When the apostle Paul reflected on his mission to the churches at Rome, he wrote of having “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” from Jerusalem “all the way around to Illyricum” (Romans 15:19). Illyricum was the Roman province that included much of what is now known as the Balkans. Later, disciples planted and watered churches throughout the region. In the Middle Ages, it emerged as a religious crossroads, where Roman Catholicism met Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam faced Christianity. Evangelical Protestantism came later and, at present, commands a much smaller slice of the demographic pie. In Serbia, for example, Evangelicals comprise just 0.1% of the population. It’s a land rich in Christian history and tradition but where biblical knowledge and worship are scarce.
TLI global partners Logan and Molly Copley labor in Serbia’s second city, Novi Sad, at the Baptist Theological School (BTS). In this interview, I ask Logan to help us understand the importance of teaching Hebrew and Greek to his Balkan students and what it looks like to begin a biblical studies program there.
As an American who is learning how to live in the Balkans, can you share how church life in Serbia differs from that in the States?
In the US, our family participated in a small group at our church. Unfortunately, although small groups may exist at other churches in Serbia, they do not at ours. We loved our small groups back home, and we miss the camaraderie and encouragement that we experienced in them. Another significant difference is the lack of good Christian materials in the language. Back home, I would routinely talk about books. Our church bookstore stocked many quality resources. But recommending a helpful resource to someone who cannot read English and relies only on Serbian is difficult. Finally, a small but surprising difference for us as Baptists: wine for communion.
Your scholarly background is in biblical linguistics, and you are at the beginning of a long-term project to develop ways to teach Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek at BTS. What’s compelling to you about this project? Why prioritize it over other ministry opportunities?
As evangelical Christians, we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and contains the way of salvation. This conviction necessitates that we should strive to understand its contents. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, so we must learn those languages in their linguistic and cultural settings to understand the meaning of the text. As students encounter God through the written word, they will be increasingly conformed to Christ and will lead their church members into greater godliness.
A commitment to study the languages does not rule out other disciplines. Systematic theology, for example, should rely on original language exegesis. Studying the Bible in Greek and Hebrew can help ministers to apply it to the individuals they serve. The study of these languages undergirds and has the potential to permeate all facets of ministry.
Some seminaries have reduced or removed biblical language requirements from degree programs. Why is this happening, and do you sympathize with the change?
While I cannot ascertain all the factors involved, the perception that an investment in original languages does not pay sufficient dividends contributes significantly. Since so many different Bible translations exist, the reasoning goes, students should spend time learning more practical things. This is a short-sighted approach to developing ministers. Instead, we should adopt a long-term perspective. Language learning, like ministry itself, is taxing. There are verb paradigms and noun declensions to master, and that is only the beginning. Then you must learn the various functions of those noun declensions and the significance of a particular verbal form. At a minimum, you’re looking at four semesters of study for Greek and another four semesters for Hebrew. At that point, you’re only at the beginning of your studies. Learning the languages is a lifelong process, but it’s fundamental to preaching the gospel faithfully and building healthy churches.
How will having pastors skilled in the use of biblical languages affect interactions between evangelical churches and other religious communities in the Balkans?
I hope that the biblical language program will further BTS’s reforming work in the region, especially since few other schools in the Balkans offer solid, biblical instruction. One ideal consequence would be a greater passion for expositional preaching. The program does not aim merely to teach students to employ the languages, though this would be a useful end itself. We engage in linguistic analysis, not for its own sake, but with the aim of understanding and teaching God’s word. By encountering God in the text, students can then share the riches of their exegesis to edify their congregations. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, people are changed as they behold God’s glory. (According to 2 Corinthians 4:1–6, this happens when the message of Christ is accurately and clearly proclaimed.)
How do you anticipate rolling this plan out? What will it take to accomplish? What potholes and roadblocks do you see on the horizon?
Many of the students want to learn Greek first, so we will initially focus on that language. I plan to begin a pilot program with students who know English since they can help me think through potential pitfalls for Serbians in learning the language. I am optimistic that Serbian students can learn Greek more easily than native English-speaking students because their language includes grammatical cases and is highly inflected like ancient Greek. When they approach Hebrew, however, they will not have this advantage. As we work through the lessons in the pilot program, I will develop a draft in Serbian. Then we can try this material in the classroom and edit and shape it for the benefit of the students.
How can we pray for you and your work? And how can we follow what’s happening at BTS?
Right now, our primary ministry objective is to become proficient in Serbian, so that we can share the gospel and teach in the language. Ordering a coffee in a restaurant is one thing. But explaining the meaning of a Greek participle is another.
Like other schools around the world, BTS is adjusting to life with COVID. Pray that we would have the wisdom to make decisions that would be in the best interest of the students’ safety, education, and spiritual formation.
You can follow the work of BTS online by visiting our Facebook page, BTSNS - Baptistička teološka škola, or our website, http://www.btsns.org.