Month: March 2021
Anti-Missions Theology Article
I took my latest book on Mission Theology (Go to the Welcome for this website to access the “Beta” Version of the book) and I turned one of the chapters into an article to share on Academia.edu.
If you are interested in reading this topic of Anti-missions theology in Protestant Church History, but don’t want to look at the whole book, you can go to…
The Potato Blight and Pastoral Theology
My wife is a certified pastoral counselor, so I sometimes get pulled in on CPE (Clinical Pastoral Training/Education) groups to lead a small training session. This weekend, I led one in Pastoral Theology. I utilize the definition for Pastoral Theology used by Margaret Whipp, in her book “SCM Guidebook: Pastoral Theology,”
PASTORAL THEOLOGY IS THE STUDY OF HOW AND WHY CHRISTIANS CARE.
Several times (too many times?) I made the statement that good pastoral care depends on good pastoral theology. I also made the statement that how we carry out pastoral care points to our pastoral theology. Thus, if we don’t have a reflected on pastoral theology, we will simply have a tacit (and typically bad) pastoral theology.
This seems a bit ridiculous, especially considering how busy people seem to be in Christian ministry who appear to have no time to worry about such unnecessary things as theology or theological reflection.
But I found a nice little example of tacit pastoral theology in a Youtube Video I watched from a strange source. The channel is “Tasting History” and the particular video is “Irish Stew from 1900 & the Irish Potato Famine.”
It is not a religious or theological channel. But it is quite relevant.
Starting around 1845, Potato Blight hit Ireland hard. People were starving and different people responded differently.
Charles Trevelyan. This man was placed in charge of the relief work by the British government for those starving in Ireland. In the youtube video (link above) it quotes Trevelyan as saying,
“The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… The real evil which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people.” (Charles Trevelyan)
Admittedly, Trevelyan’s views reflected the views of many in power in England. Those in power commonly do see those without power as unworthy in some way… presumably because that implies that they with power have somehow earned their position. However, Trevelyan’s perspective does have an underlying theological perspective. Bad things are happening to the Irish because God wants bad things to happen to them. They have earned what they are getting. And to help people under the judgment of God is to work against God. This is a bit akin to what happened in the 1980s and 1990s when many saw the AIDs epidemic as a judgment of God against homosexuals (particularly). The thought of some was that to work on a cure was to undermine God’s good work.
So what was Trevelyan’s pastoral theology? It is hard to say, but by appearance it seems to be that Christians should care for those who appear to be cared for by God. In other words, we should provide care only for people who don’t require care. This may not be true. Perhaps he was simply an ethnic or religious bigot, and simply justified his prejudices with theological language. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. In practice this was his theology within this specific context. Pastoral theology is highly contexstual.
Bible Societies. Tasting History noted that many Bible Societies (essentially parachurch mission organizations) provided food for the Irish who were starving…. BUT ONLY IF THEY CONVERT TO THE SOCIETY’S DENOMINATION. Since the vast majority of the Irish were staunchly (religiously and culturally) Roman Catholic, care was only given if people left the Roman Catholic Church.
So what is the pastoral theology here? Since conversion (at least change of denominational affiliation) was a prerequisite for receiving care, they were in essence saying, “Christians care for people only if they are like us Christians. If they are different, they can starve.” This sort of thing has happened a lot in Christian (and non-Christian) societies. There has been many times where the “Cross or the Sword” form of evangelism has been active going back to at least Charlemagne. Again, other groups have their own versions, such as the “Shahada or the Scimitar.” Essentially, the idea is that converting to our faith (or in some cases converting to our denominational perspective) is such an inherent eternal good, that pretty much any means to make that happen is a good thing.
Sometimes, it can go the opposite way a bit. As noted, my wife is a pastoral counselor. Usually, she counsels Christians. Sometimes, however, she counsels non-Christians. Some pastoral counselors say that one can only counsel Christians— for all others, the only thing one can do is Evangelize. That is quite a statement if one thinks about it. Probably, they don’t mean this. Probably what they mean is that Conversion to Christ is such a totally important and good thing, that any other good thing we might be able to do with and for this person pales in comparison. That seems a bit dubious. After all, if someone is suicidal and a Christian counselor talks that person out of committing suicide, that hardly pales in comparison to salvation. In fact, not being dead is an essential prerequisite to conversion. Regardless, it is likely that the refusal to help (except evangelize) a non-Christian is likely to be interpreted as “You have NOTHING to offer me that I presently see as valuable.”
