Doing Missions Both Wrong and Right


We live in a world of nuance, but as humans we like to categorize things. Nothing wrong with that. Things are complicated and so we simplify things to understand them.

One way we simplify things is to assume that much in the world can be placed into one of two bins— “The Right Way” or “The Wrong Way”— or sometimes truncated to “Right” or “Wrong.” While we know this is way too simple, such a binary can become a default setting for us. It is not always bad. The Bible uses binaries to teach— Wide versus Narrow Ways, Light versus Darkness, Adam versus Christ. We know there is more nuance than that, but there is value in the simplicity of the model.

But we live in the real world and not in an idealized simulation of the real world. The real world is messy… by design. Back when I was a mechanical engineer, I would have to have designs evaluated, and evaluate the designs of others. The evaluation was never “Good” versus “Bad.” Each design would have its good points and its bad points. And there were points that were both good and bad— and alternative designs could be better, worse, or equivalent in different aspects.

Christian missions is grounded in the real world and as such, similar messiness should occur. One of the great Biblical examples of this is found in the book of Galatians.

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

This passage can be viewed as an argument regarding Theology of Missions. Paul says Peter, Barnabas and some of the Jews in a multi-cultural setting associated with Jews rather than Gentiles.

This story has been controversial for many years. St. Jerome had an interesting theory regarding this episode. He considered it to be a form of Theo-Drama. In other words, Paul and Peter were play-acting— to teach the others a valuable lesson. While I don’t find this view convincing, I do find it interesting. I think it may have been motivated in a desire to “sanctify” them. As “Saints” of the Primitive Church, it is uncomfortable to think that either one could be wrong. Such a view is common today as well.

  • I have heard arguments why Elisha was not wrong in placing a curse on a bunch of youths… and then Gehazi some time later.
  • I have heard arguments why Peter was not wrong in cursing Ananias and Saphira.
  • I have heard arguments on why Paul was not wrong in his conflict with Barnabas, and later in his conflict with church leaders about going to Jerusalem.

There is often a temptation to believe that our leaders are always right. But sometimes they are not. I think Luke knew this. I would argue that Luke expresses considerable ambiguity regarding Peter with Ananias and Saphira, and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. Despite this, we want our leaders not to have failings. I think Jerome wanted to find a way to make Paul and Peter both be right. Personally, I doubt Jerome is correct, but it is clever.

St. Augustine was very bothered by Jerome’s interpretation. In Augustine’s view, that would mean that Paul and (or?) Peter are liars. I don’t see that. Telling a story utilizing drama seems to be no more of a lie than telling a story of something that had not actually happened (like the parables and illustrations of Jesus). Theo-drama was used in the Old Testament on a number of occasions, Ezekiel being an example. I am not studied up on Augustine’s arguments but perhaps he was embracing the Western tradition of Tertullian that saw theater (in both performing and viewing) as being sinful. In such a case, Paul and Peter would both be wrong because they were doing something wrong (taking on the role of actors). For Augustine, I guess Paul had to be right and Peter had to be wrong, because it assumed that what Paul wrote was… true.

I think Jerome’s interpretation is more creative than Augustine, which is hardly surprising seeing that creativity was never really a strength of Augustine. Still, creativity is hardly a test for (or against) truth.

But there are other options… What if Paul and Peter were both right… AND both wrong?
Such a perspective may not fit easily into a two category system.


Paul seems to be right. The Gospel of Christ tears down the artificial boundaries that separate Jews from Gentiles. As religious leaders, it is a great lesson to others to show that these boundaries are gone.
Paul seems also to be wrong. Making a scene with Peter undermined any attempt to demonstrate Christian community. Being right, but handled poorly, is still wrong.

Peter seems to be right. When dealing with people who are uncomfortable with Christian liberty, sometimes one must help them by being supportive, rather than risking their stumbling. Paul taught this very same thing.
Peter seems also to be wrong. In the attempt to be supportive of his Jewish brethren, a controversy arose that divided the room. Multicultural settings are often challenging. If missionaries from country A are serving in country B, who would they join with when people from country A visit. Do they show their rootedness in their mission field setting, or do they show themselves as good hosts to the guests from their sending country? Either decision could be problematic unless it is done in the context of good communication. Being right, but handled poorly, is still wrong.

The idea that both Paul and Peter were both wrong and both right makes sense to me. That does not undermine the passage in Galatians. Paul is correct that Peter was wrong. The reliability of the epistle is correct, and its canonicity is unchallenged. However, if Peter decided to have this incident described in his first epistle, he could also have pointed out Paul’s errors. Both would be accurate… but having both perspectives would be even more accurate than having only one perspective.

Martin Luther seemed to struggle with the fact that Paul expresses faith in a way that is different than James. Thankfully, we have writings from both. I believe that a far superior understanding comes from embraces these writings as accurate but viewed through different perspectives. We have certainly seen unhealthy understandings of faith that fail to be interperspectival within Scripture.

In Missions we should expect the same things to occur. It is fine that people argue:

—Should mission work flow from and through the local church, or from specialized sodality structures?
—Should mission work focus more on evangelism and churchplanting, or more on compassion ministry?
—Should we seek to focus on BIG “God-sized” vision and projects, or on small “God-sized” vision and projects?
—Should most mission work be done by foreigners or locals?
—Should churches send people, or send money?

These questions are useful… but they become destructive when they are viewed as Either/Or or Right/Wrong. The “Creative Tension” should lead to creative and nuanced (and tentative) answers. Forcing answers into completely right or completely wrong, is likely destructive.

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