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Lost in Translation

During our recent church weekend we though about how to develop a Biblical understanding of what it means to be male and female – two words that are becoming increasingly ambiguous in our society. They are terms that are quickly losing their identity and will perhaps become a stumbling block for the future when discussing the Bible. But it’s not just the words male and female that are losing their significance.

Having recently spent some time studying John’s gospel some non-Christian friends, I came across more than a few words that, nowadays, seem to mean something slightly different than what the Bible intends them to mean. In light of this, I thought it might be a good idea to share some of those Biblical words which have garnered new connotations, and to discuss alternative options that might help us better explain God’s word to a modern audience unfamiliar with Biblical language.


Submission may well be one of the most misunderstood words in the bible. Jon helpfully pointed this out for us on our weekend away (so he’s also part of the inspiration behind this post).
Carrying connotations of being oppressed, forced or coerced, submission is seen as something you do against your will. The alternative word John gave in place of submission was compliance. Katie said that she found this new word helpful because it relieves the concept of it’s negative connotation and presents more of a willingness on the part of the complier/submitter. A wife is intended to willfully and joyfully submit to her husband, not out of duty, but out of desire. There are a few places in the NT where Paul explains how wives should submit to their husbands. In Colossians 3:18 Just after Paul commands wives to submit to their husbands, he also commands husbands to love their wives. This command for the man is, in part, that he might make himself worthy of submission. Tender, not harsh, but loving, with his wife’s best interest at heart. Submission, rather than a belittling experience, is an empowering one that benefits both husband and wife as they seek to live together in harmony, building each other up.


Faith is another word that I think has really lost it’s meaning to modern man. In an episode of The Simpsons, whilst in need of a hero, Homer exclaims to Chief Wiggum “…faith is for things that don’t exist, your awesomeness is real” as he seeks to inspire Chief Wiggum into rescuing them both from impending disaster. I do get the impression that the idea of faith has come to be understood as a fundamentally baseless, whimsical expression of feeling, rather than something based on substance. That it’s a simple thought or idea that serves to make us happy and feel good whether it’s true or not.
A word that might be helpful to use instead of faith might be the word confidence. As a university student, I remember being told to use this word by the UCCF staff who helped our CU. It was thought to be particularly helpful when talking with science students, those who are very much seeking confidence about their observations. And just like a scientist’s confidence, a Christian’s faith should be based on testable, evidence. In Malachi 3:10, we learn that even God himself calls us to test his goodness that we might know it’s true and be confident in Him. God doesn’t want us to trust him for the sake of it, because the idea of a good god might make us feel good – He’s not a unicorn… But God wants us to be confident in Him, because He really can and will look after us as His people.


While meeting with my friends, as mentioned earlier, hope was one of the words that caused particular confusion.
It’s the middle of July and the sun is beaming, the forecast looks good, and you are really looking forward to that trip to the beach. You pack sun cream, a big hat, some towels and maybe even your swimming apparel; you never know it might even be warm enough for a dip in the sea. But I bet that you also pack and umbrella and those shoes you know will keep your feet dry. You hope it won’t rain, you think that it probably won’t rain, but you just can’t say for sure and you prepare for disappointment.
When I use the word generally, and when I hear others use it, I think it’s a given that a lack of certainty is implied. I hope it won’t rain, I hope I will make it to the station on time, I hope there is no traffic today, I hope they still have some half price Ben and Jerry’s left when I get to Sainsbury’s. All expectant desires, but with the allowance for disappointment. Therefore, sticking with the theme of “C” words, I’ve chosen certainty as the alternative here.
Because hope doesn’t offer much in the way of security these days, I found that whilst talking with my friends, it was more helpful for me to say something like “I’m certain that Jesus will one day return”. If I were to say “I hope that one day Jesus will return” that might be met with such a response as, “but are you sure?” When I use the word certain, I mean to relieve any element of doubt. This is what the Bible means when it uses the word hope. It want’s to promote certainty.
Our translations of the Bible are not wrong to use a word like hope, and we should seek to use biblical language and promote its true meaning. But let’s not forget that language does change and adapt, and that using other words might be useful in illuminating the full meaning of scripture, especially to those who are unfamiliar with Biblical language and teaching.


Sin is a word that people really take offence at, which can be partly why it’s meaning becomes obscured, but I don’t think that’s the full reason. Another Simpsons illustration might help here. As Marge berates Homer for taking a bucket of fried chicken to church, Homer retorts “If god didn’t want me to eat in church, he would have made gluttony a sin”, as if anything could be a sin if God chooses it to be so. The point is this, that, to the world a sin is just the breaking of an arbitrary, mix and match rule, effected by the whims of a capricious deity. The implication is that the rule is the problem. God could one day decide that eating is a sin and we’d all become sinners as we eat.
Yes, there is a certain element of truth in that God sets rules and gives us commands to follow, but in the Bible, sin is so much more than just breaking a rule. Sin is a heart problem, it’s an attitude before it’s an action. And, going with another “C” word, I feel that corruption serves as a useful supplement when explaining the full meaning of sin. In Mark 7:20-13, Jesus talks about what is inside us as the defiling part, not firstly the breaking of any rule or law. We are corrupted before we have even jumped that red light, crept over 70mph or flashed our lights at the person whose driving “too slowly” in front of us. If we weren’t corrupt, we would be able to keep God’s laws and there would be no problem. Romans 14:23 points out that anything not done in faith is sin. This means that even a good, sensible thing, something that is even instructed by God for us to do (Gen 2:16), like eating, can be turned into a sinful act by a wrong attitude. Homer’s ignorance aside, even if gluttony were not mentioned as a sin in the Bible, we could still make something like eating sinful, if we have a wrong attitude towards it.
Sin, however is an important term to keep in our vocabulary and should never be made redundant. Used in Bible translations throughout history and containing a depth of meaning that is beyond what has been discussed here, sin is important for us to understand and I would not recommend substituting it even with a word like corruption. Only supplement it in order to help others understand it’s broad meaning.

Just for fun

If you’ve ever read the King James version of the Bible (KJV), you might have come across the peculiar statement in Number 23:22 that God is as strong as a unicorn. Now I wouldn’t have thought a unicorn to be a particularly strong beast (even if it were real), but perhaps the translation has been derived from the Latin name for an Indian rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis). Now a rhino I can understand as a metaphor for strength. Nevertheless, if you happen to be studying the KJV with someone, perhaps it’s best to flick over to a more up to date translation for help here. The New International Version and others use wild Ox, (which is a translation of Re’em, an animal that makes for some interesting reading). I Googled a wild ox and they look pretty strong, and should give the right impression…

This blog was written by Stuart Holloway.

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