What I hope to communicate
If you have no awareness of the Petition in the title of this essay, you’ll probably find this essay irrelevant. If you know about it, perhaps you even signed the document, but you will want to read the following very brief explanation of the process of how the Petition came into existence.
This essay will not discuss the merits or demerits of the Petition (although to be fair, I have signed the Petition and am a regular part of the Biblical Missiology community). My two-fold goal is simple: first, let’s make the reasons clear for why the Petition exists; and second, I want to examine the biblical standard that applies to such a Petition.
Wycliffe Bible Translators has a policy about translation of the familial terms, Father, Son, and Son of God. They will translate “the accurate meaning by using terms that clearly have familial meaning but do not imply a procreative relationship.” It is our contention that the text must remain as it is in the original, that is with Father, Son and Son of God translated as they are regardless the meaning the host culture may give the words. Meaning begins in the mind of the author (God) as opposed to the audience (if one thinks otherwise, postmodernism may be the cause). The paratext or notes and commentary that accompany the Bible can explain this to the fullest extent necessary. This proved to be of some concern to many who actually gave the policy some thought.
Rick Brown, Wycliffe Bible Translator’s main proponent of Muslim-Idiom Translations, stated to a conference last summer he no longer believed translators should substitute other terms for Father and Son. He promised this group to write an article stating as much. About three months later, he did, but he didn’t. That is, he wrote the article, but he didn’t do what he said he would. Along with Leith and Andrea Gray, Brown wrote that Father and Son should be used in translations, except when they might mean something not intended by scripture. In other words, this exception rule simply reconfirmed the previously held view. We had been told to expect correction of some wrong translation principles of the past. Those of us who were at the conference felt annoyed, some felt betrayed. We realized nothing had changed. More conversations ensued between Biblical Missiology representatives and others with Wycliffe. Nothing was resolved.
The final straw was a Turkish translation of the Bible produced by Frontiers some time ago. Wycliffe Bible Translators/SIL published it on their Sabeel website in November 2011. This showed us that Wycliffe was committed to circulating these translations. It is a translation that puts into practice the “except clause” as previously announced.
The Petition came about when it was clear that Wycliffe Bible Translators was recalcitrant. There was no movement toward understanding our concerns, leaving us no viable recourse. Wycliffe’s views had already been made public. Believing these views are misguided, we also believe these translation principles may lead to heresy. Therefore the Petition must be seen as a public response to a public Wycliffe document. The Petition was an electronic, digital comment on electronic, digital comments previously made by Wycliffe.
Some have decried the Petition for its divisiveness. Others have chided us for bringing a private matter into the open. But these claims are based on a misunderstanding of Matthew 18, so let’s see what Jesus said.
Matthew 18 is not appropriate here
Some believe this situation should have been conducted according to Matthew 18:15-17. Why? Let’s look carefully at the passage.
“If your brother sins,” Jesus says–and some manuscripts add “against you.” This is personal, private, not generally known to others. How do we know it’s personal? Jesus adds, “Go and reprove him in private.”
The actions of Brown, the Grays, and Wycliffe are not personal by definition. In spite of that fact, it is true that there was an attempt by those who disagree with Wycliffe to approach them privately several times. So notice the irony: in a situation that does not require a Matthew 18 solution, when Matthew 18 is applied, it did not work. It was not designed for a situation in which a public wrong, an openly admitted action, demands correction.
Wait, Wycliffe has done something wrong? Well, yes, it’s pretty clear especially if we look at what’s going on in the following way. Wycliffe is altering the Bible at times by translating Father and Son as terms that are not familial by nature in their host language. This changes teaching of the Bible.
How? If God is no longer our father, there is no son. The very nature of our triune God is not depicted in these translations. Therefore it is rightly said that altering scripture as some Wycliffe translators have done may lead to nothing short of heresy. How does Matthew 18 apply to changing scripture, altering what it teaches about the character and nature of God himself? Matthew 18’s context is not concerned with a possible path to heresy, but personal relationships.
If not Matthew 18, then what?
I want to consider two occasions in the New Testament that are relevant to this situation of the Petition: Acts 5:1-11, Acts 15:1-35. My comments will not be exhaustive or deeply exegetical, rather expositional.
The context: In the early days of the church some were selling their personal property in order to help the new community of Christians meet the needs of the poorest among them. We are given two examples: Barnabas (the positive role model) and the couple, Ananias and Sapphira.
