Missions History of the East– Can These Bones Live?

Nestorian cross of the Yuan dynasty

Occasionally I get to teach Missions History, and one time I was able to teach Church History. As I reflect on these topics, I am struck again by the shocking lack of respect given to the missions movement(s) of the Eastern Church in the first millennium (primarily) and to a lesser extent in the second millennium. Why is that? A few guesses:

  • Popularized Missiology tends to come in two major varieties– Roman Catholic and Protestant. Both come out of the Western Church not the Eastern Church(es). Hardly surprising that they would focus on the missional stream they grew out of.
  • Related to the first, the Church(es) of the East are often seen as schismatic or even heretical by the Western Churches. The term “Nestorian” used by many in the West for the first millennium missionaries in the East is a term of heresy– although it is doubtful that the term really applied (and now where most Christians can’t even understand the difference between the modalism of the “United Pentecostal Church” and orthodox Trinitarianism, it is doubtful that many would consider actual Nestorians or Monophysites heretical anyway)
  • Related to the second, the Western churches have tended to seek to minimize or squelch missions of the Eastern churches. In the Crusades, the Western church tended to attack churches of the East.  Excommunications (such as the bizarre last straw of the Great Schism in 1054AD), competition (such as “Latin Rite” churches set up in Eastern lands), book burnings (such as in the Thomasite churches of India by the Portuguese), and general uncooperativeness (such as in dealing with the Mongol Empire) were the norm. With Protestant missions today, there is often a general belief that Eastern churches lack “saving faith” (strange since there’s is a faith that has survived 2000 years of minority status and considerable periodic persecution).
  • Much of the missionary gains of the Eastern Church disappeared in the 11th through 13th centuries. There is a tendency (especially among Protestants, but perhaps with all people to some extent) to see the “Body of Christ” as existing only in the NOW. We are tied to the church that exists now… not to the church of the past or the future. Why? I honestly don’t know. In the end, there seems to be a feeling that the Church of the East ultimately was a missional dead-end. A failed experiment dead and gone.

Since I teach in the Philippines, I feel there is a real need to teach missions that has flowed through Asia in the first millennium and into the second millenium. While the church may not have reached the Philippines until the 1500s (although some believe traders brought it far earlier on a small-scale) the church has been alive and well in Asia for two thousand years. But here are a few reasons that I think that all Christians should study Missions of the Eastern Church.

  1. Three of the most successful missionary movements in Christian history involved Asian/Eastern Churches. One of these is the so-called Nestorian missionary movement that swept from modern-day Syria and Iraq across the Silk Road(s) to China and beyond in the first millennium. This was an amazing accomplishment during a period that missions in the West was almost non-existent (except with the Celtic missions). Less immediately impresseive, but ultimately more enduring was the mission movement of the Orthodox church into Slavic lands inthe first millenium. The third great missionary movement was the Russian Orthodox movement that swept across Northern Asia and into parts of North America in the 1700s. While this may have been tied to expansion of the Russian Empire, that is often true in mission movements anyway. And in the case of the Russian Orthodox movement, it has also endured. To study missions history while ignoring these three major movements is,  I feel, inconceivable.
  2. Christianity needs to embrace its Asian roots as part of its present mission. Christianity, although founded in Asia, and having most of its early centers in modern-day, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, has become thought of by many as a European religion (or a religion of Europe and the Americas). Frankly, such a view is woefully out of date. However, it is also historically flawed. The largest continent with the largest population with the largest number unreached is Asia. Christianity needs to embrace its Asian roots and its Asian history. The growth of the Chinese church in recent years has been helped with the understanding that Christianity is a “Chinese Religion” dating back at least to 635AD — only three years after the death of Islam’s founder, and only 34 years after the first major Western missionary work in Great Britain. Christianity was well established in India within the first two centuries of the church age. It has been argued that the “bhakti” devotion found in the Bhagavad Gita, was influenced by Christians in India. The first “Christian kingdoms” were in Asia (Osrhoene and Armenia) not Rome.
  3. The missionary movements of the church of the east are far from gone. There are millions of Christians in Asia today who are the product of the outreach of the Eastern churches. Churches survive throughout the Middle East and India. Some, like the Armenian church are quite strong. They are not just part of our past, but part of our present. The Orthodox Church has, in the last century, woken up to missions, and has again become an effective missionary force.
  4. We can learn from them. The missionary movements of the East were wildly successful… and disastrous. What can we learn from them both positively and negatively? What can we gain from them in terms of contextualization and strategy? We can learn about how to do Inter-religious Dialogue from the Nestorians (Consider the Apology of Timothy I). The Eastern churches were interacting peacefully with the Asian great religions when the Western church only knew interaction through the sword. The  Eastern church were converting people from those same great religions centuries before the Western church recognized generally that they can be brought to Christ.

