Saint Boniface, Celsus, and Power Missions

English: A statue of Zeus, found at Kameiros, ...
Statue of Zeus. Image via Wikipedia

In some previous posts, I have looked at Saint Boniface as a traditional model for Power Encounter. He used Ecclesiastical power (orders from the pope) and Political power (letters from Charles Martel) to go into pagan German villages and (among other things) desecrate pagan shrines (a clash of Divine power).

I have questioned the value of this, but I admit that it might be effective in Animist cultures where religion is often strongly linked to control of supernatural power. The fact, however, that they eventually killed St. Boniface might be regarded as a vote against his methodology. But how might such behavior be perceived by a non-Christian from a culture that is not animistic?

A possible answer is from the writings of Celsus, an ancient Greek Philosopher (Middle Platonist… with perhaps a bit of Epicurean). He wrote against Christianity probably around 178 AD. He gives his interpretation of Christian Power Encounter via desecration. (True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, Section X)

“… they assume that by pronouncing the name of their teacher they are armored against the powers of the earth and air and that their God will send armies to protect them. And they teach that no demon, lest it be an evil one, could want to do them harm anyway. And they are quite insistent on the efficacy of the name as a means of protection: pronounce it improperly, they say, and it is ineffective. Greek and Latin will not do; it must be said in a barbarian tongue to work.
Silly as they are, one finds them standing next to a statue of Zeus or Apollo or some other god, and shouting, ‘See here: I blaspheme it and strike it, but it is powerless against me for I am a Christian!’ Does this fellow not see that I might do the same without fear of reprisal to an image of his god? And further, those who do stand next to your little god are hardly secure! You are banished from land and sea, bound and punished for your devotion to [your Christian demon] and taken away to be crucified. Where then is your God’s vengeance on his persecutors? Protection indeed!
You ridicule the images of the gods; I doubt you would be so brave were you to come face to face with Herakles or Dionysus himself; but that is hardly my point. I would call your attention to the well-known fact that the men who tortured your god in person suffered nothing in return; not then, nor as long as they lived. And what new developments have taken place since your story proved false– something that would encourage someone to think that this man was not a sorcerer but the son of God? What are we to think of a god so negligent that he not only permitted his son to suffer as cruel a death as this Jesus did, but who allowed the message he was sent to deliver to perish with him? A long time has passed since then, and nothing has changed. Is there any human father so ruthless as your god? Your answer, ‘It is God’s will that things should happen as they happened.’ And this is as I have said, your answer to everything; he subjected himself to humiliation because it was his will to be humiliated. I would be negligent indeed if I did not suggest that the gods you blaspheme might say it was their will, and better sense would come of the episode if I did. Or one could say that anytime a god is blasphemed he endures it, and that endurance alone does not prove someone a god: one endures unalterable situation as much out of necessity as by choice. Who is to say necessity is not to be reckoned in the case of Jesus? When one considers these things objectively, it is evident that the old gods are rather more effective in punishing blasphemers than is the god of the Christians, and those who blapheme the former are usually caught and punished: just how effective is the Christian god in that respect?”

So what is Celsus arguing?

To Christians who defile pagan statutes/shrines without repercussion:

  • If I, Celsus, defiled Christian religious artifacts would I suffer… probably not.
  • Christians regularly suffer… does their god lack power, or lack will?
  • Jesus was tortured and crucified but those that did it did not suffer punishment. Either Jesus was a sorcerer (and not the son of God), or God is ruthless and negligent.

To Christians who say that bad things happen to Christians because it is God’s will.

  • If it is the will of the Christian god to suffer and endure indignities, who is to say that it is not the same for the Greek gods. If the Christian god can endure blasphemies, who is to say that the Greek gods can endure them any less.
  • Looking at history, it seems like the Greek gods have done a better job of punishing blasphemers and evil doers than the Christian god anyway.

Elsewhere, Celsus makes two more points regarding power:

  •  The Christian god is not all-powerful, else he would have been able to bring creation into line with his purposes.
  • The existence of a willful and disobedient creation that operates contrary to the will of the creator suggests that he is not good; he is ready to reward those who do his will, but is constrained to punish those who do not.

