One of the most difficult things that [our ministry] is doing these days is speaking of what is happening overseas in various missionary ‘outreaches’. There will always be ‘less than ideal’ situations and occasionally an exception to overall biblical principles will be made. In Numbers 22, we see God using a donkey to issue a rebuke to a prophet! What a wake up call that would have been for Balaam. But it was an exception and exceptions are just those...exceptions. We are not aware of any additional prophets who sought the Lord’s will by getting in conversations with donkeys.
But, in today’s world of missions, living in the exception seems to have become the rule. Entrusting the teaching or translation of scripture to unregenerate ‘helpers’ has become a common practice. This is fraught with concerns. Not the least of which is that Paul himself had to write clarifying letters to those he personally taught. The drift towards confusion, unseen syncretism and outright heresy is always on the mind of the serious gospel worker.
Paul writes in I Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” The gospel of grace is counterintuitive. It is not a message that makes sense to the unregenerate. In fact, many who have embraced the gospel of grace personally struggle with how to make this message clear to their neighbor.
In this article, I’m deliberately avoiding the part the Holy Spirit plays in this process because, too often, His role is used as a ‘get out of jail free card’ and the missionary takes no responsibility for how he himself communicated. Expecting the Holy Spirit to unravel our speech... “The Holy Spirit will anoint my halting phrases. The Holy Spirit will overcome my lack of fluency and make my childlike sounds seem like intelligent adult speech to them.” This is actually just poor Pneumatology. The Holy Spirit does not work differently overseas; garbled speech in American pulpits is not being decoded as it flies towards the ears of people sitting in their pews. Error spoken is error heard. So let’s be clear...even the gospel communicator who HAS the Spirit of God has much work to do to make the specifics of salvation clear. How can we consider employing (yes, more often than not these unsaved workers are paid employees) and entrusting this message to the unregenerate?
Today we see little concern over this trend. Often the unregenerate worker has not made sense of the gospel themselves. They have ‘heard’ (through garbled speech) and rejected the message. Their allegiance is still to Islam, Hinduism or tribal spirits. This practice is rarely spoken of to the home church or supporters. Euphemisms such as “me and my local ministry partners” or “the national translators I am training” are common. The home church is often unaware that the missionary has entrusted first hand communication into the hands of an unsaved ‘ministry helper’ or ‘person of peace’.
Paul says in II Corinthians 5:19, “...he has committed unto us the ministry of reconciliation.” This is not a leap of faith. What goes before that statement are the truths of II Corinthians vss. 14-18: The believer's acceptance that Christ died for him; his awareness that we no longer live for ourselves but for Him, that now we don’t look on things from a worldly point of view and that we are new creatures with all things being new. We have accepted that reconciliation with God has happened only through Christ. Thus, based on us being these new creatures, God has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. None of those are true with non-believers. It is hard to imagine Paul, for the sake of speed or any other reasons, using unregenerate folks to help his ministry efforts.
Here at Radius we get letters weekly that speak of trends. This last week another letter came speaking of foreign translators (I’m omitting the identity of the individual, the area they serve in and the US based sending agency) that were working with national helpers. One of the western workers was troubled and wrote us that “...about 2/3 of the workshop participants were not believers and, beyond myself, none of the other westerners involved in the workshop knew their respective people group's language.” We’re not making this stuff up ...and this is just in one part of the world.
All of us who have learned languages were helped in that effort by unsaved language helpers. I also included unsaved men and women when doing Bible translation... but not in the initial stages. I wanted to be sure that the translation of God’s Word was readable and coherent to both the saved and unsaved. By that time I, the translator, was a full member of all discussions.
“Something is better than nothing” isn’t always true. “Of course it’s not ideal, but getting ideals is rare” …those lines of thinking just don’t hold water. Flying an airplane with two wings isn’t ‘ideal’—it’s mandatory. One wing is not a better option than having no wings; it only looks better. We must remember that when there isn’t fluency in the local language there is also NO WAY the foreign translator can know of the cultural sinkholes the message is dropping into. Exceptions? Not to airplanes with one wing. They have a very low percentage of landing successfully… just ask a pilot.
(Buser, "Unsaved People Leading Bible Studies --Are the Scriptures Silent on This?," The Radius Report, 2/23/17).