This view tends to lend itself to the perspective of the “Ulterior Motive.” We don’t provide care because we love all people. We don’t do it because Jesus commanded us, and modeled it for us. Rather we do it, to get because we expected a quid pro quo. Quid pro quo can be initiated by either side. When a typhoon hit our area, a mission care provider came to the Philippines to provide resources for those hurt by the landslides. The local missionary he was working with began to plan out all of the places they would visit to help. However, the mission care provider had no interest in that list. He only wanted to go to places where there were churches tied to their denomination to provide care. If one of their churches wasn’t there, that was someone else’s problem. While I understand the logic of it, I still must say that it is a sub-Biblical perspective.
Society of Friends. The video noted that one group that did things differently was the Society of Friends (Quakers). There may have been others, but this is one that was singled out by the video. They gave based on the need of the people… regardless of anything else. This has a very different underlying pastoral theology— of how and why Christians provide care to others. In my mind, this is the one
Missional Church Quote
I am going to be facilitating a seminar on the Missional Church. This is not an area of expertise for me (one of a plethora of topics that is not an area of expertise for me). But I do know some of the edges of what it is not. I know that the Missional Church is not the same as a Missions-focused Church… despite some who think that it is. I know that the Missional Church is not anti-Missions… despite some missions folk that seem to think it is (and some missional churches that do act like it is at times). I also know that there are so many different understandings of the term “Missional Church” that it is hard to say that it is actually a movement. And people who don’t like the term “Missional Church” are able to find the strawman definition of choice to knock down.
In preparation, I am reading a book written from in the middle of the movement (2007 being well after 1998, but well before 2021). I am a bit more up-to-date on some like Reggie McNeal and Ed Stetzer in terms of writers on this topic in recent years… so I am reading THE MINISTRY OF THE MISSIONAL CHURCH: A COMMUNITY LED BY THE SPIRIT by Craig Van Gelder.
The missional church conversation is being popularized largely by the fast-becoming seminal work published in 1998, entitled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. This volume is the product of six missiologists who spent two years in intensive discussions attempting to develop a shared argument about the very nature of the church. They sought to explore how the discipline of missiology (understanding God’s mission in the world) is interrelated with ecclesiology (the study, ology, of the church, ecclesia). The result was the construction of a missional ecclesiology, or in short hand, the concept of the ‘missional church.
This conception of the church is now catching hold among church leaders and congregations across a wide range of denominations. The missional church discussion is capturing a basic impulse within many churches in the United States (U.S.) that there is something about the church that makes it inherently missionary. But it is clear that confusion still exists over what the term missional really means. Some appear to want to use it to reclaim, yet one more time, the priority of missions in regard to the church’s various activities. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding continues the effort to define a congregation primarily around what it does. The concept of a church being missional moves in a fundamentally different direction. It seeks to focus the conversation about what the church is—- that it is a community created by the Spirit and that it has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity. In light of the church’s nature, the missional conversation then explores what the church does. Purpose and strategy are not unimportant in the missional conversation, but they are understood to be derivative dimensions of understanding the nature, or essence, of the church. Likewise, changing cultural contexts are not unimportant, but they are understood to be conditions that the church interacts with in light of its nature or essence.
Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit, p. 16-17.
In other words, we need to start with understanding what the church is, before determining what the church does. This means that one needs to start from a theological stance. The stance of Van Gelder is Missio Dei Theology. Personally, I think that is an excellent place to start… but I will have to continue reading the book to see where all fo this goes.
Learning from a Chambered Nautilus
When I was young, the word Nautilus made me think of one of my favorite books, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” And this corresponds with one of my favorite movies (of the same name). Then when I was in the US Navy, the Nautilus made me think of the USS Nautilus (SSN-570), the first nuclear powered submarine in… well… all of history. I trained at the nuclear plant that was a copy of the one on the Nautilus. Years later, I had the opportunity to visit the actual submarine, although long-since decommissioned.
Today, I don’t think of either of those things. I think of the animal, the chambered nautilus. At our counseling center, we use the nautilus shell as a symbol of growth and transformation.
In its living form I think provides a metaphor for the church and for ministry.
How does a nautilus grow. It gets bigger…. a pretty common implication of growing. And as it grows, it outgrows its previous home. Different creatures have different ways of doing it.
Many animals shed their skins. This includes those with exoskeletons… but also animals like snakes. Hermit crabs move from borrowed lodging to a new borrowed lodging (much like humans do).
The Nautilus doesn’t do things this way. The nautilus starts very small in a small chamber shell. As it grows, it creates the shell that slowly spirals outward. As it moves out, it closes off the area in the shell it was once in.
It can seem like a bit of a waste. It is not efficient to carry those old chambers it doesn’t use, and cannot use. But in truth, it does use these chambers, but in a different way. The chambers have air in them. The air provides a couple of things. First, it provides neutral buoyancy. That actually makes it move MORE efficiently, not less. Second, it provides orientation giving it more stability. It maintains this orientation giving it better control as to where it goes in the water.
