WRF Board Member Paul Gilchrist Responds to "The Ethics of Missions"


By Paul R. Gilchrist

Recently the World Reformed Fellowship has received two articles on the need for Evangelicals to have a Missions Code of Ethics and a proposal for a Code of Ethics.  The WRF is being asked to endorse the paper on “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World.”  I have read carefully both documents with a great measure of appreciation, yet I have some concerns, especially regarding the advisability of the WRF endorsing the proposal submitted by the WCC/PCID/WEA.

The Schirrmacher/Johnson article considers that it is “the right time for the global evangelical movement to formulate a public code of ethics for Christian mission.”   I have no quibbles over this, and indeed I am inclined to think it would be needed.  If this were coming from the WEA, I think I would be more open to such a code.  But my antennas go up when I see the very liberal WCC and the Roman Catholic PCID as major contributors to the proposal.

Concerns and observations

First, the history of collaborate proposals too often fall short of any adequate statement of the issues.  For example, a few years ago a document produced by some evangelical leaders collaborating with Roman Catholic theologians, I believe designated as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” was highly criticized by many evangelical and reformed theologians because several of the doctrines addressed reflected Roman Catholic dogmas contra clearly established protestant views and which their evangelical counterparts apparently were not aware of or felt they were not important biblical doctrines.  This is not the same as being cobelligerents with Roman Catholics and other non- evangelicals in addressing the problem of abortion.  But it does raise the question of who is defining the problem and the solution?

Second, I am concerned about who defines the mission of the church, and on what basis does one establish the ethics for the mission. The mission of the church is given by the Lord Jesus Christ repeated several times in the Gospels and exhibited in the Acts.  The proposed  document mentions refers to the Scriptures on the Great Commission  not so much as a starting point but noting the difficulty of living and proclaiming the gospel “yet Christians are commissioned by Christ to continue faithfully in solidarity with one another in their witness to him.”  Note that the Great Commission is not specifically mentioned as the starting point, but the thrust is to continue in solidarity with one another.  I have difficulty in accepting the notion of evangelicals working in solidarity with liberals who deny the authority of all the Scriptures and with Roman Catholics who deny the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation.  Earlier in “A basis for Christian witness” it starts, not with the Great Commission which is given the authority of Jesus Christ given to him by the Father, but with a reference to 1 Peter 3:15 (which is okay), and continues with Jesus as the “supreme witness” and his example.  It would seem that the authority of the sovereign Triune God, speaking through Jesus Christ in the Great Commission and further established by the Holy Spirit and through the authoritative written Word of God would be a much stronger basis for ethics in missions.  But further on, principle 8 states, “Interreligious cooperation is an essential dimension of such commitment.”  Given the implications of a philosophy of religions, does this mean that biblical evangelism must involve the missionary in “interreligious cooperation,” say, with Buddhists, Muslims, et al?  It seems that principle 12 again underscores the problem: “Christians should continue to build relationships of respect and trust with people of different religions” (with which we would agree), but it goes on “so as to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good.”  How does a Christian missionary “cooperate” with other religions “to make disciples of all nations” “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded”?

Third, there is the problem of unintended consequences.  Basis 4 addresses Christian witness in a pluralistic world and engaging in dialogue with people of different religions and cultures. Principle 3 calls for “integrity, charity, compassion and humility, and to overcome arrogance, condescension and disparagement.”  Appendix 3 quotes the May 2006 consultation in Lariano, Italy, “We affirm that, while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating others’ rights and religious sensibilities.  Freedom of religion enjoins upon all of us the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faith other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith.” (emphasis added).  These statements seem give with the right hand the “right to invite others … to their faith” while with the left hand taking away that right by imposing “never to denigrate” and “should not be exercised by violating others’ rights and religious sensibilities.”  One should note here how easily it is to use the word “violating” in these sentences and tacitly imply “violence” or “violent activities.”  While one may agree superficially with these statements, they seem to reflect what is now commonly called “political correctness.”  Who determines when a statement regarding some other religion denigrates that religion or what are the limits of violating rights and religious sensibilities?  An important teaching principle is to compare and contrast different views.  The question of defining sensibilities, offenses, arrogance, disparagement, denigration or vilification is very subjective.  Several examples will suffice. 

