Missions and Government


We have certainly seen the challenges of having too close of a friendship between Church and Civil Government. In the US, it shows itself in strange ways:

-Tax-exempt status for religious organizations (including churches) is related to not taking sides in elections. It seems strange that churches think it is acceptable to disconnect themselves from such a major part of life. On the other hand, churches in the Philippines are allowed promote candidates and often perpetuate the naive belief that electing people of a somewhat similar theology means electing a good leader (I think we have more than ample evidence to the contrary).

-Marriage. It has been the error of American churches to connect the Christian rite of marriage with the legal status also called marriage set up by civil government. In the redefinitions of marriage and divorce in US civil code, much of the tension that is occurring seems to flow from the idea that if the US government accepts a new definition for marriage, the church must (again naively) adapt itself to it. Now in the Philippines, this feeling is not as strong. Because of the unusual laws the Philippines has in some aspects, many churches make allowances that deviate from civil society.

-Some groups try to solve this by developing a concept of separation of church and state. In practice, this appears often to mean the “marriage” of secularism (an unorganized “faith” with many characteristics of a religion) with state. There is a question whether one can truly “divorce” civil government from religion. Maybe such attempts simply create a new state religion.

One could go on and on, but why?  This is about Missions and Government. The relationship has long been a challenge. At times, such as in the time of William Carey, government opposed missions because it might “make the natives restless”. At other other extreme (such as in Spanish colonization) there was often a “cross and sword” form of missions.

Today, many of the challenges still remain, although in few cases (outside of perhaps some officially Islamic countries) does government actively support missions of any faith. The challenges remain.

1.  In some nations, missions is illegal. In a few, even being a national Christian is illegal. Yet in these nations, Christian missions exist, Christian missionaries work undercover… illegally. Nationals are led to Christ and discipled… illegally. Historically, some countries would not allow the Holy Bible to be printed or brought into the country. Many countries still provide great hindrances to this. Christians would take on the role of smuggler. Are Christian missionaries justified to break civil law?

2.  In pretty much all countries where Christian missions is allowed, rules are set up to limit or guide missions work. This includes missionary visas, and rules regarding reporting and conduct of non-government organizations and churches. Violation of these rules can result in pulling of visas and licenses. Some missionaries believe that anything the promotes their short-term agenda is good even if it results in government repercussions. Others work very closely with the government even when it means hugely limiting their work.

What is the answer? I don’t know. I believe in testing the extremes.

Extreme #1. The government is rejected as a source of guideline and constraint for Christian missions. This appears to be be wrong. First, the Bible shows missions commonly occurring with some concern about government rules. God’s rules are given preeminence, but not to the negation of government authority. One can look at Jesus’ acceptance of civil authority (with some strong caveats) as well as that of Paul (including, of course, Romans 13). Second, whether one likes it or not, civil government is able to enforce some level of constraint whether one rejects these constraints or not.

Extreme #2.  The government has full authority. The church and Christian missionaries can only act on their God-given mission only to the extent that civil government graciously grants such permission. This appears to absolutize Romans 13 to the extent that a hierarchy of power is provided with no divine check or balance. However, one role of religious institutions and people in the Bible is prophetic reform. That is, to be the voice, hands, and feet of God in opposing evil and promoting good. The government’s right to crush this role must be opposed. This is even more true if the government is the source of that evil.

If the extremes are flawed, the truth should be somewhere between these points. Just as there is no solid systematic theological foundation for missions, there appears to be inadequate theological structure for the relation between the institutions of the church and civil government. (In truth, we are not alone. Speaking with some Muslims, it is clear that many or most of their understanding of this relationship is simplistic and inconsistent as well. Perhaps even more so.)

But we need to get a better grasp on this issue to effectively be light and salt in this world.

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