Actually— Sort of a Missions Sermon

I don’t preach missions sermons very often. Why? Well… as bad as many (most?) churches are in terms of missions, I rarely feel that that is the topic that is needed on Sunday. However, I am in the US right now, and preached this Sermon at one church, and will preach this same sermon three times this Sunday. So I may as well share it here.


Good Morning, We will be in Acts chapter 8 today, but I would like to start with a story. The story is called “The Three Little Pigs.” This is not the more common version of the story, with the house of straw, the house of sticks, and the house of bricks. It is more like a follow-on to the story.

In this story, the three little pigs are now wiser. They each have their own solid brick houses. One day the first little pig returns home after work. He opens his front door… and discovers that his house is now filled up with manure. Perhaps the family of the big bad wolf had done this as a malicious trick. Even though the three little pigs were… pigs… they did not really want to live in messy homes. They liked things tidy.

The first little pig was angry and unhappy but outside of griping never did anything about it. Every day he would come home to his filthy home that smelled worse each day. He would take pictures, put them on Instagram and complain about how this is proof that the country is falling apart.

The second little pig also returned home one day. He too found his house fool of manure. After thinking about it a bit… he rolled up his pig sleeves and got his pig shovel and pig mop, and began cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. He filled up a big dumpster and a truck came and hauled all of the manure away, Soon he was able to return to a clean house— as good as new.

The third little pig also came home to his own house and found it full of manure. He thought about it and thought about it and then got to work. Rolling up his pig sleeves and getting out his pig shovel and pig mop, He cleaned the whole house from top to bottom. As he did, he spread the manure on his garden. Soon he had a clean house and the best vegetables and flowers in the land.

Hold onto that story and please open your Bibles to Acts 8.

At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

This is a bad situation… a real problem. There is persecution. Perhaps you are like me and don’t like to use that term. So many have watered down the term so much that almost anyone can claim to be persecuted for almost anything. But this was real persectution. People were breaking into the homes of Christians and throwing them in jail. Stephen was actually killed, and certainly more might be added to that list. Things were so bad that those who were not yet in prision felt the need to escape the city. Many went into the surrounding villages in Judea. Some went into the villages of Samaria.

Things seemed so good in the first four chapters of the book of Acts.— almost perfect. It seemed so good that 2000 years later we will still talk about trying to recapture the spirit of the first century church. But I don’t think God wants the church today to embrace some unhealthy nostalgia of the past. After all, God inspired the writer of Ecclesiastes to warn people not to embrace the foolish notion that things were better in the past than they are now. So God through Luke showed the church in Chapters 1 through 4 as almost perfect, but then clarifies things in Chapters 5 through 8 showing that things were far from perfect.

Chapters 1 through 4 showed the church of Jerusalem growing in leaps and bounds. Chapter 8 shows the church of Jerusalem shrinking back to almost nothing. Chapter 4 shows generous selfless giving. Chapter 5 shows giving that was selfish and deceptive. Chapter 2 shows a joyous church praising God. Chapter 5 shows a fearful church, Chapter 2 showed a church receiving the favor of their neighbors. Chapter 8 shows a church hunted by their neighbors. Chapter 4 shows a united church. Chapter 6 shows a divided church. Chapter 1 shows a church started by resurrection and miracles. Chapter 7 shows a church suffering its first murder— its first martyr.

In many ways, the church of the book of Acts is like the church of today. A mixture of good and bad. Of great highs and great lows.

The wording of this passage suggests that the only ones still in Jerusalem (outside of those locked up in prison) are the Apostles— the Twelve. The rest of the church went to Judea and Samaria

But as we move to verse 4… we discover, surprisingly, that this is good news, not bad.

4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.

Now we need to look at the story from this new angle. The trials going on in Jerusalem were not destroying the church. Rather those trials were like a gust of wind hitting a dandelion seed ball. Whoosh… seeds scatter everywhere to start new plants wherever the wind sets them. The stronger the wind the further they go. Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. These were not necessarily professional ministers. These were most likely pretty ordinarily people. They preached God’s message of hope to those around them. Where? Wherever they were taken as they were fleeing the city.