I would argue that in the church, there is wisdom in this. Some churches seem to get stuck in a space that doesn’t fit it. Sometimes they embrace tradition a bit too much. But things go the other way as well. Some churches are so focused on being “current” that they lose their touch of history. I have been in groups where people get a bit giggly if one uses a song in worship that is more than 20 years old. I used to be a member of a church where the pastor stated publicly that he would change the decor in the church every couple of months to ensure that things would not become stuck in a long-term tradition.
This is too bad. The church I was raised in has a building that it 124 years old, and had existed as a congregation before that. Our sending church is 165 years old. As a Protestant, I am part of a movement that is at least 500 years old, and as a Christian, I am part of a movement that is almost 2000 years old.
The humans that make up the church (whether local church or universal church) are ephemeral. They are like soap bubbles… some bubbles endure for awhile, while some are barely present before they are gone… but all are relatively brief. And this thing we call the present (“The Now”) is even less enduring. It is more like a a bit of sunlight that glints off of one of those soap bubbles.
The church that rejects traditions and symbols are likely to lose identity… and can often careen off course.
While traditions, rituals, and symbols can hold back the church… shackling it to a past that has lost relevance, they can also give stability that leads to good direction. I have seen so many churches that have hired new pastors. These pastors don’t know the DNA of the church, and have no sense of the history of the church. In fact, arguably, the church members hardly know the church’s own identity themselves. When these pastors come in… they bring in their own novelties. Sometimes, these novelties are good and valuable. Often, however, they are simply bringing a tradition from a different church to replace the one that already is embedded in this church. And sometimes, it is worse than that. Sometimes the pastor saw a Youtube video, or went to some conference, that is marketing some innovation in theology or practice, and that pastor buys into it. Often the logic is, “Hey, it seems to work over there, so it must work here!”, without consideration of what differences in setting may mean to this (and often hardly considering what “works” mean in terms of the church vision and mission).
There needs to be a balance of embracing tradition and embracing change. There needs to be wisdom. Years ago, I was at a church council meeting. They were looking into searching for a new senior pastor. I suggested that we need to set up a pastoral search committee, get a list of possible candidates, and then do background checks in terms of their theology, track record, and behavior. I was told that this is not the way this church does things. Their method is this… the church council gets together and perhaps one of the members says that they know that “Ptr. A” is available and seeking to pastor a church. Then a member of the council contacts that pastor and invites him (since this was a church where the pastor would always be a ‘him’) to preach. If the preaching goes well… the church calls him. Interestingly, this is a tradition to reject tradition. It is tradition in that “this is the way we have always done things.” It is a rejection of tradition in that there is nothing in the process to ensure that the pastor is the right fit for the church. There is nothing to ensure that direction of the church is affirmed and maintained. I would argue that in this case, to honor the tradition of the church, one needs to reject some aspects of the tradition. Maybe my suggestion was not good, but if so, neither was their tradition in finding a pastor. The church could easily become like a nautilus without air in its shell and so moves more like an anemone that has broken free of its anchor point (awkwardly with little control of its final destination) than of a healthy nautilus. I have seen a lot of churches that have been DESTROYED by bringing in a new pastor with a radically different vision. I am thinking of one right now that lost most of its membership when it hired a pastor whose beliefs and practices were WAY out of line of church. After he left, members said, “Oh, we did not know what we were getting!” However, that was hardly an excuse since he had his own website that clearly articulated his views and practices that were in many ways in opposition to the church that brought him in.
Of course, this is not simply about churches. This applies to parachurch organizations as well. I worked at a Christian Summer Camp for five years. The first three years it was led by a director who had been there for many years. He was, perhaps, a bit set in his ways, but he understood how the camp worked, and kept it successfully doing its intended mission. The director retired and was replaced with a pastor who took over who had long been associated with the camp. He kept things pretty much the same. Was the camp “stuck in the past.” In some ways, probably Yes. But much of what they did was good and worked. The first year there, they hired a new director from a different camp. As we entered the camp schedule a pattern emerged. An issue would come up and one of us from the staff who had been around for awhile would give a response to the situation based on what was done before. The new director would then pipe in and say, “Oh yes… that is the way we have always done it.” He would say it in a funny voice as a sort of verbal meme. Then he would decide to do things in a different and innovative way. Eventually, I found out that what he was doing was NOT innovative. Rather it was simply what he did at the camp he used to be at. He was simply replacing traditions.
