A Necessary Tragedy

This year (2017), and this month (October) marks the 500th anniversary, ‘officially’ of the Protestant Reformation. I was at a theological forum that commemorated this event, and looked at the original break event 1517 and subsequent years from a traditional Protestant viewpoint, a post-Vatican II Catholic viewpoint, and a Separatist viewpoint. A term that came up a few times was that the Reformation was a “Necessary Tragedy.” It was further noted, that Catholics have tended to look at it as a tragedy but not all that necessary, while Protestants tended to see it as necessary, but not all that tragic.

For me, I see it as necessary because the church lutherof the West sought not only spiritual unity, but ecclesiastical unity, and they did not simply seek unity, but sought uniformity. Such an undesirable state needed to change. To ignore regional cultures and language, and have a governance that is not empowered locally certainly needed to go away. In the East, that happened much earlier (with 1054 AD being thought of as the pivotal year, although they could mark back time as far as they want). In Northern Europe, it started in 1517 with the “magisterial reformers” with separatist reformers both before and after. For the Philippines, one has to go to the American Occupation, as well as the Aglipayan movement. With the rest of the Catholic Church, Vatican II seems to be the pivotal time frame. Yes it was necessary, sooner or later. And it still is.

As far as tragic, I don’t see tragedy in Ecclesiastical disunity. Centralization of power— perhaps even more so Ecclesiastical Power— creates deep problems. So one religious governance seems to me to be something of which to be horrified. And it wasn’t tragedy for lack of uniformity. It seems like diversity was identified as a good thing in the first century church… but its goodness became more deeply questioned over time. There is no tragedy in diversity.

Where there is tragedy was that people on all sides of the unity/disunity, uniformity/diversity divides saw that it was appropriate to fight and kill each other over it. It is hard to appreciate diversity. At an ecumenical gathering recently to which I was invited, it began to be clear to me that even those who theoretically should embrace unity with diversity, struggle with appreciating some forms of diversity. Some forms of diversity are embraced, while others are squelched or castigated. The tragedy is that we identify people within our own ecclesiastical neighborhood as US, and those from other ecclesiastical neighborhoods as THEM… and we tend to see diversity as a problem to overcome, rather than something to embrace.

Centuries of fighting with words, laws and guns was needless. While it is easy to blame the Catholic church for this, as one from a Separatist tradition, I know that the Protestants also had blood on their hands.  And, in fact, the Separatists have had their moments of shame as well. But it was not necessary. I am reminded of Paul and Barnabas having different visions for ministry. They could have supported each other and gone their separate ways in peace… but instead had to fight with each other, wound each other, and be an embarrassment to the church. And still they ended up going their separate ways anyway. I have come across people almost 2000 years later still arguing about who was right.  They truly miss the point. BOTH WERE RIGHT— AND NEITHER.

So I guess the answer is that it may be correct that the Protestant Reformation was a Necessary Tragedy. It was indeed necessary, but it was not necessary that it was a tragedy.


The Lutheran Church invited the Pope to join in the celebration of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant reformation on October 31st, 2016. The Catholic church asked if the term could be changed from “celebration” to “commemoration.” The Lutheran Church actually agreed to it, and they joined together to mark this important year. Perhaps commemoration is the better term. Let us all remember this together. It is a necessary date. It is a date that did not have to be tragic… and yet in some ways did become tragic. It is an important day of embracing  Unity with Disunity and Diversity, and without Uniformity. Prayerfully, we will figure out how to actually do that.

Missions in Samaria Article

I wrote an article based on a series of four sermons I did back in 2012 that became four posts on this blog. If that was not enough, I am considering utilizing the article to develop a chapter of a book that looks at Acts 1:8, particularly structured on the four locations mentioned (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Ends of the Earth). If I do that, the goal would be practical for churches to think about missions from a local church perspective. Anyway, feel free to read the article, and tell me what you think. (If you are looking for a very deep article, this is not it, as might be determined by the complete lack of footnoting.)