And then we learn about Philip. He was one of the 7, like Stephen who died. Stephen’s death did not destroy the witness of these 7. As one went down another rose up. Philip goes to Samaria. Jesus told His disciples that they would be His witnesses even to the ends of the earth. That is an awful lot of places. He specifically mentioned Samaria as one of the places to be a witness. Philip went to Samaria. Samaria is close to Jerusalem. However, Samaritans were very unpopular with the Jews. Samaritans were like the neighbors that we ignore, or wish would move away. But sometimes those are the very neighbors who were placed there for a reason. Or maybe we were placed next to them for a reason.

Philip did not wait for the Samaritans to come to him. He went deep into the heart of Samaria… and began preaching and healing. And they responded to the message and there was great joy.

I won’t keep going through this passage verse by verse for the sake of brevity. But word gets back to the Apostles in Jerusalem that something big is going on in Samaria… so they hurry up there. Persecution would not make them leave Jerusalem— but the excitement of seeing the Spirit of God do amazing things? Yes. They must see that. And they WERE amazed by what they saw. People were praising God and the Holy Spirit confirmed that they were God’s own. It says that Peter and John who had hurried up there… well, they then returned to Jerusalem. But on the way back they did not hurry. Rather they preached along the way in Samaritan villages.

That is pretty shocking. Consider John, for a moment. Only a few years prior John asked Jesus if He would give himself and James permission to call down fire on a Samaritan village that had not welcomed them in. That tells you a lot about the disciple’s view of Samaritans, I think. Jesus and the disciples were rejected in many Jewish villages, but there is no record of them asking Jesus permission to call down fire on them. God did not bring down the fire of judgment on the Samaritans. Instead, here in Acts, He brought down the fire of the Holy Spirit. Now John, as well as Peter, is caught up in the excitement of what God is doing.

So what are some lessons we might take from this.

Let’s return to the story of the three pigs. All three pigs had a bad thing come into their life. Each was in a bad situation… a problem… something that ruined their day. All three were given problems.

The first pig embraced a strategy I would call, “Resignation.” He resigned himself to the situation. In the Philippines, we use the expression, “Bahala na.” Hard to translate into English but something like. “It is fate… so you may as well accept it.” One may complain… but ultimately one does nothing substantive about it. The problem remained and grew.

I would say that the second pig embraced a strategy I would call “Restoration.” It means to restore… or bring back to normal. It is like a TV sitcom. Things are doing well. A problem springs up… craziness ensues. Eventually, someone comes up with a solution and everything returns back as they were at the beginning of the episode… all ready for a new situation next week. The second pig did this. He undid the problem. The problem is now gone. Things are back to normal. No worse, but also no better.

This seems like a pretty good strategy. It is the strategy of the fixit-man. Find problem. Fix problem. Not bad… but in the Bible, I think we find a better way. And that way is the strategy of the third pig.

I would call this strategy, the the strategy of Redemption. Redemption means saving or returning value to something ruined or broken. Usually it implies making things better than they were before. Can a problem be turned into a benefit. We often speak of God’s salvation in terms of redemption. When I was young, I was taught the memory aid for Justification— “Just as if I never sinned.” It is a good memory aid, but still inadequate. That is because, in God’s saving work, we get more… we get… “More than if I never sinned.” We are not just returned to the Garden— literal hedged-in place— called Eden… we are a part of a whole new creation… as joint heirs of this creation with Christ. We are not just receiving visits from God, strolling with Him in the cool of the morning. We will be dwelling with Him… Heaven and Earth joined.

The churchmembers of Jerusalem were certainly fearful and probably angry… and they could have simply embraced those feelings… effectively doing nothing. But this is not what they did.

Perhaps they could have aimed for the Second Strategy. Restoration. Perhaps they could have tried to work against the problems in Jerusalem and get everyone back into the city with the church as it was before.

But they went to the Third Strategy. Redemption. They did not do nothing. They did not simply reverse the problem. They embraced the problem. Under persecution they spread out over the land. The church was not crushed by hate, attacks, persecution. It grew— outward. Did they understand that they were carrying out Jesus’ plan to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and even the ends of the world. I don’t know. Whether they understood it or not, God led them into that situation and they responded. Philip was only one of them.

