Perhaps a good starting point for a discussion on Christian mission is to ask two simple questions; “What is the principal goal of mission work?” The other is, “What are the results of mission work?” Between these two bookends lies a myriad of issues and questions that involve politics, theology, culture, racial, social, ethic and spiritual concerns.
The answer to the first question is not clear-cut. Is it evangelistic, making a way for the transforming salvation which comes through Christ? Or is it an act of justice meant to assist people who are subject to the worldly powers. Perhaps it is a demonstration of God’s sovereignty and rule.
While individuals may respond with compassion and religious fervor, governments were motivated by economic, territorial and political gains. Even faith organizations may seek secular acquisitions under the guise of fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to “… make disciples of all nations,”[i] While the answer to the first does entail bringing people to God through Jesus Christ, this goal is accomplished by addressing the problems of the human race. As for sovereignty, the question is – Whose, God’s or man’s? Yet theology, justice, politics economics and sovereign rule are what determine the answer to the second question.
As the first missionaries, the Apostle’s goals were clearly evangelistic. During the post-apostolic period, the teachers and martyrs of the early church continued to evangelize, focusing on spiritual attainment rather than material gain. The spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean and North Africa was due to missionary zeal to share the Gospel. Still even the Apostles performed healing ministry to demonstrate God’s presence through Christ.
When the Christian church became centered in Rome, political authority and power influenced the spread of the gospel. When Rome began to lose its grip on Europe to the emerging Protestant movement, it turned its eyes and treasury to Africa and the Americas. According to Dana Roberts, author of Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion “Papal decrees gave total control over indigenous populations to the monarchs of Spain and Portugal, who then treated missions as a relatively cheap method of pacifying and controlling the indigenous populations.”[ii]
While busy defining itself, protestant churches showed little interest in spreading the Gospel beyond Europe until the 18th century. This left Rome and the Catholic monarchies free to acquire an overseas empire, albeit veiled in pious evangelism. As a demonstration of discipleship, the Spanish and Portugal explorers did include Catholic clergy amongst their vanguards of settlers and warriors. The triad power of Rome, Portugal and Spain would exploit, subjugate and enslave the indigenous peoples of the new land for power, wealth and religious authority. This is where the material goals of Kings and Popes were challenged by scriptural principle underpinning the foundation of Christian missions.
The monastic order of the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians made excellent administrators while non-clergy exploited and ravaged the new lands and its people. Soon these monastic orders would turn against this mistreatment. “The hypocrisy of enslavement and murder awakened the consciences of early missionaries.”[iii] The men of these orders were not driven by wealth and power but desired to fulfill the Great Commission decreed by Christ. “The Dominicans in the Caribbean were soon outraged by the injustices, and they chose Father Antonio de Montecinos to represent them.”[iv] Another Bartolomé de las Casas, “…embarked on a strategy by which generations of missionaries have defended human rights: he appealed to powerful leaders in Europe, and sought to sway popular opinion by publicizing the abuses back home.”[v] These monastic orders became the vanguard that addressed the injustices of slavery and forced labor perpetrated on indigenous people by the Christian powers of Europe. While they were effective advocates, they could not overcome the influence of economic and political gains that European governments enjoyed. “Although the Vatican condemned the slave trade in response to these petitions, and sent resolutions to bishops around the world, the economic and social system of slavery was too entrenched to be defeated by church leaders.”[vi]
What men like Bartolomé de las Casas and Antonio de Montecinos demonstrated was that individuals and their small support groups would prove to be more effective than governments and theocratic churches in spreading the Gospel. For the Christian missionary there is a powerful desire to fulfill a scriptural obligation to discipleship and a core belief that an awareness of Christ will overcome these injustices. However, simply teaching the Gospel was not enough. The power of God’s grace had to be demonstrated and ironically, the missionary’s own government provided the injustices that only the Christian God could overcome.
By the 19th century, Protestant churches began to spread their ministry outside of established Christian nations. Lacking a centralized church, the various Protestant denominations embraced mission work with varying degrees of support. As Dana Roberts points out “Early Protestant missionaries went abroad despite loud complaints that they were throwing their lives away, and that attempting to share the gospel with non-Europeans was a futile endeavor.”[vii]
Despite this attitude, emerging movements such as the Church Missionary Society (CMS), Methodist and the revived Moravian church, both influenced by the Pietistic movement, saw it as their Biblical duty to send out missionaries to fulfill the work of discipleship.
European powers had forced imperialism, colonialism or modernity onto the indigenous peoples implying that non-whites were intellectually, and even genetically inferior to Europeans. Non-technological cultures in the Americas and Africa saw European culture as suppressive and demeaning. Advanced non-Christian societies in the Far East, India and the Middle East viewed European imperialism as disrespectful of their great achievements in science, arts, government and enlightenment. They resented the attitude that Christianity could “improve” their society that they viewed as equal to if not superior to European culture.
A strong current of racism flowed through the attitude of Western governments and mainstream churches that hindered the work of the missionaries. Dana Roberts writes, “But mission supporters struck back against racial determinism by insisting that all people were created in God’s image, were capable of understanding the gospel, and had the rational power to choose to follow God.”[viii]
The missionaries bore witness to the subjugation, enslavement and imperialism. They, like Bartolomé de las Casas, reported these injustices to their fellow Christians in Europe and the United States. The impact would be felt in the halls of government but more importantly in the sanctuaries of churches. From these churches would issue forth new missionaries armed with prayers and money from their congregations.