Imperfect Instrument: Bob Pierce (CT Article)

This article is from 2005 on the life of Bob Pierce,aboutus_history_img_01 founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. To some, he is a great example of one who is on fire for Christ. To me he is a cautionary tale of one who sacrificed his family and his “fire” caused him to burn out.

Which is correct? Maybe both. You can read this article and decide for yourself.


Samson Occom and Friends

A mentor of mine, Ptr. Bruce, gave me a

Samson Occom (1723-1792)

quote… and it was very much on a topic that came up in one of my classes, so I had to share it. Referring to Catholic and Protestant missionaries serving in 19th century China:

“Both Christian groups’ growth was hampered by the missionaries themselves. They could build churches and minister to communities, but they lacked either the language or the cultural credibility actually to win converts. That tended to be the work of Chinese evangelists, who could travel freely, use ties of kinship, and discuss their faith in teahouses or private conversations, rather in the formal, alienating setting of public preaching. Above all, the female evangelists known as Bible women became Protestantism’s spearhead. They were typically poor widows, often scarcely educated, sometimes blind, as likely to memorize sections of the Bible as actually to read it. Initially, they were thought of as companions and translators for women missionaries, but it soon became plain that they could work at least as well unsupervised.”

    -From “Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World” by Alec Ryrie (2017)

In a class I was facilitating with four students, from four different countries, the issue of missionaries came up— hardly surprising since the topic was on Evangelism and Missions. It was clear that missionaries were a bit of a mixed bag. They were appreciated for bringing the gospel message to their people. And yet… well… they were also problematic. One student, I won’t say the denomination or country, said that, Our churches in our denomination really did not start growing until the missionaries left. They tended to mess things up.” Others expressed concern about the tendency of some missionaries to control the agenda of ministry, and the resources. All appreciated the fact that missionaries came and they cared. But often it was intranational and intracultural missionaries/ministers who were most effective in reaching their people and their neighbors.

This is part of the reason I find it strange that some mission agencies and missiologists have established definitions for missionaries that focus on their role as evangelizers or churchplanters. Essentially, they are being defined by the role they are least suited for. While often local peoples appreciate missionaries for their work in Bible translation, and training, and care ministries, some mission agencies and missiologists devalue these, or even see them as not being essentially missional. They may point to some such as Paul and Barnabas. But these two were Hellenistic Jews living in the Roman Empire, who focused their ministry first on Hellenistic Jews in the Roman Empire, and only second on Hellenistic Gentiles in the Roman Empire. In effect, Paul and Barnabas were intracultural or at least intranational churchplanters… rather than intercultural/international.

Regardless of what one may or may not think regarding (cross-cultural, international) missionaries, the greatest successes are likely to be not the direct work of the missionaries, but the work of those they trained. It is rather too bad that mission books commonly don’t recognize the successes of these men and women to their own and neighboring peoples.

Eleazar Wheelock is a revered early Protestant missionary and innovator… but less successful than his Native American trainee (of the Mohegan tribe), Samuel Occom. The latter did not get as much recognition sadly… especially by Wheelock.

Take a wikipedia quote from the article on Samson Occom:

Occom was never paid the same salary as white preachers, although promised that he would be. The “Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge” also gave Occom a stipend, but he lived in deep poverty for much of his life. …

…Wheelock persuaded his former pupil to travel to England to raise money for the school. Occom preached his way across Britain from February 16, 1766, to July 22, 1767, delivering between three and four hundred sermons, drawing large crowds wherever he went, and raising over ₤12,000 (pounds) for Wheelock’s project. King George III donated 200 pounds, and William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, subscribed 50 guineas. However, Occom on his return learned that Wheelock had failed to care for Occom’s wife and children while he was away. Furthermore, Wheelock moved to New Hampshire and used the funds raised to establish Dartmouth College (named after the generous aristocrat) for the education of Englishmen, rather than Native Americans as originally promised to Occom.