Now, getting back to the issue of Missions… or more specifically, “power missions” (the use of power encounter as a form for spreading the Christian faith):

I am not saying that God has no power. I am not saying that God doesn’t reveal Himself at times by power. Rather, I am suggesting that in many circumstances, power encounter is not missionally beneficial. Although there is evidence of occasional miracles during the centuries leading up to the time of the Emperor Constantine (and I would say up to the present), the moral character, conviction, and love shown to enemies and the needy were more instrumental to its spread (supporting its theology of hope). I really don’t think that has changed. The selfishness, bitterness, immorality, disunity, and (frankly) mediocrity of Christianity today has done far more to stifle its growth than any lack of power.

Demonstration of God’s love in a manner that can be understood and appreciated, tied to a clear presentation of God’s message of hope, should always be given priority. Almost always the power of God through Jesus was done, first of all as an act of compassion, rather than an act of proclamation. The Bible says that He healed because He had compassion on those who were suffering. On those occasions when He did miracles that were not directly linked to compassion (walking on water, the transfiguration, and the ascension, as examples) they were for His disciples, not for the unbelieving masses. Power missions may be appropriate in animistic societies, including such societies with a thin World Religion veneer. Nevertheless, such power should be motivated by, and directed towards compassionate meeting of needs.

Frankly, having to suggest that Christians should interact with the world primarily by expressing the character of God rather than (again primarily) the power of God speaks volumes to the degraded state of much of the church today. This really should be pretty obvious.

St. Boniface and the Peregrini (Part 3)

The mission of St. Boniface and that of the Celtic Peregrini were considerably different. The table here shows a few broad differences:

The Peregrini had a mission of translation (in terms of Lamin Sanneh) in that there was a genuine effort for the work of God to be adapted to the local culture. St. Boniface, more worried about conformity and unity within the greater church, practiced more of a mission of diffusion.

The Peregrini did ministry that was more dependent on God. They left their monasteries without financial support or communication. St. Boniface was more dependent on authority. He carried with him papers giving him authority from both Charles Martel (civil authority) and the head of the Roman church (ecclesiastical authority).

The Peregrini were unstructured in their work. They set up churches but were more focused on changing lives. St. Boniface sought to plant churches within the ecclesiastical structure of the Roman church.

The Peregrini worked from a position of service to others through education, physical help, and discipleship. As such, one could describe their work as “Empowering Encounter.” St. Boniface was an early practitioner of “Power Encounter” through desecration of pagan sites, and his death at the hands of pagans could be seen as a reverse power encounter as well.

One could sum up the work of the Peregrini as Missions from “a Position of Weakness” (us the phrase from Paul Yonggap Jeong in his book “Mission From a Position of Weakness”). St. Boniface then worked from a Position of Power.

But which is better? While there a strong supporters of “Power Missions” there is much to value in “Weakness Missions”. It seems to be consistent with the mission work of Jesus, the Apostles and the Ante-nicene church fathers. With the exception of occasional miraculous healings, power missions is more of the fruit of Constantine and Charlemagne. It may be effective at times, but Christianity’s relationship with power has always been problematic.

Some Other Considerations

1.  What about the disciples of each mission style? It is hard to say much about the disciples. Presumably, the disciples of the Peregrini were leading a more indigenous church than those trained by St. Boniface. Certainly, one reason Luther, Huss, and others were so successful in breaking free from the Roman church was the failure of the Roman church to be contextualized to the Germanic culture. With the exception of Austria, nearly all German lands revolted from the Roman church when the time was ripe.

It is true that in Group Process studies, Autocratic groups (authoritarian, power-based groups) tend to have characteristics that are problematic:

-More Dependent than Democratic groups (non-authoritarian, interdependent)

-Less original in their plans and thinking

-Less self-driven

(Refer to “Group Processes: An Introduction to Group Dynamics” by Joseph Luft, pg. 14, 15, 119)

2.  What are the overall strengths and weakness of the Peregrini method?

Risks of Independence:

-Lack of Accountability. The method worked because of monks who went were well-screened and trained. Without this, it would be likely that the lack of accountability would have led to critical problems.