What they found in the mission field were people who had come to distrust the white foreigners or were vigorously defending their own belief system. The missionary’s goal was conversion, salvation and the completion of God’s Kingdom on earth. What they found was slavery, disease, repression, injustice and domination of people. Some of this was caused by the existing culture; Arab slave trade in Africa and the caste system in India. War, power and domination were not exclusive to white Christian society. Still, European culture did introduce atrocities such as disease, slavery, and land thief that undermined the efforts of missionaries.
In a strange juxtaposition of circumstances, the issues that caused distrust of the Christian disciple also provided the opportunities for evangelism. “In retrospect, even many of the best missionary efforts of the era were tainted by paternalism and assumptions about the superiority of western culture. But compared to the overt racism of ordinary westerners at that time, missionaries come across as surprisingly enlightened.”[ix]
Addressing human rights issues became the catalyst for spreading the Gospel. By demonstrating charity and compassion, the missionary began to convert key leaders who would allow this aspect of western thought into their culture. This then became the key. “Missionaries were powerless without indigenous partners who could express the gospel in their own cultural framework.”[x] Government can best deal with other governments, political, economic and religious entities with other corresponding entities; however, only people can deal with other people.
Missionaries were in a unique position because “Unlike traders, colonists, soldiers, and other western adventurers, a major priority of missionaries was the spiritual and physical welfare of indigenous peoples.”[xi] Their goal was to bring salvation to people who did not know Christ. Thus, the strategy for spreading the Gospel became threefold; identify where people are subject to harm, report the human abuse to their supporters back home and then convince local leaders that Christian faith can resolve the conflicts. This became their modus operandi.
These missionaries succeeded in creating a faith shared by a global community. It was hoped, and still is by many, that Christianity will rid the world of false entities including monarchies, pagan religions, tyrannical governments and self-serving ideologies. In her book, Dana Roberts cites numerous anthropological, historical, geo-political and economic examples emphasizing both the negative and positive impact of Christian ministry in the non-Christian world. Those who denounce Christian ministry accuse them of contaminating or eradicating rich cultural heritage. Others credit the effort for protecting and sharing traditions and customs that would have been destroyed by economic gluttony or political capriciousness. The overall results of Christian mission cannot be measured by whether it has achieved its goals because clearly it has not. While they have succeeded in many places, other cultures have become adversaries toward Christianity and the West.
It is inevitable that isolated communities would be linked by technology. Ecological, technological, political and spiritual foundations of cultures could merge in harmony or tear each other asunder. Land, the common commodity for all humans is the currency of power, economics and authority. Race binds and often separates us into diverging community within the human family. Religion is the spiritual conscious that lead people to mystical awareness. This awareness, along with greed, power and authority would shape whether the peoples of the world will be joined or divided in peace, conflict or an uneasy truce.
When all the events of the past are viewed as a continuous narrative, can we honestly declare that the intrinsic presence of Christ was more transforming then the invention of the wheel? Can the teachings of a carpenter’s son from a poor tiny nation have a greater impact than that of an Egyptian prophet or an Elizabethan playwright from London? Has the work and sacrifice of Christian missionaries brought the inextricable reality of God’s kingdom closer to fulfillment?
Though other forces played a role, Christianity is present throughout the world because of the works of missionaries. They have affected the economies, ecology and culture at every level of world society. In some cases, they brought hope, reform and human dignity to a flawed culture. In other cases, they alienated nations from the Christian values they had sacrificed to teach. Armed with nothing more than the Bible and an expectant presence of the Holy Spirit, missionaries felt that simply revealing the Word would transform people into disciples and God’s Kingdom would come to fruition. Having compassionate nature their energies became focused on addressing human needs, improving living conditions and advocating for the rights of repressed peoples. To be advocates for Christ they had become advocates for the people they come to minister. The result of their work was manifested in human rights, education, land reform, ecological preservation, economic fairness, political empowerment, and yes, even salvation through Christ. They were also accused of imperialism, colonialism and cultural eradication. They brought in disease, greed, corruption and political upheaval.
The results of missions are a mixed bag that is far from accomplishing its principle goal of salvation and Christ centered living. There are secular organizations such as Foundation for Peace, UNICEF, Foundation Beyond Belief, and Doctors without Borders who address the basic issues of human needs. In the modern world, they may prove more effective than church sponsored missions but they have yet to reach the strength or breadth of worldwide denominations that have been doing this work since Paul and Peter. Secular organizations are not hindered with spreading the Gospel but neither are they empowered. Sharing the Gospel is bedrock for Christian missions. However, they are often blinded by the human needs and forget this responsibility. Discipleship is still the driving force that compels Christians to help the “least of these who are members of my family”. [xii] The success of missions can be measured in lives saved, people healed, children educated, land preserved, governments reformed, economies revived and even people brought to Christ. Secular and religious bodies can accomplish all this. It is the passion and willingness to seek out the poor and oppressed as an expression of faith that demonstrates the presence of Christ in the world. The true measure is the desire of Christian people to share God’s love with “the least of these.”
[i] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 59363-59364). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 99). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[iii]Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 100). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[iv]Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 99, 100). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[v] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 100). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 101). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[vii] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (Kindle Locations 1888-1889). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[viii] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 89). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[ix] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 89). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[x] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 94). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[xi] Robert, Dana L. (2011-09-09). Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) (p. 99). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
[xii] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 59178-59179). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
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