Persecution does not automatically lead to good things. I teach missions history… and history is complicated in this area. In the first three centuries of the church, persecution appears to have fueled its growth. However, in 7th and 8th century in North Africa, the church disappeared under persecution. In other places like in Lebanon and Egypt, the church has not grown or dissolved under persection, but has faithfully endured. But even today, God has used persecution to grow His church. In modern-day China and Iran, persecution has led to great growth of the church. Why do some places grow and others wither under persecution? I don’t really know. And I think it is better to admit ignorance than to claim knowledge I don’t have. But I have to think that how one responds to it… must be part of it. The people fled Jerusalem, but they did not see themselves as fleeing from God. They understood that God was with them in persecution and they were bringing Christ and His message wherever they went. It is not wrong to run… it just depends on where and what one is running to.

Maybe that is something we can gain from the first century church. We live in a time of pandemic. We live in a time of nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber weaponry. We live in a time of scary technology and environmental disasters. We live in a time of great suffering and immorality. Most of these things we cannot fix. The problems are too big, and we are too small. But we are not called to fix things… undo the problem.

We are called upon to redeem. To open our minds and hearts to God’s plan to transform… bringing hope and salvation to a broken world.

As a church, don’t look back at the first century church and say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church… perfect, and growing in leaps and bounds.” That was not the whole story. Rather, maybe we could say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church that responded faithfully to trials and tribulations and transformed what was evil for good… and in the process turned the world upside down.”We want to be like the church that embraced problems as potentially… good.

You have supported Celia and myself in serving God in the Philippines, training up Christians in Asia and Africa to serve God. These Asian and African Christians as we train them, often serve in places of great persecution. Sometimes as missionaries, sometimes as pastors, chaplains, or pastoral counselors. We thank you for your support and prayers, and pray that those we train will serve God fearlessly in dangerous places serving redemptively, flowers for ashes,… embracing the heart of Joseph who told his brothers who sold him into slavery— “What you meant for evil, God used it for good.”

The Missionary Journeys of Peter (Part 1)

In Sunday School, and college, and seminary we studied the four missionary journeys of Paul. Of course the fourth journey was hardly a missionary journey, but I can see why it is called that because it completes the structure of the book of Acts (of the Apostles). Most of the latter half of Acts is structured on these journeys. Perhaps this was because Luke was developing background material for “Theophilus” in Paul’s defense in Rome. I don’t know. But the structure can lead some to see the New Testament church as being all about Paul. That is, of course, a discussion for a different website.

But it is an interesting thought exercise as to whether the Book of Acts could have been structured off of another Apostle’s journeys. Let’s consider a few candidates.

Option 1. Philip. Philip was one of the Seven. He was also PROBABLY one of the 70 and one of the 120, though that is not certain. His known ministry started in Jerusalem in Acts 6. His missionary journeys come up starting in Acts 8 and consist of two phases— a Samaritan phase and a Judean phase. It ends with him settled in Caesarea. Noting the structure of Acts built around Acts 1:8 (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, Ends of the earth), Philip had an important role in the early church but not enough “ends of the earth” to provide that structure.

Option 2. John. John was involved in the early church from the very beginning as one of the Twelve. However. we know little of John’s mission journeys with certainty. He was certainly part of the Samaritan Mission. Later, we believe he is in Ephesus. Some argue for two Johns (the apostle and the presbyter) but I will go with them being one and the same. The Didache speaks of Prophets (traveling preachers) choosing to change roles to Elder (Presbyter) in a church. The context suggests to me at least that this applied also to Apostles (churchplanters). As such, we may imply a second missionary journey, one that ended in Ephesus and the surrounding region. Unfortunately, that seems inadequate for us. Since we don’t know more, we must move on.