The problem: Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property (v. 1) and gave part of it to the church (v.2). It is clear from vv. 3-4 that their sin was not the amount given but their lying about the total price. Their sin was against God (“You have not lied to men, but to God”) in that they wanted to appear more generous than they were. So the two lied about giving all the funds to the church.
It should be noted that the strategy of “deny, deny, deny” was employed by Ananias and Sapphira. Peter was right to confront them publicly. There was more at stake than money; this lie to the Holy Spirit needed to be openly confronted and rebuked.
The resolution process: Peter acted quite prophetically by calling out Ananias and Sapphira publicly. It is significant for our purposes here to notice that he did not take the couple aside privately and reprove them. Why? It was not a sin against Peter; this was a very public sin against God: “Why is it,” Peter declared to Sapphira, “that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” What strikes me about the incident is Peter’s demands. His public rebuke was a way to call for repentance
The result of the process: There was a call for repentance (cf. vv. 4 and 9), but neither one of the wayward couple was willing to admit their sin. “Ananias fell down and breathed his last . . . she [Sapphira] fell immediately at his [Peter’s] feet, and breathed her last” (vv. 5, 10). The most important result was that “great fear came upon all who heard of it . . . great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.” (vv. 5, 11).
The context: The apostles, Barnabas and Paul, had seen many Gentiles become Christians (chs. 13-14). The Judaizers expected all new Christians to become Jewish in their observance (v.1); the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, did not (v 2). And so a conference was called. A public disagreement required a public conference and discussion.
The problem: The disagreement concerned salvation. The question boils down to this: “How are we saved? Does being saved mean we keep the Law of Moses (with implications of maintaining the Talmud Torah, essentially becoming Jews) or does it mean finding “the grace of the Lord Jesus” just as it had happened to the Jewish believers (v. 11)?
The resolution process: The public disagreement required a public discussion. “The brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue” (v. 2). Apparently no one believed this problem should have been handled in private.
I sense a principle developing here: private, personal grievances require private and personal processes (Matthew 18) whereas public, corporate grievances require public and corporate processes (Acts 5 and 15).
The result of the process: After some rounds of discussions and debate (vv. 4-12), a decision was made. Gentiles were not required to become Jews in order to follow Jesus and be part of the Body of Christ. The decision was as public as the entire process, even being written as a letter to be read to the churches (vv. 19-31).
These two passages share at least one thing in common: a public problem that demanded a public response. Matthew 18 works from a different perspective: the problem is a personal sin committed against a brother. This must be worked out privately, then with witnesses, and finally with the help of the church. It is worth noting that even the Matthew 18 scenario will go public if its initial steps fail to bring repentance. The organizers of this Petition did exactly that–we went privately to Wycliffe Bible Translators with our concerns when biblically, this was not required.
Outcry from the worldwide church evidenced by respondents to the Petition, and from those who are dealing with the fallout of these translations cannot help but force us to conclude that these translations are perpetrating a public, church-wide nuisance. These translations sow confusion among Christians (look at the division in the church caused by these translations); they diminish the honor of the Body of Christ (instead of acting as the spotless bride we are behaving like spineless brats if we fail to confront and change these translation practices); and they make evangelizing more difficult (Muslims are now right to charge us with an altered scripture).
We believe the Petition to be an honorable method of resolution. Since most of us are not prophets who can call down the fire of God upon anyone–nor would we want to–we are doing what we know we must do. We are publicly Petitioning Wycliffe Bible Translators to stop producing translations that remove, alter, change or mistranslate the familial terms of scripture. Now.
The petition can be found here: http://www.change.org/petitions/lost-in-translation-keep-father-son-in-the-bible (Accessed 8 February, 2012).
 http://www.sil.org/translation/divine_familial_terms.htm (Accessed 9 February, 2012).
 http://www.wycliffe.org/TranslationStandards.aspx. See in particular item 9 (Accessed 8 February 2012). Explain the text, by all means, but keep the explanations in the footnotes. Keep the familial terms in the translation.
 “A New Look at Translating Familial Biblical Terms.” http://www.ijfm.org/archives.htm (Accessed 8 February, 2012).
 Some on the Biblical Missiology website believe these principles will lead to heresy.
 There are at least two other passages that teach us the same principle: 1 Corinthians 5 and Galatians 2:11-21. For the sake of brevity I am not making observations from them other than to say they apply to a public problem being handled in a public manner.