An important question

Why is the Japanese Sign Language Bible translation project hiring a non-believer?

We love getting questions. When people across the world are “striving with us in their prayers to God for us” and doing all they can to get the Word out,  questions are bound to arise. We just got word of a serious concern that others might also have. Here is the question and our reply:

The question:
We are very concerned that you would hire an unbeliever to work in translation, or in any part of the Japanese Sign Language Bible translation program.  In marriage sometimes when a believer marries an unbeliever the unbeliever comes to the Lord- that is only sometimes and it is a compromise to be sure.  It is hard to imagine that it is God’s plan to bring in an unbeliever and the unequal yoke that comes with him.

I have hesitated to say anything but I hate to see the blessing of the Lord affected by compromise.  We will pray for the salvation of the person involved, but also that the Lord will protect the Japanese Sign Language Bible translation project from compromising.

The reply:
Thank you for mentioning this. I’m glad you care, glad for all you do to help, and especially thankful that you let us know your concerns. This was a careful decision on our part, and I hope that writing out some of what was behind it will help put your heart at ease.

1) If we want to have a translation in the language of the non-Christian community, non-Christians need to be involved at some level. Our direction has been to use common language (like the original writers of scripture used common-use Greek) and avoid the special lingo of the church as much as possible. In the Japanese Deaf community, church people can understand the common language, but non-church people cannot understand church language (and I sometimes wonder how much church people understand their own specialized vocabulary.) We have always involved non-Christians in the checking process. Involving them also in the translation process has proven beneficial as well.

2) We hired the person for a job. This is not a church membership, and though there is a contract, it doesn’t seem like a partnership either. Granted, in a small “company” like this, relationships are close, but in general, I don’t see that Christians who run businesses only hire other Christians. They want the person that can do the job well. (Several people have actually come to faith through their involvement in the translation process.)

3) The JSL Bible translation team has multiple ways of checking the translation, and is ultimately responsible for the final result, not the individual translators involved.

4) Of course, with Sign Language translations, the face is part of the translation, the “font,” so to speak. The board of directors’ decision is that the face will be either a Christian or a non existing person, using video magic that hides the identity. (This is not possible yet but desperately needed, especially in countries where having your face on the Bible could get you killed. Pray that those working on the technology can get some traction.)

5) Involving non-Christians is common practice in Bible translation for minority groups. Sometimes there are no Christians in a target language when translation is started, or even if there are a few, they are not translators. One translation consultant says that the best translation he ever checked was done by a non-Christian.

6) We do need the blessing of God, and as Christ-in-us people, certainly do not want to compromise God’s character in any way. But God is radically open to rebels, sending rain on the righteous and unrighteous, sun on the evil and the good, and (scandalously, in that culture) running to meet the prodigal even before hearing his confession. So opening our hearts to not-yet-Christians who are created in the image of God might seem dangerous, but I think it is also God-like.

7) Also on the topic of God’s blessing, I think we do see evidence that God is blessing our decision to include non-Christians in the translation process.

Some of our leanest years when the project was in the most danger were when we had a very fervent (and very inflexible) Christian as translator. He lost us years of work at a substantial expense.

Our best years have been since we hired our present lead translator. She worked in Bible translation as a non-Christian, assisting the then lead translator for at least a year and a half before becoming a believer. After becoming a disciple, she continued working in the background for another year before taking courage to put her face on the Bible. She has grown tremendously, and has now gone on to become project director. Her influence outside Japan is also growing. Pray that God will continue to grow her into the image of Christ.

I’m pretty sure there are others that share your concern and just haven’t said anything, so after you read this to understand where we’re coming from, it would also be good to hear what in our thinking doesn’t ring true. We are part of a much larger community of co-laborers, and want to be able to explain what we’re doing and why in ways that make sense to others in that community.

Thanks again for sharing your concerns with us,


They wrote back to Mark’s reply:

Thanks for taking the time to help us understand.  It is absolutely necessary that unbelievers can understand and make sense of the words being used and checking with them as you have done is essential.  The safeguards you have in place are good and I guess we just needed to know these things.   Your explanations are right on.


About Mark and Mary Esther Penner

Mark works as an adviser and resource to a Japanese Sign Language Bible translation project that plays a key role in the worldwide sign language Bible translation movement. Mary Esther founded a non-profit organization that partners with local communities and organizations to collect, refurbish and send wheelchairs throughout Asia.
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