I recently completed the “Beta” version (or semi-rough first draft) of my book, “Walking With” as a Metaphor for Missions Theology. If you are interested in it, please CLICK HERE to see how you can download it (for free). The following is Chapter 9 on the Theology of Anti-Missions. This heavily drew from a post I wrote a few years ago. The book cleans it up, expands it a bit, and establishes the footnotes.
Theology of Anti-Missions
In the previous chapter, we saw some churches struggling to embrace missions. In some cases there were impediments that held them back. In some cases, there were theological barriers that were set up to undermine the basis or practice of missions. Missions, at least in a general sense, has been around from the earliest days of the church. It, along with worship, discipling, and fellowship were part of the practice of the church long before there was formal theologizing. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. Theology often develops from reflection on practice. Missions has rarely had much theological consideration, either as a foundation of practice, or as reflection.
Christopher Wright quotes Spindler:
“If ‘mission’ is understood as the sum total of all actual missionary activities in the modern period or as everything undertaken under the banner of ‘missions,’ then an honest biblical scholar can only conclude that such a concept of mission does not occur in the Bible.”1
Wright strongly supports missions. But he notes that a lot of what we do in the name of Christian missions is done without a log of reflection, either biblically or theologically. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that Missions has sputtered a lot in history. Missions as an activity not directly overseen by local churches faded in the 2nd century and was almost unknown in the 3rd.
There are a number of reasons for this, but theology does have a role. It should be added up front that it is not always clear whether people’s theology drive them away from missions, or whether they have a disinclination toward missions, and then use theology to support that view. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because it is hard to separate theology from application of theology.
Consider, for example, the theology of John Calvin.
“Gustav Warneck (1834–1910), the father of missiology as a theological discipline, was one of the first Protestant scholars to point out that Calvin and the Reformers had no missionary concern. A.M. Hunter even went so far as to state in his book on Calvin’s teaching: ‘Certainly he [Calvin] displayed no trace of missionary enthusiasm’. Others held an entirely different view and noted ‘an intensified zeal for evangelism’ in Calvin.”2
It is difficult to see how such divergent views can exist. Fans and detractors can often interpret the same data far differently. But some work of Calvin points to a more mediated view. Consider the following quote of Calvin:
“Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace even severe rebuke will be administered like medicine, lest they should perish or cause others to perish. But it will be for God to make it effective in those whom he foreknew and predestined.“3
Certainly here, evangelism and the missionary activity is supported directly. On the other hand, it is hard to see an “essential missionary theology” or an “intensified zeal for evangelism.” The passage seems to say that one’s motivation to share the gospel should come from the fitting desire to believe (the seeming fiction?) that God wants everyone to be saved. It then goes on to say that if one shares the Gospel with one who is predestined as elect, God can use that to make their election effective. It is still a bit unclear, however, whether such missionary action would give eternal results that are different from inaction. In the end, the Theology of the Reformers may, or may not, be anti-missiological, but they are certainly less than enthusiastic; and this shows itself in the activity of the early Protestant churches. It could however, be said that theology does not have a strong role in missions. The Crusades were driven in part by a missionary fervor, yet got derailed, in part, by religious and racial hatreds. Such hatred was guided more by sociological and historical components, I might argue, than by theology, even if theology may have been used to justify such attitudes. In the early Protestant movement, survival, the lack of mission-sending structures, and the historical reliance on State churches, among others, certainly worked against missional activity. More on this in the previous chapter, but that is not all of it. Theology had a role. Consider the case of missions among Baptists in the 18th and 19th centuries.
William Carey, referred to by some as the Father of Protestant Missions, wrote his great booklet, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.”4 in the late 18th century. Carey came from a religious group, the Particular Baptists. As “dissenters” of the state church, they could, potentially, have a greater desire to share the gospel beyond national boundaries (those boundaries often seen as defining the area of concern for the State Church). However, this potential was crushed by a form of Reformed theology that saw the work of salvation as God’s alone. If, then, salvation was only a work of God, then it seemed quite logical that evangelism, both locally and cross-culturally, was irrelevant or even impertinent.
Carey chose not to directly challenge the theology of his church. Rather, he chose to challenge its implications. Preachers of his denomination commonly deduced from their theology that the Great Commission, in its Matthew 28 form, was simply Jesus addressing his eleven present disciples. As such it lacks relevance today. Carey made three arguments against this thinking:
- If “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel” is not for us today, then neither is “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” What is our justification for baptizing, as Baptists, if Jesus only commanded the original disciples to baptize, and not us?
- If the commissioning in Matthew was only for the original 11, presumably then every preacher who has shared the Gospel to unreached peoples over close to two millennia, including those who shared their faith to ancestors of the majority of readers of Carey’s booklet, did so without God’s authority/blessing.
