The Alignment of the Church, Bible Translations, and Sound Doctrine

The Alignment of the Church, Bible Translations, and Sound Doctrine

Who has the authority to determine the quality of a Bible translation?

The Alignment of the Church, Bible Translations, and Sound Doctrine

Determining who has the authority to determine the quality of a Bible translation in a given language is decidedly complicated.1 On the one hand, the assessment of the quality of a translation of the Bible is the responsibility of each local congregation that speaks the language of the translation. One could argue, based on the biblical role of each individual church body (, the fellowship of believers), that they have the authority to determine for themselves what is and what is not a good quality translation of the Bible. In this regard, it is important for the freedom and authority of the local Spirit-led body of Christ to not be hindered by “outsiders.”

On the other hand, it is equally important that translations of the Bible align with the original texts of the Bible and the sound doctrine of the Church historic and universal. That is, the local body of Christ is not separate from the whole body of Christ. Both their doctrine and their assessment of the quality of a Bible translation should align with sound doctrine as established in the Word of God and confirmed by the Church through time. This is especially important (and complicated) when the translation of the Bible has been made by a local congregation into their own language—an increasingly important consideration in light of the increasing Bible translation activity in many of the ~7,000 languages in the world.

This “both-and” pattern of local churches being both free to make their own choices and also needing to ensure those choices align with sound doctrine is modeled in the New Testament. Paul placed Timothy in Ephesus to ensure the doctrinal alignment of the Ephesian church:

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. —1 Timothy 1:3-4 (ESV)

Why did Paul do this? Was it because he was on an autocratic power trip and liked bringing in outsiders to rule over the local congregation? On the contrary, he did so because he loved the Church at Ephesus:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. —1 Timothy 1:5 (ESV)

The approach Paul used in Ephesus by establishing Timothy to teach sound doctrine was almost identical to the approach he took in Crete with Titus for the same purpose:

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you… [An overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach… Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. —Titus 1:5-14 (ESV)

When writing to the Church in Corinth, Paul directly appealed to the pattern of the rest of the churches as evidence for why the Corinthians should change their practices:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. —1 Corinthians 7:17 (ESV)

And again:

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. —1 Corinthians 14:33 (NIV)2

These passages suggest that while local congregations have significant freedom, as part of the body of Christ, this freedom does not extend to the departure from sound doctrine. Thus, it would seem that while a local body of Christ has the right to translate the Bible for themselves and assess the quality of a translation for themselves, it is also important to affirm the need for the translations of the Bible to be faithful to the intent of the original texts, and also to align with sound doctrine as confirmed by the Church historic and universal. That is, no local body of Christ is an island, but part of the greater body of Christ that spans time, ethnic identities, and geography.

After all, if it is clear from Scripture that the teaching of the Word of God must align with sound doctrine as confirmed by the Church historic and universal, how much more must translations of the Bible itself, which are the only means by which the local body of Christ could discern unsound doctrine in the first place?


Notes:

  1. The term “quality” is used here to refer to the degree of value of a translation to the Church that speaks the language, in terms of its naturalness, clarity, and accuracy (faithfulness to the original).

  2. Note that the phrase “as in all the congregations…” could also be translated as the start of the following sentence, as in the ESV: 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 (ESV). The point here is the existence of the phrase itself, regardless of which sentence it is a part.