Option 3. Barnabas. This case seems more promising. Barnabas (Joseph) came from Cyprus to Jerusalem originally, but that cannot be described as a missionary journey. We first come upon him in Acts 4. We could see him as having a first missionary journey— The Antiochan Mission that started and ended in Jerusalem with his work in Antioch and a side-trip to Tarsus. His second trip could be seen as starting in Jerusalem or Antioch (and ending in either as well). This was his mission trip to Cyprus and Asia Minor with Paul (the “First Missionary Trip” of Paul). After that Barnabas and John Mark travel to Cyprus. It is hard to say whether this was his Third Missionary voyage or he was simply returning to his family home. If we accept Barnabas as the author of Hebrews (which does make sense to me in terms of theology, style, and target audience), then Barnabas knew Timothy, suggesting that his travels continued after his time in Cyprus. The apparent age of the “Book of Barnabas” and some similarities between it and Hebrews is suggestive, but we just don’t know enough with any certainty to take it further.

Option 4. John Mark. The challenge with Mark is that we don’t know how many Marks there were. Both John and Mark were common names. This is hardly a unique case. I already mentioned earlier about questions regarding the Apostle John versus John the Presbyter, and the early church often confused the Apostle Philip with Philip the Evangelist (especially since Philip the evangelist could clearly be labeled an apostle even if he was not one of the Twelve). However, I will discount the “Three Marks” and “Two Marks” and assume there is only one Mark. If so, there are tantalizing suggestions that he might make a strong candidate. He probably references himself in the Gospel of Mark, making him a young follower of Jesus and probably with the church from the beginning in Jerusalem. He eventually is in Antioch. Perhaps he joined Barnabas as part of his mission work in Antioch. Then he joins Paul and Barnabas in the Mission journey to Cyprus. If we take seriously early church tradition (and if we link the Marks together), John Mark joined Peter and wrote the Gospel of Mark based on the recollections of Peter. We do know that John Mark also helped Paul later in his life and that Paul sought for John Mark to join him in Rome. We have no idea whether he did indeed make it to Rome. Early church tradition suggests him going to Alexandria and establishing the church there. There is too much speculation due to lack of sources. However, if the speculation was true, what a great biography of his life would be, and what a great framework for understanding the early church!

Option 5. Peter. Peter, in my opinion, is the one person other than Paul that we have enough information about to provide a valuable structure for the history of the early church based on his missionary journeys. While some of it is speculative, I believe there is enough there that we could talk about the expansion of the early church through the framework of the missionary journeys of Peter.

You are welcome to go to Part 2 to continue

Philip (of the 7) and the (3) Little Pigs

I wrote a story based (sort of) on the Three Little Pigs. The story is Reflection, Restoration, Redemption and Three Little Pigs

However, I think I want to change the story a bit. I think that first little pig representing Reflection is wrong. Rather, it should be Resignation.

The responses to a bad situation (choosing three from among many) are:

  1. Resignation. Accepting the situation without doing anything about it.
  2. Restoration. Fixing or undoing the situation.
  3. Redemption. Making good out a bad situation.

The difference between restoration and redemption the assumed endpoint. In Restoration, the goal is to return to status quo. Classically, in a sitcom, the goal is to bring up a (sometimes ridiculous problem) and end the episode with a return to normal. This is useful because it makes it easier for the writers. They start from the same place each time. Of course, this can be unsatisfying. It is nice to have characters learn and grow. It is nice to have story arcs that are more than 22 minutes long. With redemption, the bad stuff is used for good. Ideally, the end would not have been as good if it were not for the bad. This theme is not unusual in the Bible. The Joseph arc in Genesis starts with jealousy, family conflict and enslavement, and ends with family restoration and salvation. The viciousness of humanity in the Passion story is used as an opportunity to demonstrate God’s sacrificial love, and message of salvation.

A great example of this sort of redemption is found in Acts 8 with Philip of the Seven (or the Evangelist). The church has been growing in Jerusalem but appears not to be spreading much outside of the city. Conflicts with the religious establishment leads to great persecution. Followers of the Way begin to escape from Jerusalem. Curiously, it is noted that among those that did not leave were the Twelve— the ones who were specifically called by God to leave Jerusalem. (See Acts 1:8).