I can’t remember how many years he served there as director… but he eventually got in trouble by mocking the board of directors for making a decision that he did not agree with. Truthfully, I am not sure whether I agree with the director or with the board in the issue (that I won’t share here). However, the board decision was very much in line with the roots, traditions, and support structure of the camp. The director was removed and replaced with a friend of mine who had worked there many years, and did (I believe) a better job of innovating in a way that honors the DNA of the organization.
Innovating in ways that are in line with this DNA actually makes change happen easier, normally, than simply diving in and trying to force change. This is like the nautilus where the extra baggage it carries gives it neutral buoyancy… making it easier to move rather than harder.
I think I will stop here. If there are other things that one can learn from the nautilus, feel free to share it in the comments.
Doubting Doubting Thomas
I was teaching a class– “Research in the History of Missions.” I noticed something strange. One of the missionaries I asked a student to research, and all to respond to, was St. Thomas. That is, the first St. Thomas— “Doubting Thomas.” I was so surprised at how uncomfortable my students were with researching Thomas. The discomfort is that so much of what we know about Thomas is speculative or apocryphal. One way around this is by studying Thomas as a character, rather than a historical living human being. Of course, I teach at an Evangelical School… where that may strike people unpleasantly close to the arguments about studying the “Jesus of Faith” versus the “Historical Jesus.”
The problem to me however, is different. Pretty much every mission figure I asked them to research had an issue of a gap between the “missionary as portrayed” versus the “missionary who is.” In the case of St. Thomas, the uncertainty was seemingly greater because some of the sources have a certain ramifications. To accept the Gospel of Thomas as actually written by Thomas means giving a certain amount of authority to a work that is commonly viewed as “Gnostic.” are problems with accepting the other works ascribed to Thomas as actually his work as well.
But such discomfort should not cause discomfort, but reflection. After all, the fact that these works were in Syraic, may be suggestive that Thomas ministered in Syria. No guarantee of course. The Spanish stories of Saint Iago doesn’t mean that St. James had come anywhere near the place. However, numerous works ascribed to Thomas from one place does seem suggestive. The early tradition of Thomas (probably not Bartholomew) founding the church of Southern India doesn’t necessarily mean he founded it, but it probably at least suggests its founding by his disciples. The fact that the last Gospel written (John) was the only one that singled out the actions of Thomas suggest, perhaps, that he was more important apostle in his later years than in his early years. Such evidences don’t tell us much with certainty, but do point to impact. It seems probable that Thomas was an important missionary/apostle in Syria, and considering how Edessa, for example, was an early center of Christianity, suggests that he has had considerable impact. Research like this does not lead to certainty, but does lead to new questions, and tentative thoughts.
This is pretty common in history in general. We never get full unambiguous answers. From the Evangelical perspective, the Bible is fully reliable, including in its historical record. However, even from that perspective, it must be remembered that the historical record in the Bible is very incomplete, and our ability to fill in those blanks is highly doubtful. Also, our ability to accurately analyze and interpret what is explicitly stated is also doubtful.
When my students researched Herman of Alaska, Francis Xavier, Betsy Stockton, and others, they should have gone in with the same reflective uncertainty. Some like a certain scientific certainty… but no such thing exists. Science can’t accurately analyze anything in history since it is unrepeatable phenomenon.
We need the illiative sense (converging probabilities)— the skills of the historian and lawyer, not the astronomer or physicist.
Problem of Polygamy in Christian Missions Practice
Teaching Cultural Anthropology as well as Interreligious Dialogue in a seminary in Southeast Asia means that several times a year the question of polygamy comes up. It comes up in terms of how to address polygamy as a Christian minister. Usually, it is in the context of dealing with Muslim families where polygamy is sometimes practiced. Of course, polygamy is pretty common here among Filipino Christians as well… even if unofficially (While sexual infidelity is common in much of the world, in the Philippines, many Filipino men I have known or know have chosen to maintain two complete and separate families simultaneously— clearly a form of self-abuse). Often the concern is what to do where a man who has more than one wife comes to Christ. <Note: When I refer to polygamy, I am referring to polygyny— one man multiple wives… since that is the most common form of polygamous families. I won’t address other versions here.>
Bibilical/Ethical Look at Polygamy
One of the challenges is that popular Christianity tends to set up an overly simple ethics. There is a tendency of seeing things as either JPW (Just plain wrong) or GAR (Good and righteous). But the Bible doesn’t really support such a simple taxonomy. A lot of behavior is in the vast expanse between these two extremes. Much of Wisdom literature in the Bible supports a far more nuanced understanding of appropriate behavior. The same can be said of the Book of James, as well as the Pauline and Johannine Epistles… and the teachings of Jesus. Life choices are not simply based on a set of Don’ts… and that if one avoids the Don’ts than you have done everything right.There is a lot of middle ground.