- If the commissioning was only to the disciples who were present with Him, why did Jesus end the commissioning with “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world.” Such a statement would be appropriate if Jesus was talking to people throughout future history. If Jesus was only talking to the Eleven, He might be more likely to say something like, “Lo, I am with you always, as long as you live.”
I have never thought the second point very strong, but presumably it struck a chord with the readers. With this, Protestant missions gradually grew from a trickle into a stream and then into a mighty river.
But there was still a problem. The theology of many of the Particular Baptists said, “God has determined salvation from the past, and His work is completely unaffected by our activity today, so there is no need or value in evangelizing.” Carey added an important, but dissonant, statement. “Jesus has commanded us to evangelize, so you should do so– regardless of whether you believe it is effective.” One might even hear a bit of resonance with the quote from Calvin above that could be read as “share the gospel as if doing so has efficacy.”
People can often live their entire lives with opposing beliefs… but this conflict can spring to the forefront when such a conflict is articulated effectively. It could be argued that the Baptists in London were already struggling between the belief that salvation is the work of God alone, and the Biblical record of God working through people to carry out His mission. The words of William Carey in his Enquiry, led to a great change of direction. But eloquence pointed in the opposite direction can result in a very different result.
In 1826, a Baptist in America, Daniel Parker, published “Views on the Two Seeds.” The two seeds he was referring to were those mentioned in Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between you,” the serpent, “and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
Parker expressed the belief, in pages 4 and 5 of his work, that the seed of the woman was “Christ and the elect,” while the seed of the serpent is “the Non-elect.”
“Eve’s sin allowed Satan ‘to beget the wicked, sinful principle and nature in her,’ thus allowing both the seed of Satan and the seed of Christ to enter the human bloodstream. Satan’s seed is represented in the covenant of works, Christ’s in the covenant of grace. The elect seed can be redeemed, but the nonelect cannot.”5
The theology of this work resonated with Baptists, especially in the Western (what we would now call Mid-Western) regions of the United States and their view of determinism regarding salvation. McBeth, lists three line items from the “Apple Creek Association” from that period showing Anti-Missions sentiments:
“19 We as an association do not hesitate to declare an unfellowship with foreign and domestic missionary and bible societies, Sunday Schools and tract societies, and all other missionary institutions.
21. No missionary preacher is to have the privilege of preaching at our association.
We advise the churches to protest against masonic and missionary institutions, and not to contribute to any such beggarly institutions.”6
Of course, the anti-Missions movement was driven by other factors than theological. There were regional disagreements or rivalries. Most Baptists in the Eastern United States were “Regular” or supporting Missions, while those in the West tended to be anti-Mission. Cost had a factor, and poor churches in the frontier regions were more likely to see mission organizations as parasitic to the church. The 2nd century work, the Didache, had similar concerns and gave local churches strict guidance to identify true versus false apostles. A chief criteria was on how much time and support they sought from local churches rather than getting about their business of mission work.7 Additionally, the Western Baptist churches were suspicious of theological education, and seminaries were often lumped together with mission organizations in their opposition.
However, another major theological view that greatly strengthened the Anti-missions movement was ‘Biblicism.’ This is the belief or theological stance that only institutions that are expressly noted in the Bible are legitimate. This was very strong in the early 1800s. In 1827, the Kehuckee Association published “A Declaration Against the Modern Missionary Movement and Other Institutions of Men.”8 Those who agreed with such declarations, often called themselves “Old School Baptists” referring, presumably, to the pre-Carey Particular Baptist tradition, or even further back, perhaps, based on the “Trail of Blood” belief that Baptist churches go back to Jesus and John the Baptist. The Campbellite Baptists, led by Alexander Campbell saw themselves as Reformers of the Baptist tradition. Until they broke free from the Baptist fold to form the Campbellite or Church of Christ, movement, they opposed Missions as well. Both of these have an underlying premise of Biblicism. For the Kehuckee Association, the Modern Missionary Movement is an “Institution of Men” rather than of God. For Campbell, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” led to ‘where the Bible is not explicitly affirming, we oppose.” The Anti-Missions Baptists and the Campbellites saw themselves as seeking a “primitive” New Testament church and more recently, a “pre-Carey” Baptist church.
