“Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.” – 1 Corinthians 14:11
Where did the word Barbarian come from? The Ancient Greek name βάρβαρος (barbaros), “barbarian”, was used by the Greeks for all non-Greek-speaking people groups to emphasize their “otherness.” The other’s language sounded to the Greeks like gibberish, as “bar..bar…” (Wikipedia).
Gibberish – This summer’s ASL Institutes include a workshop about interpreting difficult Bible words into American Sign Language (ASL). We discuss the problem of interpreting words without signing concepts. Signing words can make the meaning unclear. From the Deaf person’s view, the signer may be signing gibberish (unknown words, as a barbarian), which emphasizes a Deaf person’s “otherness” from the signer. This says “I am better than you.” But, it is better to speak or sign five words with understanding, than to use thousands of fancy words or signs with no-one understanding you (1 Cor. 14:19).
US or THEM – In sports and games, teams and individuals compete to be the best. “Who will win, US or THEM? We want to win! We will beat them. We will show that we are the best!” But in church, communication is not a competition. It really doesn’t matter who signs the best or who is a better preacher or teacher. The goal is communication. It is a great joy when Deaf and hearing people understand the great Bible truths that are shared.
Know “THEM” – One key to communicating clearly is to know your audience. When the audience is ALL professionals (doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, etc.), using large words, fancy outlines, and challenging illustrations may be all right. But when the audience includes people with more limited education or language, it is best to use simple words, clear reasoning, and easy-to-understand illustrations. Balance the message for a mixed audience. One time I asked a group of church interpreters, “Do you understand your pastor?” I was shocked that every person shook their head “no.” That challenged me to consider how I preach and teach. Speakers are responsible to make their message clear to everyone. The best speakers can present deep ideas so everyone can benefit.
Word Choice – The choice of words or signs should match the needs of the audience. A Deaf person should not leave with the thought, “The interpreter is very smart. He can sign all of the big words.” The message is more important than the signs or words. Speakers use words so the “hearing” audience (including the interpreter) will understand the message. Interpreters use ASL to restructure the message for Deaf people. They must sign for understanding. When done well, the interpreted message will match the speaker’s original message.
Lead THEM – A person in leadership should not think or speak of US (the leadership team) and THEM (the followers). Leaders have a special responsibility and great influence. But leaders are not better than and should not be separate from the people we serve. The “US vs. THEM” attitude separates people. How “can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). The New Testament word for fellowship means to be very close and share the same goals (Philippians 1:5).
Just for Fun – In 1976, my friend, Kathy, and I began learning sign language. Kathy quickly became a fast signer and could sign every word of barbershop quartet music. Deaf people were amazed as they watched her sign. They said, “We do not understand, but she signs beautifully.” That kind of music is really just for fun and not for understanding. Some Deaf people also enjoy playing with their signed language and creating funny signs.
Viewpoint – The word barbarian also means “a member of a group of people from a very different country or culture that is considered to be less socially advanced... than your own” (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary). Many hearing people view Deaf people as less advanced. Did you know that Deaf people can also view hearing people as less advanced because they do not know sign language? Hearing people may be less socially advanced, especially when they treat “others” with disrespect or ignore Deaf people.
Togetherness Not Otherness – Especially in ministry, we must be careful to not put down or reject others. If we talk, sign, or behave in a way they do not understand, we create distance between us and them. God loves all people and so should we.
WE without US is THEM.
WE without THEM is US.
WE is THEM with US.
WE is better than US vs THEM.
“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4). Simply said, pay attention to the needs of others more than the needs of yourself. This one principle could help stop the barbarian way of thinking.
Note: Yes, I used too many “big” words in this article! Laugh with me, not at me 😀