Polygamy appears to be in that strange middle ground. It is pretty clear that God’s ideal is monogamy. That ideal can be supported a number of ways:
- God created the ideal family in an ideal world in terms of one man and one woman.(I am not suggesting that the nuclear family is ideal while the extended family is not. Presumably, the ideal nuclear family would have developed into the ideal extended family in time.)
- God created the sexes to be born in approximately equal numbers (approximately 50/50).
- In the New Testament, church leaders were supposed to be “one woman men.” It is pretty amazing how often people try to apply this guideline to divorce… but it is really more about character and fidelity. However, I don’t believe there is any way of avoiding the prohibition of an actively polygamous church leader. (I am completely avoiding the question of divorce here. A divorcee is not actively polygamous. That is a topic for a different day.) And since, church leaders were to be examples to their members, it is likely that church members were, ideally, not in polygamous families.
- Polygamous families described in the Old Testament are shown in a fairly negative light… and the negative aspects are often tied directly to tensions caused by the polygamous relationships. Feel free to look that up yourself.
I suppose one more thing could be added. Marriage is used as a metaphor, both in the Old and New Testament for revealing God’s ideal and faithful relationship with us. A polygamous relationship kind of messes up the metaphor, in my opinion. I had a friend (actually he worked for me), who had a wife in Arkansas and a girlfriend in Virginia. One day, we were drinking cappuccino on a beach in the South of France. He looked at me and said, “You know sir, it is hard to be faithful to two women.” I think he was joking… he could be pretty funny. But it is true. Being faithful to two women is to be unfaithful to both. The founder of Islam said that a man can have more than one wife as long as he treated them equally. Some have suggested that this was his way of saying that one can only have one wife… since it is impossible to treat two wives equally. I am not sure the statement suggests such a subtle logic. But for me, the logic is pretty clear— since it is IMPOSSIBLE to treat two or more wives equally, problems are bound to happen, and so it is problematic at best, and dangerous at worst to have multiple wives.
On the other hand, there are arguments that could be made that polygamous families are allowed, or even supported in the Bible.
- The Bible does not directly and unambiguously prohibit all polygamous families.While I believe the claim of the founders of Mormonism that God ordained, and even commanded, polygamy is clearly untrue, I will say that the Bible does recognize the legitimacy of a polygamous family.
- A number of the patriarchs in the Old Testament were polgyamists.
- At least in one case (Levirate marriage, Deuteronomy 25:5-10) a polygamous family appears to be directly allowed… perhaps even encouraged.
Bringing these together, it could be said that Polygamy is not absolutely forbidden… a sin that must be stopped at all cost, but rather as an undesirable social institution.
I have to admit that for me, repeating what I noted before, I see having more than one wife as a form of self-abuse. Here in the Philippines, many men who travel will maintain separate families. The juggling of responsibilities— and the economic drain— seems exhausting to me. Having these families in the same household seems likely to reduce some of the economic burden and secrecy burden, but greatly increase other problems from relational dynamics. Why create the extra drama?
And it is not just the men who can suffer. I have known some women who had been second wives in a polygamous family. The tensions in that setting eventually drove them away from that setting, as well as the religion that allowed or even encouraged that system.
But if it served no sociological needs, it would die out. Actually, in many parts of the world it has died out as a formal institution.There does, however, appear to be sociological reasons for its perpetuity.
With the problems with polygamy found in the Old Testament as well as today, why would it ever be done? First, Polygamy can be seen as a measure of status (for the man, and potentially as well for the first wife). I have known Muslim men express sadness that they lacked the economic position to afford to have a second wife. I wish I had asked them clarification on this. Did they want to have more money so as to have a second wife, or have the status that is associated with having a second wife? However, when biology ensures that there are approximately equal numbers of men and women, there is a true sense of “zero sum” game, where men gain status through taking away eligible women from men lacking status. This causes problems in many places (the FLDS is an excellent case study in this).
A second possibility is to compensate for a shortage of men. In some settings there is a larger number of women than men due to fighting… so polygamous families compensates for this. During the time of the OT Patriarchs, the common governance was associated with bands, clans, and tribes. In these settings, laws are more informal… blood feuds, and warring clashes are more common. In such a setting, polygamy may meet a genuine social need.
A third possibility is where clan structure and relationships are considered important enough to maintain. The Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy, seeking to ensure the maintaining of a family name and inheritance, or Sororate marriages in some other cultures. are examples of this.
A fourth argument I have heard is one I heard from a Muslim scholar. He stated that multiple marriages are better than prostitution or adultery. In other words, guys are going to commit adultery, so one may as well legitimize such relationships. (I will not address the Shiite “4-hour” marriages.) I struggle with that logic. If something is a bad idea, pointing out something that MIGHT be worse is weak at best. Further, that logic could also be used to justify polyandrous families— something that Islam rejects, I believe.