In the 20th century, other theological concerns have crept in. Perhaps most well known as the Liberal-Fundamentalist controversies in the 1920s. In broader Protestant circles, this can be seen in the controversy generated by “Rethinking Missions: A Layman’s Enquiry after One Hundred Years,” published in 1932 largely through the work of W. E. Hocking.9
“The report distinguishes between temporary and permanent elements in the function of a missionary. The task of the missionary today, it was maintained, is to see the best in other religions, to help the adherents to discover, or to rediscover, all that is best in their own traditions, to co-operate with the most active and vigorous elements in the other traditions in social reform and in the purification of religious expression. The aim should not be conversion – the drawing of members of one religious faith over into another – or an attempt to establish a Christian monopoly. Co-operation is to replace aggression. The ultimate aim, in so far as any can be descried, is the emergence of the various religions out of their isolation into a fellowship in which each will find its appropriate place.”10
This report and the larger belief system it espouses, was a huge problem theologically. However, into 1960s, missions associated with the IMC and World Council of Churches still maintained goals that were generally consistent with the goals of missions for centuries– cross-cultural sharing the gospel of Christ and development of viable local churches.11
But this began to change. There was a growth in seeing Mission in terms of “Christian Presence” which called for behavior that appeared to be every bit as vague as the term sounds. With “The Church for Others” published for the WCC in 1967, things had radically changed. Missions did not really involve a call to repentance. Proselytism is seen as “the opposite” of missions. Conversion is not seen so much as individual and personal, but is seen as more corporate in form. That is not to say there were no good points in the work… but rather that mission theology had radically changed… and much of those changes undermined the historical purposes of doing mission work.
“Presence” became a word that was used as a substitute for “witness,” “mission,” and “evangelism.” Charles de Foucauld described a missionary as ‘a person who is in the place with a presence willed and determined as a witness to the love of God in Christ.’”12 This definition is not so much wrong or bad, but so vague that it could entail doing almost anything or nothing. Panikkar during this same period, saw missionaries not so much as bringing Christ to other cultures, but helping other cultures “discover Christ” in their culture through the missionaries’ services to the people.
Why would there be such a radical change during this time? I really don’t know. However, the IMC, International Missionary Council, formally joined the World Council of Churches in 1961. Perhaps the IMC, a thoroughly missions-oriented organization, provided a strong influence on the WCC gatherings in 1961 and 1963… but that influence declined later in the decade, and was driven more by churches that had a different perspective and agenda. It does seem, however, that the WCC has backed away from these extremes and has a view that is closer to the Evangelical view than in the 1960. It should be noted that Evangelicals also had issues in the 1960s in terms of missions where, seemingly, in reacting to broad liberal views of missions, Evangelicals began identifying missions only in terms of proselytizing and church-planting. This view also was modified in the 1970s and beyond.
Today, there are a number of theological positions that undermine the basic premises of Missions. One of these is Universalism– the idea that God’s benevolences or grace is so great that it ultimately overpowers His justice. Therefore, everyone will, eventually at least, be saved. This view does not directly attack missions, but does make the enterprise seem unnecessary. If everyone is saved anyway, why share the Gospel, unless it is to do nice things for people perhaps.
Somewhat related to this is Theological Pluralism that takes a relativistic view of religions. Some may say that there are many paths to God and salvation. Others may say that there is only one path (through Jesus– the way, the truth, and the life) but many may be saved by Jesus who do not personally know Jesus. So if a Hindu can be saved by God by being a Good Hindu, or a Muslim be saved by God in being a Good Muslim, missions, at least in terms of sharing the Gospel message, may be seen as unnecessary. At worst it can be disruptive… leading people to stray from a moral adherence to their non-Christian faith.
Theology matters in terms of missions. Bad theology can lead to bad missions. A theology that undermines the Biblical purposes of missions, or greatly narrows its role, may greatly hinder the missions efforts. Further, doing missions activities even though it may be disconnected to their theology, is likely, eventually, to cause problems.
Chapter Nine Endnotes
1 Christopher J.W. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006),36. The quote comes from Mark Spindler’s article, “The Biblical Grounding and Orientation of Mission.” in the book Missiology: An Ecumenical Introduction.
2 (Calvin and mission Jacobus P. Labuschagne HTS Theological Studies vol.65 n.1 Jan. 2009)
3 (Van Neste, 2009:2)Ray Van Neste, 2009, John Calvin on evangelism and mission, 1–6,
viewed n.d., from http://www.founders.org/journal/fj33/
4 William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens
5 (H. Leon McBeth. “The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness,” 374.). Daniel Parker writings can be found in Elder Daniel Parker’s Writings, available at http://asweetsavor.info/pdf/Parker-2Seeds.pdf
6 McBeth, 372.
7 Didache on False Apostles
8 A Declaration Against the Modern Missionary Movement and Other Institutions of Men. 1827. The document is available at http://docplayer.net/78867650-The-kehukee-declaration.html. For much of the rest of the chapter, refer back to McBeth’s book.
9 Re-thinking missions ; a laymen’s inquiry after one hundred years, by the Commission of appraisal, William Ernest Hocking, chairman. 1932.
10 (Stephen Neill “A History of Christian Missions, (Penguin Publishing, 2nd edition), page 419).
11 Much of this section comes from Rodger C. Bassham Missions Theology.
12 (“Missions Theology” by Rodger C. Bassham, p. 73)