In Burma, foreign missionaries were commonly given higher billing than the Karen tribe evangelists that traveled with them, although the latter were commonly much more effective in sharing the good news to other tribes in the region.

George Lisle. I Didn’t Know Either

I was reading a post form Wasted Evangelism on George Leile (or Lisle or Liele or Sharp) (1750–1820). The article is HERE.lisle

He was the first American Missionary to serve in another nation… in this case, Jamaica. He was an emancipated slave, who actually sold himself back into slavery (indentured servitude) to be able to act as a missionary in Jamaica. That is amazing. Chip Anderson had mentioned that he had never heard of George Lisle until recently. I hadn’t heard of him either before reading that article. I teach Missions History at times, so I am familiar with the Judsons, Luther Rice, as well as Elliot, Wheelock, and Brainerd (not placed in chronological order) from early American missions.

His story is definitely worth reading, and wonder why it is not well-known? It could be a bit of Missions racism, or perhaps residual embarrassment about the relationship between the US and slavery. Since he was a Baptist missionary (and I am Baptist) it seems quite unacceptable the gap in my knowledge.

Curiously, the first single female American missionary, Betsey Stockton (1798-1865), was also an African American who was born into slavery before her manumission. She served as a missionary and educator in Maui (Hawaii, the Sandwich Islands were not then part of the US) from 1822 to 1825. stockton-betsey-1863-200px

I have never really celebrated “Black History Month” (partly since I haven’t lived in the US for over a decade) but George and Betsey are certainly worth celebration and our deep respect.

For more on George Lisle, you can read the article form Boston University HERE. Or from another website HERE.

For more on Betsey Stockton and the journal she kept, click HERE.

Lack of Early Protestant Missions

For three centuries (of five centuries) of the Protestant movement, there was little to no foreign missions. Why was this? There are a number of theories. Catholics during that time saw the lack of mission vigor as evidence of the illegitimacy of the Protestant movement. This argument actually held some merit… at least until things changed in the early 19th century.  So let’s consider some other problems.

There have been numerous reasons given.

  • In the first century or so the Protestant movement was focused on establishing itself–dealing with internal matters… conflicts..
  • They were often fighting for survival
  • The Protestant nations were not connected to the outside world… and Protestant rulers lacked interest in missions (until King Frederick IV of Denmark)
  • The lack of writing and interest by the Reformers (such as Luther and Calvin). I know some have argued against this point; but a few quotes that express value in evangelizing the lost hardly outweighs the bulk of writing that minimized missions, if not ignored it. Additionally, in the case of Calvinism, the Council of Dort codified an extreme version of that theological perspective, undermining Calvin’s (admittedly non-vigorous) call to missions, and promoting a viewpoint that would make missions ineffective or even presumptive.
  • Some note the eschatology of the Reformers. I can hardly speak to that, but considering how sloppy eschatology has undermined missions in the 20th century, I can see how that could be.

But I would like to note a couple of things.

Different ecclesiology of the Reformers. One might think of the Roman Catholic church as consisting of four major components (such a classification is useful for this explanation only… does not accurately describe the organization of the Roman Catholic Church):


The Reformers rejected two parts of this pyramid. First, they rejected the Monastic Orders. Second, they rejected the Papacy. While there are biblical/theological reasons for getting rid of them, there was a cost. In the Catholic church, the monastic orders were the missionary arm of the church. To get rid of them meant that for Protestant churches to be effective in missions, they would have to develop new institutions with, or along side of, the church. The papacy was at times quite missional. After all, often the monastic orders provided the popes, such as in the case of Gregory the Great, the first missions-oriented pope. Many popes were not particularly motivated in missions, but many were. Regardless, the underlying theology of the pope gave impetus to missions. As the “vicar of Christ,” the pope effectively had the world as his parish. As such, he was viewed as responsible for the spiritual well-being of people everywhere. By eradicating the papacy, Protestants would have to find a new way to recognize themselves as responsible for the entire world. In the end, Protestants ended up with the following:


In the Roman Catholic church, the parishes and church hierarchy were typically the least missional parts of the church. It is hardly surprising that the Protestant church for many decades, even centuries, would struggle with gaining a missionary vision.