For example, the preaching of the gospel on the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in front of a mosque was objected to and the preacher taken to civil court, but the court upon seeing video evidence dismissed the case.  Yet Muslims continue to harass street preachers not only in Philadelphia but in Dearborn, Michigan, and elsewhere based on their being offended.

 In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders was taken to court for warning of the Islamization of the Netherlands and Europe.  He won the court case, but the problems of “political correctness” and silencing those who speak about anything deemed offensive continue.  A recent editorial in LuxMundi reports that the “orthodox Reformed Christians who support the ChristenUnie (Christian Union) party in the Netherlands,” urges the church “… to vigorously support  religious freedom, to not oppose the building of mosques, and to be much more critical of Wilders on this point.  The Protestant Reformation is seen as a movement toward religious freedom, based on the Bible, by which Christians, but also Moslems and humanists, have the right to association and to set up their own institutions.”  Without entering the politics, would it be appropriate to comment:  1) do Moslems and secular humanists give the same privileges to Christians the “right of association and to set up their own institutions” in their countries?  And 2) how should Christian political leaders respond to the clear Quranic demands to “kill Jews and Christians” if they do not convert to Islam, etc.  And 3) how should Christian political leaders address the pressure to replace constitutional laws by establishing Sharia Laws in their place?

 In France, school teachers are advised to avoid authors deemed offensive to Muslims, including Voltaire and Diderot; the same is increasingly true of Darwin.  The history of the Holocaust can no longer be taught because of Muslim sensitivity. 

In Texas, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit against Governor Rick Perry’s call for a day of prayer for a nation in crisis.  The Response is a non-denominational, apolitical, Christian prayer meeting hosted by the American Family Association at the 62,000-seat Reliant Stadium in Houston.  In the lawsuit, FFRF spends as much time attacking your American Family Association as it does suing Governor Perry for publicly asking Christians to pray for our nation.  Note the way AFA is characterized in the lawsuit (emphasis added):

·         "...the American Family Association, an organization that advocates and promotes a rabid evangelical Christian agenda..."

·         "...the American Family Association, a virulent, discriminatory and evangelical Christian organization known for its intolerance..."

·         "...(AFA) has been outspokenly hostile and disdainful..."

The basic goal of the FFRF lawsuit is to stop and silence Christians from praying in public places, such as Reliant Stadium. If they win here, they'll take their anti-Christian lawsuits to other places.

Here in the USA the issue of homosexuality is churning within the culture and even in many churches.  Gays and lesbians have taken to the streets and to church aisles demanding equal rights in marriage, even to ordination to ecclesiastical office.    Now with the changes in the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” our evangelical chaplains are under pressure to silence the preaching about these sins and even being required to marry same-sex partners in the states that permit it by law.  The State of California has just passed a law requiring the history of homosexuality, gay lesbian relations, transvestite, et al in all public schools in their curriculum.  Yet those who argue from a biblical perspective calling such practices sin are denounced as bigots and intolerant and discriminatory.

Finally, I am concerned and strongly objection to the charge that “Christians too are sometimes involved … as those participating in violence.”  I must say (I am almost 80 years old) and throughout my travels around the world and in all of my readings of evangelical missionaries I have not seen, heard nor read of anyone using “violence” to coerce someone into receiving Jesus Christ as his personal savior.     I have read the history of Christianity, and there are some expressions of coercion (as in the Crusades), and the “killing times” in Scotland (unfortunately, on both sides – Episcopalians vs. Presbytgerians) and the “counter Reformation” in Spain.   Indeed, I am aware of the Baptist pastor in Florida recently who decided on burning the Quran which was absolutely stupid and wrongheaded, but this extremist action is only one solitary expression of “witnessing” for Christ.  But this incident doesn’t begin to rise to the level of “atrocities, persecution, killings, rapes,” etc. as a missionary or evangelistic endeavor or that “Christians are sometimes involved …in violence.”  In a recent article in Christianity Today  the author quotes Nicholas D. Kristof from a New York Times column: “Many Americans have suggested that more moderate Muslims should stand up to extremists, speak out for tolerance, and apologize for sins committed by their religion. That’s reasonable advice, and as a moderate myself, I am going to take it. … I hereby apologize to Muslims for the wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness that has lately been directed at you [in the United States].  The venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists, should embarrass us more than you.  Muslims are one of the last minorities in the United States that it is still possible to demean openly, and I apologize for the slurs.” (emphasis added).  My question here is:  Isn’t there a difference between speaking the truth in love (called bigotry, intolerance and extremism) on the one hand and on the other hand the coercion and violence which is taught and/or practiced by others in the name of their religion? 