Those that left began to share the gospel message to their fellow Jews in Judea. The persecution in Jerusalem was like a blowing on a fire to put it out, but instead of putting it out, it causes the flame to spread faster. Among those who left was Philip. Philip did something different. He did not go to the towns of Judea. He went to Samaria. There was not a lot of warm feelings between the Jews and the Samaritans. It is quite possible that Philip was not only one “of the 7” of Acts 6, he may have also been one “of the 70” from Luke 10. While the Twelve were sent to the Jews, the 70 (or 72) had no such constraints placed upon them. And Philip was probably a Hellenistic Jew (based on the Greek name and his call to minister to Hellenistic Jewish widows in the church. If so, he would be bicultural and perhaps more open to minister to a group that was arguably rather bicultural (or syncretistic). Reaching out to a Jewish proselyte (assuming the Ethiopian Eunuch was a proselyte) would be quite consistent with his adventurous spirit in sharing the faith across cultural divides.

You can read starting in Acts 8 in his role not only of bringing the Christian faith to Samaritans, but also getting some of the apostles to leave Jerusalem and begin to share their faith beyond. Then you can read about his ministry of bringing the Ethiopian Eunuch to Christ. The Ethiopian church sees this man as its founder. Is that true? It is hard to say, but he certainly inspired the Ethiopian church— one of the most enduring vibrant ancient Christian groups. Then one can read about his work in Judea, and eventually settling in Cesarea and ministering there with his family.

One can focus on Philip. Why not? It certainly makes sense to look at it biographically. But this story can be seen in terms of redemptive responses to problems.

  1. In Acts 6, there is conflict in the church over racism. The response was to give a ministerial role and authority to seven Hellenistic Jews (including Stephen and Philip). The story shows this to be more than simply restoration. Acts doesn’t simply show things as “fixed.” Out of this situation, Stephen is described as a courageous preacher, and first martyr. And Philip is described as the cross-cultural missionary of the church.
  2. The persecution of the church… leads to the Gospel spreading in all directions, including crossing cultural boundaries.

There is a lot of redemption. In grief response, one of the responses is that of the Activist. This person is inspired to turn tragedy into something positive. This is not the only positive response, but it can be valuable when this happens.

Of course, I have talked of redeeming and restoring, but what about resignation. Resigning oneself doesn’t always mean enduring with a sigh. Ultimately, resignation is to not fix and not redeem. It does concern me that I see so many on FB and Twitter (especially before I started to back out of those platforms) who would share stories like this:

—Here is a story… you should be fearful about it.

—You are fearful? Well now here is a story for you to be angry about.

—Angry now? It’s time to hear a new story so that you can be fearful.

—Fearful? Now here is something to be angry about….

And so on… more and more. I never really figured out the reason why people share these things. Ideally, they can inspire fervent prayer, and action to to restore what is good… or redeem the problem for good. More often it is just to cycle people through useless or even destructive emotional cycles.

I think we can do better. Philip did…

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…

https://www.academia.edu/45640342/Theological_Objections_to_Christian_Missions_in_Protestant_Church_History?source=swp_share

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

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.

Missionaries as Colonizers

The following is an extended quote from the new book by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, “PERSPECTIVES OF THE AFRICAN CHURCH ON AFRICAN MISSIONS: The Past, Present & Future Challenges to Missions In Africa.”  Missionaries during the colonial era struggled with their role of utilizing the advantages of having colonial powers in charge in their mission field without becoming pawns of the colonizers. Some missionaries, however, did not struggle with this as they embraced both roles. There is a lot of disagreement in this area. However, Olayiwola expresses a common African perspective– and perspective is important.

According to Lamin Sanneh, “At its most self-conscious stage, mission coincided with western colonialism, and with that juncture students of the subject have gone on to make all kinds of judgments about the intrinsic bond between the two forces.”i He claimed further that, “In the nineteenth century this idea persisted under the slogan of “Christianity and 6percent,” by which it was understood that mundane interests prospered under a religious guise. Thus mission came to acquire the unsavory odor of collusion with the colonial power.”ii Michael Crowder believed that, “the functional relationship and unity, which existed between missionaries, traders and administrators in colonial Africa, was not accidental. Early missionaries in West Africa had a dual purpose to promote legitimate trade between African and Europeans and to convert Africans to their own religion.”iii