-Lack of Structure for Perpetuity. The lack of structure meant that a better organized church was able to take over. Of course, this was back at a time when it was thought that one region should have one church. There is perhaps no place where this is still believed, so there is no great pressure for political unity and conformity today. Therefore, I don’t know if this is still a valid issue. Back then, however, the lack of structure was an issue.

-Lack of Coordination. Better organization with a strong central authority creates a clearer structure and better coordination.


-Flexibility. While there may be better coordination with a stronger organization, the ability to adapt and act quickly is lost. The Peregrini were able to adjust to their setting quickly.

-Indigeneity. With no strong outside pressure to conform meant that their work could easily be contextualized for an indigenous church.

-Ingenuity. Flexibility and interdependency creates the environment for ingenuity.


Both methods work, but I think the Peregrini are a better model for missions today. With the growth of tentmaking missions, and the general rejection of authoritarian religion, suggests to me that they have something to tell us today. But we need to recognize that good screening and training is needed for this to work.

Today, there is strong support in certain circles for Power Missions. I think that the Peregrini show the success of “Weakness Missions.” I believe the success of the early church also came from this same basic mission method.

I freely admit that people can look at St. Boniface and the Peregrini and come to a completely different conclusion. But that is good. Christians using different methods and structures is exactly what I believe is healthy with the flexible system that we see with the Peregrini (among others). Think about it.

St. Boniface and the Peregrini (Part 2)

The Celtic Cross in Knock, Ireland.
Celtic Cross. Image via Wikipedia


The Peregrini (exiles) were Celtic monks who chose to follow the call of Christ by leaving their monasteries behind and traveling to different parts of Europe to share the Gospel, disciple new believers, and educate. The most famous Celtic missionaries were typically Irish, but they came from many Celtic groups such as those from Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.

Theologically, they were pretty similar to the Roman church. However, there were subtle differences… differences that seemed big to many at that time. Their liturgy was different. The monks cut their hair in the fashion of the pagans of their land, while Roman monks had the “crown of thorns” styling. Additionally, the Celtic church used an older system for determining when to celebrate Easter. The Roman church used a system that kept it different from the Jewish Passover, since they (strangely) thought it inappropriate that Easter should line up with a Jewish holy day.

The biggest difference between the Celtic church and Roman church (in my mind) was in governance. The Celtic church was less hierarchal (and more mystical). They respected the head of the Roman church and were willing to grant that position as the seat of Peter. However, they took a more 1st century approach to this role. After all, in the New Testament, Peter could be questioned, challenged, and even rebuked. But the Roman church (at times at least… less so today) felt their leader was above questioning or dissent.

These differences led to great problems where mission work overlapped. The Celtic missionaries were well-educated (often) and were appreciated for their scholarship. They worked with local young men developing an indigenous faith. The missionaries did not maintain connection with their sending monastery, so the peregrini were forced to be creative in supporting themselves and producing a self-propogating church.

St. Boniface was from England and was a missionary of the Roman church. He viewed the Peregrini as haphazard because of their individualistic form of spreading the Gospel. Because of their fairly modest innovations, St. Boniface considered them to be heretical. He sought their excommunication. He also sought to have them jailed permanently (the pope wrote to him to curb his enthusiasm).

It is also true that St. Boniface was a bit of an innovator himself. He used letters from Charles Martel (The Hammer) to gain enough respect in pagan lands to desecrate their pagan shrines as a form of power encounter. Not surprisingly, years later he was killed in an ambush by a pagan group, in what could be thought of as a bit of reverse power encounter. St. Boniface also utilized nuns from England in some of his missionary work. Women serving in a missional role had become extremely uncommon not long after the New Testament age.

Gradually, the Roman church absorbed the Celtic church and its saints. The organization of the Roman church (following in the footsteps of the organization of the earlier Roman empire) had a durability that the loose structure of the Celtic church did not.

