While in the Navy, I had to learn the US Coast Guard Rules of the Road. This provides rules for navigation of vessels on the water. I thought it was a masterful booklet. Part of its greatness is its brevity. It is not hugely detailed. It provides guidelines, with flexibility. This Rules of the Road is not set up like the Code of Hammurabi (with extremely detailed specific rules) but like the Mosaic Law, which is mostly broad principles (not speaking of the heavily detailed rabbinical interpretations developed later).
What makes this brevity possible is Rule #2. This is the “Responsibility Rule”. It says:
(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master, or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.
(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.
In effect, it says… sailors/captains are required to act in such a way as to protect their ship and other ships in their vicinity. There is no excuse for failing this protection. You are even required to break the rules of this document to avoid immediate danger.
Why is there Rule #2? Because it is impossible to set up rules to cover every possible situation and give good guidance under each of these situations. For example, when more than 2 vessels approach each other, one must use wise seamanship and good communication with other vessels.
In missions, we need good principles… like the Rules of the Road. Why? Because it is impossible to come up with laws covering every possible situation in missions. We could set up some basic principles:
A. Do not buy out or hijack local ministries.
B. Do not create long-term dependencies.
C. Develop self-generating faith communities.
List could go on.
But I believe that we also need a Missions Rule #2. I think it would take a considerable amount of thought and prayer to come up with just the right wording, but a possible form could be something like the following:
“(a) Nothing in these Missions Rules shall exonerate any missionary, mission team, or mission organization from the consequences of neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of Christ-like ministry, or by the special circumstances of the case.
(b) While these rules are created to prevent the shipwrecking of human lives, God’s mission, and God’s reputation in a culture, failure to prevent such disasters shall never be justified by refusing to depart from these Rules.”
Missions needs a “graduated absolutist” ethics for conduct. Mission groups have been developing “Best Practices” in recent years. But I think more is needed. We need to recognize that God is our ultimate captain and navigator. We also need to recognize the failure of a legalistic structure to provide all answers for every situation. Rather, recognizing what is closest to God’s heart, and our responsibility to conform to this ideal can give better guidance. It also provides us freedom that a a narrowly interpreted set of rules fails.