Bringing These Together
So is polygamy inherently a sin? I think the answer is NO. Does it mean that it is okay? I think the answer is NO. I think polygamy is a SYMPTOM of sin. It can be a societal sin like clan warfare. It can be a cultural sin like dubious basis for status (much like having a vacation home and 3SUVs may be a poor basis for status in some other cultures). It can be a personal sin, like trying to legitimize lust.
I believe that looking at polygamy as a symptom of a problem, rather than inherently a sin, puts things in a better light to address it in the mission field.
The solution to a problem should not be worse than the problem itself. On an individual basis, if a man (or woman) who is part of a polygamous family comes to Christ, I don’t believe the church should seek to break up the family. I don’t believe the church should reject the family members. Breaking up a family is a serious thing. In all but the most extreme cases, it should be avoided. Not allowing Christians to join a church is also a pretty serious thing as well.
The husband, who is now a Christian needs to be a righteous man with regards to his wives and children. To drive one wife from the home with (or without) her children is certainly unrighteous. Some have suggested that fidelity is achieved by being sexually faithful to one wife, and sexually distanced from the other(s). Ultimately, that is just a different form of infidelity, Obviously, things do get complicated depending on the setting. Here in the Philippines, Christian men, as noted before, may have two separate families who don’t know each other. Only one has legal status. The man needs to find a way to be righteous and responsible with both families… but how to do that may be challenging. Complete rejection of one family should not be encouraged by the church.
The local church should accept that this is part of their past, that still holds relevance today (much like embarrassing body art from a wild past will endure in a Christian today). The church should spend less time trying to break up the family (which is a sin), and spend more time on fighting the actual sins (societal, cultural, and personal) that undergird the symptom of polygamy.
Holding Organizations Accountable
Jackson Wu recently wrote an article— “Why I Left the SBC and IMB.” It is a very interesting read. It is well-thought out, and he focused on reasons that he had direct experience with rather than the “A friend of mine told me that…”
As a member of the SBC, I feel pushed two ways in the article.
In terms of sadness, Jackson Wu is one of my favorite theologians, and so I liked the fact that he was SB. There are not many SB theologians that I am particularly drawn to. On the other hand, his reasons for leaving I find perfectly valid, and I respect acting according to conviction.
My home sending church is SB, and one of the two churches I am a member of is SB. I teach at an SB seminary… well, sort of. Technically, I teach at a seminary tied to the Southern Baptist Churches in the Philippines, and the Southern Baptist Churches in the Philippines have relationship ties to the Southern Baptist Convention… but legally are independent. I am not IMB, but my wife and I did apply with the IMB, and if that organization had not run out of money back in 2003 (and if I was a bit less chubby), we might have been part of it… at least for awhile. I have known and worked with many IMB missionaries. In almost all cases, the IMB missionaries I knew were class acts. Most of them are no longer part of the IMB— because of refusal to sign a doctrinal statement, or because of relocation, or forced retirement. I certainly have had some concerns about the organization.
The idea of moving missionaries out of theological education really seemed inane at the time. For the IMB, I still think it was ill-advised. Positively, it did force locals to take up the slack in terms of scholarship and training. The majority of professors at the school I teach in are locals now. That is a good thing. So is the policy shift bad or good? Both. But overall, I think it was bad because it crippled one of the strengths of the IMB (training world Christian leaders) and replaced it with a task that IMB missionaries are permanently less competent at (foreign missionaries are not as good at evangelizing and churchplanting as local ministers). Why hobble your strength to empower something you will always be second best at?
In Wu’s article, the one thing he mentioned that I had not heard of, was the signing of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) of missionaries leaving a few years ago. Talking about NDAs would be a violation of the NDA, perhaps? What would I have done if I was told that my pension (which, for lack of a better word, I “earned”) was contingent on me keeping my mouth shut about things inside the organization? When I was in the Navy, I was (and still am) required to not disclose (sorry but there is no actual rule against split infinitives) things that are classified (very happy to say that I don’t have any more such classified materials in my head after 30 years). However, I don’t recall having anything like an NDA to sign… tied to GI benefits and such. I am hoping there is another side to this story with the IMB. However, as one involved in Missionary Member Care, I have seen secrecy and CYA used to protect an organization. In the end, however, it tends to perpetuate problems— especially abuse.
In the end, a missionary (and a theologian) serves the Kingdom of God. To the extent such faithful service can be honestly done, and even be enhanced, within a denomination or a mission organization, it is a good thing. To the extent that the SBC and the IMB are faithful to that calling, and don’t fall into the common traps of power, money, and status, they are a blessing.