Philip Schaff said about Boniface and his relationship with the Peregrini: He reaped the fruit of their labors and destroyed their further usefulness, which he might have secured by a liberal Christian policy” (p. 173 The Celtic Churches: A History A.D. 200 to 1200.)

What lessons can be determined from this bit of history? Could it be that ruthlessness pays off? Perhaps. Perhaps not. If success is defined by denominational success, than St. Boniface was clearly the successful one. But if faithful service to Christ is the goal… it is harder to say what is best. In Part 3, I will look at some of the issues regarding the differing missions methods from the perspectives of group process and missiology.

For those with more curiosity on this topic, particular the Christi Peregrini , consider the following resources:

-John McNeill, “The Celtic Churches: A History A.D. 200 to 1200”

-Jonathan Hill, “Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity

                    (Many other sources exist. Just websearch it for more sources)

St. Boniface and the Peregrini (Part I)

Some mission organizations are highly controlling, built on a strong hierarchal system with precise policies limiting resources and activities. Some mission organizations are far more relaxed– limited accountability, and opportunities given for missionaries to show their own initiative.

Photo of Saint Boniface. According to http://m...
Saint Boniface ("Apostle to the Germans") Image via Wikipedia

My own mission board, Virginia Baptist Mission Board (VBMB, is somewhat relaxed regarding oversight. They want to know what we are doing periodically. At times they will help with some material or finances, particularly in the area of disaster relief. They also help some with connecting with individuals and groups back home. However, the board is generally non-directive. Part of this is because their philosophy is to work with missionaries who are linked to another organization. In our case it is Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center. However, since my wife and I are co-founders of that organization, in theory we could simply be overseeing ourselves. We chose not to do this, and have placed others over us. We did that because we want Bukal Life to be indigenous, not foreign. But this also provides accountability. Still, we work with Southern Baptists as well as other Baptists. We work with Baptists as well as other Evangelicals. We work with Evangelicals as well as other Protestant Christians. We work with Protestants as well as Catholic groups. Because of the type of ministry we are in, the flexibility is quite beneficial.

Years ago we had applied to be missionaries with the International Mission Board (IMB, of the Southern Baptist Convention. Things were going well, slowed a bit because I was considered to be overweight. Then financial problems occurred at the IMB, and they put a hold on hiring and commissioning. We decided to do missions through our home church as well as the VBMB. If we had been commissioned by the IMB, we would have had our finances fully taken care us, have received free training, and have had many levels of missionary member care taken care of. However, we would not have been allowed to serve in the Philippines (first because the IMB had made policy changes towards focus on “unreached people groups”, and second because my wife was born and raised in the Philippines). We would also be greatly limited in who we can work with (they have or had a six-tiered system for levels of partnership or cooperation with outside groups). Activities are considerably guided by billet and job description. Recent missionaries have to sign a paper agreeing to a specific doctrinal statement (2001 Baptist Faith & Message) that many, including myself, would prefer not to have to affirm.

Which system is better… a flexible system with little support or a more authoritarian system with considerable support?

This is where St. Boniface and the Peregrini (or Peregrinatio) come in. Saint Boniface was the Roman Catholic “Apostle to the Germans.” The Peregrini were missionaries of the Celtic Church who spread out to minister over much of Europe. I have spoken of St. Boniface in a previous post, expressing questions regarding his use of “power encounter” in the form of desecration of pagan religious sites. Of course, he wasn’t the only one to do this, but that is not relevant here. The question is whether St. Boniface and the supporting structure of the Roman Catholic mission effort was a better or worse form of missions than the work of the Peregrini, especially that of St. Columban.

The next two posts will delve into this issue. However, I would like to suggest a conclusion. I believe that the flexible mission organization is SOMEWHAT better than the controlling mission organization. However, solid prior training and screening of missionaries is more critical with a flexible organization than a controlling one. If this is done, missionaries from the flexible organization will be more innovative and effective. If not, it is quite possible that the controlling organization will be the more successful one.