religion, christianity, articles
religious unity, Christianity, ecumenical

Language Is a Power for Unity or Division

By James S. McDonald Jr.

religion, articles, christianity

Language is important to us. It is the means by which we are able to communicate our ideas. It is one of many gifts which separate us from the mere animals. Without language, we would be hardly better than the beasts. God gave man dominion over all living things. He gave man, in the beginning, a language, the ability to speak, to express thoughts, to name things.

If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God: if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen (1 Pet. 4:11).

It is interesting that men spoke in one language until the events recorded in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. Language gives men a sense of bonding and a sense of independence and power (Gen. 11:1-9).

This brings us to the record of the building of the tower of Babel. Babel was located in the region of the world historians call the Fertile Crescent, or the Cradle of Civilization the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

It is of compelling interest that it is to this same land that modern language scholars have traced the "mother tongue" of all men. This certainly is no coincidence.

God Gave Man the Power of Reason and Speech

Because man had been given reasoning powers along with language, he had already used his inventive powers several times in the historical record of the Bible, and we see again the results in Genesis chapter eleven as men invented brick to make stronger dwellings. In their pride they decided to "build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth" (Gen. 11:4). The threat was not that they would do so, but that they envisioned it, and thought they could do it. It was human arrogance and vanity that brought God's rebuke.

What was God's solution? Fire, hail, earthquake? No. God confounded "their language that, they may not understand one another's speech" (Gen. 11:7).

That ended the matter right there. They were scattered abroad. They could no longer communicate with one another, could no longer work together. Their prideful dreams of grandeur were gone. It had been a common language which had bound them together, and it was a diversity of language which drove them apart.

Language Can Unify and Divide

Nehemiah saw this as he attempted to restore not only the physical walls of Jerusalem to separate the city from the surrounding country side, but also to restore the reading of the law of Moses before the people to bring about their spiritual separation from the people of the land around about them (Neh. 13:1-3).

The last chapter of the book of Nehemiah tells of hindrances to the people's unity. Notably in verse 24, we read that the young children, because of their having been mixed with the people of the land, "spake half in the language of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jew's language." That is to say, they could not understand the reading of the law. What they could not understand, they could not obey.

Has it ever occurred to us that from the time of Moses to Christ, the Hebrew people were bound together with one language? God's prophets could speak to the people in every generation, and be under stood (see Ezekiel 3:1-14). There a lesson for us in this.

Language Is Important to Maintain the Unity of God's People

In Acts 2:6 every man heard the gospel in his own language that each might understand and obey. And in the words of our text, "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God" (1 Pet. 4:11). Now, there is more to this consideration than just languages of men (English, German, Russian, etc.). There is the concern we need to give to speak the words of God to his people that there might be unity rather than division among them. To speak as the Bible speaks. To call Bible things by Bible names, lest there be confusion among God's people.

When new names are invented by men to describe Bible things, or worse, when denominational terminology is used with its own set of contextual meanings or overtones of innuendo, such can only destroy the unity of God's people. To speak half in the language of Ashdod (the surrounding religions), and not being able to speak in the "Jew's language" (the terminology given by God), is decidedly destroying the unity of God's people today.

Strange language Makes Strangers

As we visit from congregation to congregation of churches of Christ across the land, we find ourselves more and more among strangers because of the strange language (terms) we hear. It is the language of Ashdod and not the language of God. We cannot understand and are confused. Unity among us is giving way to division because of those who have compromised and have adapted the terminology of the world and of the religions around about us.

There is a power for evil in language, e.g., the tower of Babel. But there is also a power for good. From Moses to Christ, God's people were given one language in which the Law of God was written and read. The success of the early efforts to restore the New Testament church in modern times has been largely because of the unity of language to speak where the Bible speaks (and as it speaks), and be silent where the Bible is silent.

The decline in the restoration of New Testament Christianity in the 1990s has come about, at least in part, by the introduction of strange and unknown languages (terms) among us. "In all things let God be glorified through Jesus Christ."

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Published September 1996