In Great Britain, Royal Forests, dating to the time of William the Conqueror, were set up to provide hunting lands for the king and invited aristocracy. In some areas, particularly Southern England, vast swaths of land were designated as Royal Forests during the 11th to 14th centuries. Hunting and “chase” animals were protected from commoners. This led to a great deal of resentment particularly in times of famine, where local game could be of great help to starving families. Two major offences were “poaching” and “trespassing.”
I am not British, nor am I a historian. To me, however, the concept of the Royal Forest makes me think about certain types of mission work.
Think of God as King, and the Royal Forest as His realm. The animals in the forest are His children.
Poaching would be Christian missionaries trying to snatch God’s children to draw them into their own denomination.
Trespassing would be working in and among Christians.
This is especially relevant here in the Philippines. The Philippines is sometimes described as the only Christian nation in Asia (inaccurate on several levels). About 85% of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. Perhaps another 5% are orthodox Christians of one form or another. 10% of Filipinos are non-Christians or heterodox Christians (Muslim, Iglesia ni Christo, Secularists, Animists, Ang Dating Daan, and some American “cults”). The Philippines has a LOT of missionaries (Christian and non-Christian, orthodox and heterodox). I am one of these missionaries. Some would say that missionaries should only work among “unreached people groups” (outside the Royal Forests). I think that is extremely narrow, but obviously there should be many many “Frontier Missionaries.”
But what about the missionaries (I will focus here on Protestant orthodox missionaries) in the Philippines? What do they do? It depends, but for the most part, their goal is convert Roman Catholics to their own denomination.
Is this okay? Let me give a few thoughts on this sort of poaching.
1. Some missionaries would argue that seeking to convert Roman Catholics to their own denomination is okay because Catholics are not saved. While I admit that there are many nominal Catholics in the Philippines (nominalism is, after all, the number one world wide belief system), I don’t believe that we should start from the presumption that Catholics are (as a group) unsaved. First, I have met many deeply committed, godly, and faithful Catholics. Arguments that these people are not saved often ends up with a touchy doctrinal balancing act. Evangelicals would say that we are saved through faith, but these Catholics of faith they would argue are not saved because they believe that they must also seek to live godly lives and receive grace from the church. But that argument seems to assume a work-based salvation in itself. That’s because this view assumes that salvation is from faith AND not seeking to do other things to ensure salvation. However, the book of I John was written to Christians who were saved but were not assured of that salvation. If the only people who are saved are those who absolutely know they are saved, then who was John writing to? Faith saves even when there is doubt about one’s salvation. While I admit that there are some issues with some Catholic dogma, and even more so with some flavors of Folk Catholicism, to label all as unsaved is to (in my mind) reject God’s word about salvation by faith and reject the words of Christ not to take on the role of eternal judge.
Yet we see problems come up in this area. I worked with a group where a common testimony started with “I used to be Catholic, but now I am a Christian.” A major mission agency working in the Philippines lists different provinces with their percentage of Christians. The percentage ignores Catholics. Centuries of animosity (in both directions) has led to an inability to even discuss the possibility that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. (And yes, I have seen this bigotry on the Catholic side as well).
2. Some missionaries will seek to convert Roman Catholics NOT because they are Catholics, but because they are not part of their own denomination. This is, perhaps, the most common. A Baptist, Methodist, or Assemblies of God missionary will seek to convert Christians to their own denomination because they believe their own denomination is the best expression of Christianity. While I have some respect for that (I am Baptist because my understanding of God and His relationship with man and the Universe comes closer to a Baptist understanding than other groups) this type of poaching has its problems. I have come across many Christians whose unhappiness that I was not “their kind of Christian” far outweighed any joy that I was a fellow brother in Christ. That type of unhappiness and competition is contagious. There are times when working together is better than trying to tear each other down. Many religions and sects challenge Christianity because of its various denominations. While I have no problem with denominationalism (I see no reason that political unity is better than political diversity) but the fighting among Christians across denominational lines adds credence to their challenge.
3. Curiously, some missionaries refuse to work with those who don’t poach. Our ministry, Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center is non-denominational. We work with Christians and Christian groups that ascribe to the Apostle’s Creed. That is not because we are “creedal” but because it is a fairly simple expression of orthodox, historic, Christianity. One school we had connections with was very positive a work across denominational lines. In some situations it can be nearly impossible. For example, our old organization did medical missions. We worked with groups that would be described as Evangelical. Because medical missibout what we were doing until they discovered that we have members of our organization who are (faithful and godly) Catholics. Another group developed a very negative attitude about us. They wanted us to do counseling (we are a counseling center after all). However, what they called counseling was evangelism and often poaching. (Many of us are involved in evangelism in our private ministries, but our counseling group is focused on crisis counseling and psychospiritual problems.) It is a challenge toons were tied to church evangelism, it would be quite difficult to work with some denominations.
If this is Poaching, what is Trespassing?
To me, trespassing is working in and among Christians and non-Christians alike. The goal is not to draw people to one’s own denomination from other orthodox Christian organizations but to point people ever closer to Christ. What does this mean?
- We recognize that EVERYONE, non-Christian, heterodox Christian, nominal Christian, and committed Christian, need to be helped toward Christ. They don’t necessarily need to be drawn to our own denomination to be drawn closer to Christ.
- We recognize nominal Christianity as often preparatory to true faith. Story… one time my wife was in line at the grocery store here in Baguio when two ladies behind her started talking. When they found out that she is Protestant Christian, they began bad-mouthing Catholicism (the two were Jehovah’s Witnesses and were using the Protestant proclivity to have poor feelings about Catholicism as an open door to sharing their heterodox beliefs). My wife said, “Oh no, I feel very blessed that I was brought up Catholic. Even though I did not at that time really seek God, I still learned about God, Christ’s sacrifice for me, and His work on earth through the church. I was very blessed to have been brought up in the Catholic church.” The two had nothing to say since they weren’t prepared for that type of response. (Evangelical Christians REALLY need to stop being so predictable.)
- We are NOT AGAINST leading people into our denomination. If I think my denomination is a good place for someone to grow in faith, hope, and love, then I welcome those who want to join us. But that is not our primary goal. Our goal is to guide people to God. Some time ago we were working with a kind, faithful, and godly Catholic nun. During that time, her superior came to visit. We felt that she was there, partly to be sure that the nun was not converting away from her group. In truth, we absolutely did not want her to join our denomination. Why? First, she was growing in her faith within her present faith community. Second, we wanted to continue to build healthy ties with the Catholic church and we did not want to ruin that by poaching. However, if someone is in a denomination and is not growing and they are seeking to grow within our denominational community, of course they are welcome.
So what is the end of this? I believe that poaching in the Royal Forest (actively seeking to draw orthodox Christians away from their one faith communities) is misguided and and destructive for the body of Christ. However, trespassing (actively working in and among God’s people of different types) is good and even necessary. Frontier Missions is vital but there needs to be people working in the Royal Forest as well.