How such organizations stay on the straight and narrow are voices, both inside and outside, who challenge and hold accountable. Sadly, such people are often seen as problems not blessings.
That is exactly why we need them.
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Thoughts on the Camel Method
I had asked my students in my Asian Faiths class to read the Camel Method. It is a method for sharing the Christian Gospel to Muslims utilizing a few select passages from the Qur’an. I asked my students to talk about their thoughts on this method. I then responded with the (somewhat amended) posting:
I noticed that pretty much all of the comments regarding the Camel Method were rather positive. Nothing wrong with that. I definitely think there are times that the Camel Method can be valuable (although I have never tried it). However, there are some people who don’t like the Camel Method. Their views are worth considering.
1. Some reject the use of other religion’s holy writings to teach the gospel, utilizing “the devil’s words.” I really don’t want to get into the argument of theories regarding Scriptures of other religions. However, to me, the Qur’an is good to the extent it expresses truth, and bad to the extent it expresses falsehood. If we use parts of the the Qur’an that clearly express truth, we are not doing wrong, I believe.
2. Some reject the use of the Qur’an not because it is “wrong” to do so, but because we need to help people trust the Bible more, not the Qur’an. They are suggesting that when we use the Qur’an, we are giving the impression that it is authoritative. I understand that argument… but in the end, we need to start with where they are at.
For example, suppose a Mormon is trying to convert you to Mormonism. He (or she) is not going to start quoting you verses from “The Book of Mormon” or “The Pearl of Great Price” or “Doctrines and Covenants.” He knows that you don’t recognize any of those works as authoritative. He will instead quote you verses from the Holy Bible, despite the fact that Mormons believe that the Holy Bible is tainted by mistranslations and editing. He knows that you will immediately reject anything shared to you from The Book of Mormon. You really need to start with what the person values or thinks is authoritative.
In fact, let me give you a more specific example. A business guest of my father visited and when he had gone we found that he had left a copy of the Book of Mormon behind. I did decide to read it, which I am sure is what he wanted. I was actually expecting it to be more interesting than what it was, but interest is a subjective thing of course. But in that book the guest had left a bookmark and that bookmark had Book of Mormon verses that were supposed to demonstrate its authenticity. I remember one was a verse reference to show that the Book of Mormon had “predicted” the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. I can imagine that such a reference would be quite comforting to a Mormon who believes that work to be an ancient document originally written onto gold. But for a non-Mormon who is quite convinced that it was written in the 1800s by Joseph Smith, any reference that could be thought of as referring to Columbus would be absolutely unconvincing.
3. Some will caution the use of the Camel Method because some Muslims will be offended at Christians using the Qur’an. This is actually a somewhat valid concern. For example, I have heard Muslims use the passage in the Gospel according to St. John where Jesus says He is sending a Comforter, as a prophecy of the coming of Muhammad. My natural tendency is to get a bit offended at a Muslim ripping a verse out of the Holy Bible, rejecting the broader context of the passage, and abusing its meaning to support his/her own theology. I think the Camel Method can be useful, but be careful in its use. Some may react negatively to the message.
4. Others will note that while the Camel Method can be effective with some Muslims, it will not be for others. For those who are very serious students of the Qur’an will recognize that the person using the Camel Method is very much selecting certain ayah (verses) from the book, while ignoring others. This is much like the case study from one of my students where a Muslim friend used one verse in John where Jesus avoided admitting to deity (or at least was quite vague), while avoiding numerous places where Jesus’ used quite strong statements about who He was. The other group that is likely not to respond are those who know little to nothing about the Qur’an. If challenged from the Qur’an, they are likely not respond… or at most go ask their imam about it. Most Muslims are like most Christians— somewhat nominal in the practice of their faith, being more strongly connected to their religion by culture than belief. For such people, dreams, signs and wonders, and acts of kindness may be more effective.
Overall, I would say that acts of kindness (expressions of Christian love) is the strongest foundation for witnessing to a Muslim. However, being loving without a message may just lead the person to thinking that you are a nice person. The Camel Method provides a way of supplementing the expression of the Great Commandment, not a trick to share the gospel without love and kindness.
Misusing Scripture for Personal Wants
Many (most?) of you are aware of the report that came out on Ravi Zacharias and some of his sexual misconduct (and the associated misuse of funds, as well as deception, to maintain the misconduct). I have friends who are real fans of Ravi, but I must admit I don’t really know much of his work. I did read a book he wrote, but that was literally decades ago (I remember liking it, but I can’t recall the title). I appreciate the fact that the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) chose to have the allegations thoroughly investigated and then reported the findings publicly. While I know some Christian leaders balked at the “unbiblical” route for handling the problem, I feel they did exactly the correct thing. In pastoral counseling, a common dictum is that “A family is as sick as its secrets.” One can take it further and say that “An organization is as sick as its secrets.” While I don’t recommend airing all of one’s dirty laundry all the time, the bigger the problem the sicker the organization becomes in trying to hide it.
