentality, that leadership shouldn’t be questioned. Maybe he’s good at playing politics and can get people behind him. Maybe he appeals to his ordination, his bishop, or a subjective sense that he’s the guy God has put there. Would that be the way forward?
His other option is to appeal to the Bible. Maybe he tries to show his people why his side of the issue makes more sense based on what the Bible says.
As a Bible college, which do you think we should train Mareko to do? Mareko’s authority as minister extends exactly and only as far as he is saying what the Bible says. Anything beyond that, and Mareko is relying on personal charisma or political acumen at best, perhaps abusing power at worst, and in any case not doing word-based ministry.
Lets say that Mareko, to his credit, realises this. So he sits down with Peter to read the Bible. But the worst case scenario happens. Imagine this:
Mareko: “Well, Peter, I’m just saying what the apostle Paul was teaching…”
Peter: “Oh, I get that, but that’s not actually what Paul was saying. If you read it in the Greek then you’ll see that…”
What now for Mareko? We want him to be the kind of minister who builds his church on the Word of God. The motto of our denomination is “God’s word above all things,” after all. But now Mareko has no choice. Either he has to appeal to his charisma, against Peter’s reading of the Bible, or he has to find someone who has enough Greek to talk to Peter.
Since Christ rules his church through his word, any ministerial authority is derived from the word itself. Because of that, we need to equip people with the tools they need to do that kind of ministry. And we need to give them confidence that they can read the Bible accurately, and faithfully. If we aren’t able to make that happen, then the temptation will persistently be to locate our authority somewhere other than the Bible. What kind of a church do we want to build?
At GWC we’re a few years into the project now, and I think our students for the most part see the many benefits of Greek and Hebrew. It’s not often, any longer, that we field the sorts of questions from students that we used to, about why they should be “forced” to study Greek and Hebrew. But what’s going on amongst our student body these days is much more exciting than a resigned sort of acceptance. This year for example, at the request of our students, we started running additional, extra-curricular Greek classes, which students don’t even get credit for but still attend. We’ve got a Hebrew reading group that meets at 7:30—am!!—every Friday morning and reads the minor prophets over breakfast. And when we ran a seminar, targeted for postgraduate students, on Greek verbs, it was so well attended by undergraduates that we had to move it to a larger venue.
It turns out that, if you give them a chance, the languages are popular. And the benefits are enormous.