Since missionaries, the traders and even the colonial governors and administrators knew they were British, Spanish, and Portuguese residents in various part of Africa with a common interest to protect. Okon claimed that, “they cooperated and united as vital element in the attainment of their set goals. Missionaries in critical times of need, depended on traders for funds, and relied completely on administrators for physical security and protection.”iv Mbiti even claimed that, “A Gikuyu proverb says that, there is no Roman priest and a European- both are the same!”v Although, there is a no scholarly consensus on the role of the missionaries in the colonization of Africa, Okon insisted that, “the argument seems to favor the view that some missionaries cooperated essentially with colonial authorities in the exploitation and cultural subjugation of Africa.”vi

Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa contended that missionaries were agents of imperialism. He claimed that, “The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers… missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light.”vii Okon claimed that, “Rodney accused missionaries of preaching humility and submission in the face of gross injustice, inhumanity and dehumanization. While British traders were exploiting their African customers, the missionaries preached peace, forgiveness and good neighborliness, which actually prevented genuine rebellion, self-preservation and determination. Missionaries worked towards the preservation of the status quo and upholding of the master-servant relationship between Africans and Europeans.”viii

Rodney lamented that, “The church’s role was primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism… the Christian church stressed humility, docility and acceptance. Ever since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the church had been brought in on condition that it should not excite the African slaves with doctrine of equality before God.”ix Okon claimed that, “If it is correct that missionary sermons suppressed genuine rebellion that could have ushered in freedom for the oppressed, and then the linkage of the missionaries with all the visible evils of colonialism may be justifiable.”x

i Lamin Sanneh, Translating The Message: The Missionary Impact On Culture. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

ii Sanneh, (1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

iii Michael Crowder, The Story Of Nigeria. (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 111. In Okon, 198-199.

iv Okon, 199.

v Mbiti, 231. In Okon, 199.

vi Okon, 199.

vii Rodney, 277. In Okon, 199.

viii Okon, 199.

ix Rodney, 278. In Okon, 199.

x Okon, 200.

… Not Inspire Them with a Passion for Political Change.

There has been an enduring belief that Christian missionaries, during the colonial era, often served as de facto operatives of the colonial powers. It is understandable why this belief would exist and persist. British missionaries, for example, would commonly serve in lands that were under the British flag. Commonly, but not always, being a British citizen in British colonial lands would be easier than being a British missionary serving in Spanish colonies, or regions that were not colonized. As such, missionaries may be rather pleased if their nation expands its colonial holdings since it provides potential new places to work.

But that is not the whole story. Often missionaries were seen as being a bit treasonous. That is, they were seen as undermining their home country. Again, this view is understandable. Missionaries were doing things for the benefit of the local people that, to the eyes of colonial powers could undermine their control over the people. Colonial nations and companies wanted the colonized to be compliant. That meant they sought to avoid education, or sociological stressors that could lead to angering traditionalists, or development revolutionaries.

Max Warren, in his book “Social History and Christian Mission” (SCM Press, 1967) speaks of some of this. He uses the example of the Serampore Trio (Careys, Wards, and Marshmans) in the Bengal region of India. For those familiar with the story. William Carey, a British citizen, was harassed by the East India Company during the early years of his stay. His desire to convert the natives to Christianity was seen as bad for business, and therefore bad for England. For a time he ministered in the Danish colony of Serampore to avoid arrest and deportation by his own country.  Years later there was a change of heart and he was seen as an asset to British colonial leadership. Generally, however, this was a change in colonial leadership rather than change in Carey.

It wasn’t, however, just the colonial leaders who were concerned. Warren uses the case of Sydney Smith, the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Smith who wrote considerably to the Edinburgh Review, an influential journal, in the early 19th century. The following is quotes from Warren’s book (Chapter 3, excerpts  from pages 60-63), who in turn quotes several times Smith’s writings:

After a number of caustic references, he (Smith) dismissed as folly the idea of sending missions to India because of

‘the danger of insurrection from the prosection of the scheme, the utter unfitness of the persons employed in it, and the complete hopelessness of the attempt while pursued under such circumstances as now exist.’