This is not a call to switch from the Western church to the Eastern. Rather it is a call to recognize that we all are part of the Global Church and can learn from the Global Church.

Ultimately, I would like to add the thought that the past can come alive again. The church in China is thriving in part due to mission work centuries earlier that appeared to have died. The church in India and Syria and more have deep, deep roots that perhaps can be watered and tended to bear new fruit. I would like to apply a passage of Scripture (somewhat out of context) to God’s work in the East. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel,

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”  -Exekiel 17:2-3

Honoring “The Other Guy.” Part 2

Thomas’ primary claim to fame is as a DOUBTER. But I would like to suggest that a better description of Thomas is as a FAITHFUL DOUBTER or perhaps FAITHFUL SCEPTIC. I have suggested before that “faithful and doubting” might be better than “faithful.” Faithful and doubting means a faithfulness that has been tempered in the fires of doubt. Faith that is simple… blind… is inspirational in many ways, (a “star” quality) but I still wonder how prepared it is to stand a true challenge. (I don’t know… maybe simple faith is stronger than doubting faith… I wonder how one would objectively test that?)

Thomas has relatively little to say in the Bible as an individual. If it were not for John, we would not know anything individually about him. As part of the Twelve, one might presume that when the disciples bickered, complained, and questioned, he was part of that. But there are a few incidents where he is singled out that gives a bit of a clue to his character.

  1. John 11:16. When Jesus decided to go to Bethany and Jerusalem,Thomas says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” One might be tempted to focus on the prescience… his recognition of the danger that may not have been recognized by the others. Or one might be tempted to focus on the pessimism or cynicism. “Bad things are coming, you wait and see.” For me, Thomas was faithful. He decided to go with Jesus, even though he believed that he would be safer if he left Him. This was a faithfulness NOT borne out of an idealism or optimism. He did not want to go to Jerusalem, felt bad things would happen if he went to Jerusalem, yet still he went… because Jesus was going there and Thomas had agreed to follow Him.
  2. John 14:5. When Jesus said that He was going to prepare a place for His disciples, and that they (the disciples) already know the place He is going, Thomas responds, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way.” This statement doesn’t in itself provide much information about the person, but maybe it does. Thomas could have asked a simple question, “What is the way for us to go?” or he could have contradicted, “No Lord, we don’t know the way to go.” Instead, he makes a logical argument. Essentially, to know the way to go, we need to know the destination. Since we don’t know the destination, we don’t know the way. The logic here makes one think of the Greek philosophies. The quote in John 11:16 reinforces this with the determination to do what is right despite emotions that may lead elsewhere. This seems to me to be a bit from the Stoic School (I will welcome correction here… Greek philosophies are far from my strength). If he was a brother of Matthew (Levi), he would have come from a richer family (rich to get the job of a tax collector, and rich to keep the job). The willingness to take on a role like this (as tax collector) for the Romans suggests perhaps that Matthew was Hellenistic Jew. If these conjectures are accurate, then Thomas would have been raised as a rich Hellenistic Jew, making his education in the Greek philosophies quite likely. (Yes, this is highly speculative.)
  3. John 20:19 – 31. The most famous part of Thomas’ story, the part that created the term “Doubting Thomas” was after the death of Jesus. Jesus showed Himself to many of the Twelve. Thomas was not there. We don’t know why he wasn’t there (on the other hand we KNOW why Judas Iscariot wasn’t there). His absence shouldn’t be read as a rejection of the Twelve. Certainly, afterwards the other disciples told him about Jesus’ appearance, suggesting they felt he was still part of the team. But Thomas needed to be sure. What if it was a ghost? What if it is an imposter? What if it is a cruel joke by the other disciples? Was it out and out disbelief or was it caution. We don’t know. But Thomas was with his friends (the Twelve) the next time Jesus appeared… and his doubts were satisfied.