I do know that there is one or two passages in the Holy Bible that COULD be interpreted as keeping church secrets secret. Paul recommended that church members try to handle their problems in-house rather than rely on outside authorities. That passage has been abused by so many for so long in the church, I would almost ask people to skip that passage when reading the Bible. Now, don’t take me too seriously on this point. All Scripture is useful, but my concern is that there has become such a culture of dubious beliefs within the church over the centuries around that passage, that people almost automatically read it wrong. The passage doesn’t say,
- Hide your secret sins and evil behaviors from unbelievers.
- Establish a culture within the church where people can behave in a predatory manner without any real repercussions.
No one, of course words it that way exactly, but it is pretty clear the passage is used that way by many. It is much the same with Matthew 18, a pattern that Jesus gave for addressing confrontation within the assembly. Many have weaponized it to maintain patterns of abuse— from both sides. Some use it as a pipeline for trying to push people out (rather than seeking reconciliation). Others try to turn the tables on the confronter, essentially saying, “I am not at fault, you are, because you didn’t follow Matthew 18” regardless of whether the situation fit the context of that passage.
With Ravi, part of what I found most disheartening was that he used his training in apologetics and rhetoric to manipulate women. A term used a fair bit in recent years is “grooming,” as in a predatory act of maneuvering another individual into a position of being compliant to abuse. The skills to groom and the skills to do apologetics often overlap. So when Ravi referenced Old Testament patriarchs who had more than one wife, or telling a woman to keep quiet about their actions or she will be responsible for potentially millions not coming to Christ, this is the rhetoric of manipulation. I really doubt Ravi really believed that (commonly pretty toxic) polygamous relationships in the age of the patriarchs is prescriptive for how men and women should ideally relate today. I also doubt that Ravi really believed that holding a religious leader accountable for his (or her) actions should be avoided to keep from dooming populations of people to hell. Most like, he did not believe either one, but used them because they suited his purposes in the moment.
And I get that on a certain level. Years ago (in my pre-Internet days) I was on Compuserve Religion forum. I was holding a religious thread with a person from a very different religious perspective. I recall no details of that conversation, except one. At a certain point, I shared a Bible verse to counter the other’s point. I felt guilty about it afterwards… and still do. Why? Because I misused the verse. I used the verse in a way that, I believe, confused the meaning of the Bible in context. The wording of the verse ripped from its context made it sound like I could use it as I did… but in context I was misusing it. And it is actually worse than that because the person I was talking to did not know the Bible well enough to know that I was speaking out of context. That is a pretty bad thing to do. If you don’t think it is bad, try to recall a time when someone grossly misuses your words to support something you do not believe. I really don’t think God likes that either.
I do recall a pastor who was speaking at a large gathering of other pastors. They were going to vote on something. He told the group, “You must vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ You cannot vote ‘Abstain,’ for the Bible says, ‘Let your Yeas be Yeas, and your Nays be Nays.” Of course, that is a huge misuse of the Bible, and the words of Jesus. However, to be a wee bit fair, perhaps the pastor was being funny, and he assumed (right or wrong) that these pastors knew their Scripture well enough so that there was really no deception or manipulation involved. I can’t be certain in this case.
But in the case of Ravi Zacharias, I do believe he used his position as a big name Christian leader (at least within one branch of Christianity) and his knowledge of rhetoric and apologetics for selfish purposes, not for truth. I believe the temptation for this is great. This is because the skills for apologetics (debate, rhetoric, logic) are neutral. That can be used for good or bad. But the temptation to “win” can overcome one’s desire for truth.
It is tempting to violate godly principles when it satisfies short-term desires. I have so many friends who would tell me during an election time, “We need to vote character.” Years later, they were saying, “No, we can ignore character. We need to vote political principles.” Of course, people can change… but it is pretty clear to me that in most cases their beliefs never changed. Their beliefs were alway, “Vote for Party A and vote against Party B,” and use whatever arguements (inconsistent or not) to try to fool people into voting their way.
I have no time for that, and as Christians, I believe we have a mandate to do better. Misusing arguments, logic, rhetoric, the Bible, and more to get our own desires satisfied is simply wrong. It is tempting… and I am sure I do it a lot more thatn I would be comfortable in realizing. But it is still wrong.
<If Ravi is actually innocent, then I hope he is vindicated. But the gospel does not depend on any one person, except God. If he is actually guilty, then siding with the gospel, and siding with the church, and siding with God, means siding with the victims.>