It is interesting to note his concern with the ‘danger of insurrection.’ This concern, widely shared as we shall see throughout the century, needs for its full  understanding an awareness of the almost romantic attachment of the nineteenth century Englishman to the idea of ‘our Indian Empire.’     ….   The passionate anger engendered by the Indian Mutiny showed our jealous fear of losing that empire. The ethical idealism of the Indian Civil Service showed our responsibility at its best. At all times India was felt to be vital to British interests.   ….  Sydney Smith, in this respect at any rate, gave expression to a suspicion which led countless political officers in Asia and Africa to view the missionary with a slightly jaundiced eye, and when (as most frequently happened) the missionary had got there first, to view him as a potential security risk. …

At least we may be very certain that down until 1947 and the subsequent celebrations of Independence, virtually every such political officer would fervently have endorsed Sydney Smith’s statement that

If we wish to teach the natives a better religion, we must take care to do it in a manner which will not inspire them with a passion for political change.

But he dropped to a rather lower level when he went on to say that missionaries

would deliberately, piously, and conscientiously expose our whole Eastern empire to destruction for the sake of converting half-a-dozen Brahmins, who after stuffing themselves with rum and rice, and borrowing money from the missionaries would run away and cover the Gospel and its professors with every species of impious ridicule and abuse.’

We see there a continuing preoccupation with the empire. …

There we may leave Sydney Smith simply observing that in two respects he did, albeit with some unnecessary malice, help to form an image of the missionary as being, somewhat paradoxically, a stupid and presumptuous person, and at the same time a threat to the security of the Empire. These elements in the stereotype endured. In passing it may be noticed how very closely they coincide with the portrait of Christians painted by Celsus and other antagonists in the early centuries.

Again, this is simply a case study of a broader view that missionaries undermined the colonial power’s hold on colonial lands.

… And in some ways they may have been correct. The Serampore Trio did, arguably, have a role in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. They did take seriously the education of the Bengali, both men and women, and the case could be made that this work did breed new ideas that ultimately led to revolution.

So suppose Sydney Smith and others were correct and that Christian missionaries did promote attitudes and beliefs that would lead to insurrection, does that mean they were doing wrong? I believe not. Their call is to serve God, not empire. As British citizens, in the case of the Serampore Trio, it would be quite inappropriate, legally speaking, to lead a revolution against the British Empire. It would, however, be equally inappropriate to instill a passive acquiescence to the status quo (much like some of the Christian education of slaves in the US in the early 19th century that sought to ensure and justifyu the maintaining of the economic system of Black slavery. Christianity was expressed in terms of maintaining the status quo.

This is the challenge. A Christian is a citizen of heaven and of one’s nation. A Christian missionary has those citizenships, but also is a guest of a different government.

It is very tempting to confuse roles. And the confusion is often in the extremes. A missionary may try to avoid all politics and focus on the word of God. But doing so, can in fact be teaching people to disconnect from the world they are in. It is not surprising that many missionary receiving countries have Evangelical populations that have little involvement with social ills and provide no common voice against corruption. On the other hand, it is also not the calling of a missionary to be a revolutionary leader seeking to overthrow. It is further not the role of missionary to push his or her own political agenda on the people he serves. (This last point I see a fair bit as the weird and curious politics of popular American Evangelicalism often gets brought with the missionary to the mission field where it doesn’t really belong. Of course, the answer is not necessarily to be politically neutral either.)

I would still say that if one has to be unfaithful, be unfaithful to one’s country. One’s country is one’s place of birth, but God’s work is one’s calling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Missions in Samaria” Published

I decided to publish my short book “Missions in Samaria.” It

Samaria Front Cover
seeks to address a simple question. Why does Jesus specifically mention Samaria in the Acts 1:8 version of the Great Commandment. The book looks at Samaria as both a historical place and a metaphor for places we may face today. At this time, I have only made available a Kindle version online. If you want to check that out, you can click here: Kindle Version. This book is about 10 pages longer, and modestly edited from an original version that I put online. That version is free on this website. You can click on the following post to access that free PDF: Post for Free PDF.