Cuius Regio, Eius Religio. This translates as “Whose Reign, His Relgion.” With the Peace of Augsburg, this pattern was established, and then  expanded with the Peace of Westphalia. The ruler of a region could determine the religion of his subjects. For Protestants, with no pope, this essentially meant the development of State Churches. The church boundaries would be the same as the boundaries of the state. It is hardly surprising then that missions would not occur in this situation unless the state expanded its territories.

It may also be anticipated that the groups that were most interested in missions were those groups that did not follow “Cuius Regio, Eius Religion.” Most notably, this would include the Anabaptists, and some later Dissenters. Further, those groups that did accept the State Church concept, actively and even violently opposed Anabaptists and other similar groups— as well as their missional practices.

Those interested in this can look at Latourette’s history of Christianity, as well as that of Justo Gonzalez. Additionally, an oldie but goodie: “The Theology of the Christian Mission” with Gerald Anderson as Editor. Especially in that book, one can read Willam R. Hogg’s article “The Rise of Protestant Missionary Concern.”



“Silence” is Indeed Golden

I rarely see a movie that really challenges my thoughts and perceptions. “Silence” directed by Martin Scorsese is just such a beautiful, horrific, and challenging movie. For me, part of its beauty is in its horror. I have not read the book, the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo.  I rather judge a book than a movie, but done properly, a movie can still evoke much of what a book does. I believe this movie does this.silence_428x321

I am not going to talk about the plot here… you can find that out easily enough. It is about the “Apostate Priests” in 17th century  Japan. But as one who teaches missions and sometimes theology, I see the movie as valuable for students for a number of reasons.

  1.  Missions History. Although fictional, it discusses a historical period where Japan transitioned to a xenophobic view– particularly, although not exclusively, of Christianity. And this period mirrors similar ones that happened in China in at least two waves centuries before, and seems to be happening again in a few places in the world today. The pressure in some societies to conform culturally is hard for some from individualistic societies to grasp.
  2. Ethics.  There is a lot of moral ambiguity in the movie. Is it okay to deny one’s faith publicly while maintaining faith privately? The Donatist controversy had similar concerns. Is it accurate that the Great Commandment, loving God and loving Man can lead to contradictions? The period was especially troubling since while Japan was doing this religious purging with the Grand Inquisitor, Some Christian countries in Europe were doing very much the same thing.
  3. Dialogue. What stance should one take in dialogue with another religion– argument? relativization of beliefs? something else? Could the Jesuit unwillingness to subtly negotiate in Japan create the problem, or not?25200
  4. Contextual Theology.  Much as with the Chinese Rites controversy, what is the balance between holding onto traditional expressions of faith and embracing new expressions? What does one do as far as those who respond in faith and yet due to cultural gap, have misconceptions of faith that make the beliefs of those in the new culture very questionable. If faith in God transitions to faith in the symbols of God, or even faith in the symbolic objects themselves… what does that mean as far as the validity of their response? Does it mean the people are not believers? Or does it represent an understandable transition period from one faith to another?
  5. Perseverance. The story took place in the 1600s, but when Japan was opened up to the Western world in the 1800s, it was found that Catholic Christians had survived. This reminds me of the Thomasite Christians of India, and other groups that had survived despite great pressures to reject their faith. Of course, Christianity survived and even thrived in Egypt while fading away in much of the rest of North Africa. What makes one END while another ENDURE?

Like a good movie, it does not give a lot of answers… but does give a lot of good questions. We need good stories and good questions.