So what does this say about Thomas? It seemed to show an educated man… cautious… not one to jump to conclusions, and not one to be guided by emotions. He seems to be in personality the opposite of Peter, a very emotional and impulsive man.

In the Bible we don’t know much about what happened to Thomas after that. We know he was in Galilee in John 22 fishing. We can feel pretty certain that he was present at Pentecost and part of forming the church of Jerusalem. We might suspect that he was part of those Christians who were scattered from Jerusalem due to persecution. However, to know more we have to go to extrabiblical sources. Sadly, these must be looked at with a certain amount of doubt and caution.

There are several apocryphal writings regarding Thomas, or credited to him. The Acts of Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas, and the Revelation of Thomas, to name three. None appear to go back far enough to be particularly reliable. But the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas are fairly old, possibly to the late 2nd century.

There was a tradition that the Twelve, in a sense, divided up the known world and then went into their respective territories to spread the Gospel. This sounds a lot more organized than evidence seems to suggest for first century missions. However, one has to consider the possibility that it expresses some truth. The Acts of Thomas is highly fanciful but MAYBE have a grain of truth in them as well.

The Twelve were known as Apostles. By the late 2nd century AD, it seems as if Apostle became a term limited to a the Twelve, with the focus on being an authoritative church leader. However, in the first century, the term “apostle” suggested more of a church-planter rather than a church leader. The idea of the apostles spreading out to share the Gospel seems more in line with a first century tradition than a second century tradition. Paul was (correctly) described as a great missionary… but the vast majority of his mission work was limited to a few provinces in modern day Turkey and Greece. Adding his noted desire not to build on others’ foundations, there may be some suggestion of territories. Peter described himself as being in Babylon. Although there seems to be a solid church tradition placing Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, it seems likely that he did minister in Babylon for a time. Some have suggested that Rome was being figuratively described as “Babylon” but this appears to be anachronistic. John was described as an apostle, but it appears that when he settled in the church of Ephesus, he began to describe himself as John the Elder. This suggests that he transitioned from a mobile role outside the church, “retiring” to a leadership role inside the church. Anyway… if there is any truth to the tradition, the question is “where did Thomas go?”

According to the Acts of Thomas, he ultimately went to India, ministered there, and was martyred there. Is this possible? In theory, it is quite possible. First, traderoutes from the the areas around Judea to India were quite active. One route was from Alexandria through the Red Sea by boat and then straight across to Southern India. Another way was from Damascus and through Mesopotamia, down through the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf and then sailing along the coast of Persia to India. Since very early Christian communities existed in both Alexandria and in Northern Mesopotamia, this certain makes such a trip possible. In fact, the Acts of Thomas is believed to have been written in the 2nd or early 3rd century in Edessa (in northern Mesopotamia). Second, Christians of the ancient Orthodox faith in Southern India claim to be of the church founded by Thomas. These Christians do date from an ancient period, having been already well established no later than the late 2nd century.

So did Thomas found the church in India? I don’t know, but somebody did and probably did it within a hundred years of Thomas’ death. It seems likely that if Thomas did not, then one of his disciples, perhaps in Edessa, did.

I find Thomas inspiring. He was a man of faithful doubting… a somewhat rare but powerful combination. But that is not the main reason I like him, I suppose. Christians today like boisterous, emotional, vibrant Peter. But John appears to have had a high opinion of Thomas. Written late in the 1st century, the Gospel of John gives Thomas a much more prominent place than the other Gospels. I would like to suggest that his influence was seen more in the later years than in the early years of the church. Sometimes, it is the “other guy” who starts slow, but comes on strong at the end.

Christians today like dynamic, driven, literate Paul. Not sure Christians have much of a place for Thomas… doubting, cautious, logical, and faithful to the end. Right or wrong, I feel a certain kinship with Thomas… Thomas who is often seen as an example of how a Christian is NOT to be. But Jesus chose Him. Out of all of the impassioned, pietistic, dynamic people Jesus could have chosen, he chose Thomas. I like that. Jesus has chosen many others like Thomas as well, and may their numbers increase.