Conversely, I have read with deep sorrow the atrocities, church burnings, and other horrible violence perpetrated against churches in Nigeria in the last decade. 

·         The same is true of the terrible persecution, atrocities, killings and rapes against southern Sudanese Christians in the Sudan by Muslim leaders in the last couple of decades.

·         I knew of persecution and incarceration of missionaries in Peru in the 1940s and ‘50s. 

·         In November of 1995, several of us from the World Fellowship of Reformed Churches (later changed to WRF) went down to Chiapas in southern Mexico.  There the evangelical churches, mostly of the Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana de Mexico, were suffering persecution by the Zapatista guerrillas, a rebellion which was fomented, supported and encouraged by the liberation theology of Obispo Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas.   We met with civic and government leaders as well as leaders of the Zapatista revolution and Bishop Samuel Ruiz.  Evangelical believers had been forced out of their homes.  Some had been murdered. Christians were not allowed to enroll their children in the public schools. Some churches had been destroyed or burned down. 

·         In Iraq recently, “an Iraqi Muslim scholar issued a fatwa that, among other barbarities, asserts that "it is permissible to spill the blood of Iraqi Christians."  While last October's Baghdad church attack which killed some sixty Christians is widely known, the fact is, Christian life in Iraq has been a living hell ever since U.S. forces ousted the late Saddam Hussein in 2003.  Among other atrocities, beheading and crucifying Christians are not irregular occurrences; messages saying "you Christian dogs, leave or die," are typical.  Islamists see the church as an "obscene nest of pagans" and threaten to "exterminate Iraqi Christians."  John HYPERLINK "http://www.csi-int.org/desk_eibner.php"Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International, summarized the situation well in a recent letter to President Obama:  “The threat of extermination is not empty. Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, more than half the country's Christian population has been forced by targeted violence to seek refuge abroad or to live away from their homes as internally displaced people. According to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, over 700 Christians, including bishops and priests, have been killed and 61 churches have been bombed. Seven years after the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk reports: "He who is not a Muslim in Iraq is a second-class citizen. Often it is necessary to convert or emigrate, otherwise one risks being killed." This anti-Christian violence is sustained by a widespread culture of Muslim supremacism that extends far beyond those who pull the triggers and detonate the bombs.

Brothers and sisters, I have not heard of this kind of violence perpetrated by Bible believing missionaries.  Nor does one hear such violence preached in our evangelical and Reformed churches.  Admittedly, it is wrong to lump all Muslims as terrorists or to demean people of other religions, but even this is far different from the violence of church burnings, throat cuttings, rapings, demanding the killing of Jews and Christians, etc.  Without differentiating what is meant by “violence” unwittingly puts a wet blanket on the proper role of the mission of the gospel.  After all, the gospel message itself is an offence to the Jew and to the Greek (and one may add to the Buddhist and to the Muslim, et al.)  Again, Christians are accused of violence and bigotry, etc., but who defines those words and actions?  I am averse to accepting such blanket statements about evangelical Christians who are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission.

Observations and suggestions

·         I applaud the efforts to clarify the ethical standards for missions and evangelism.

·         I suggest that “Christian missions” and “ethics” be defined from a biblical and theological perspective. 

·         We should distinguish “Christianity” in the broad religions-of-the-world perspective from biblical and orthodox Christianity in the evangelical and reformed perspective.  If the starting point is from the view of philosophy of religion, then “evangelism” is no more than “invitation” to dialogue and accept ones religious view.  Thus the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim has his “mission” objectives and methods.

·         Biblical Christianity has its missionary mandate from the sovereign God, and its gospel is already an “offense” to an unbeliever.  We cannot let the unbeliever define what an offense is and elevated it to the level of “violence” thereby silencing the Christian witness.

·         The Gospel is a two-edged sword – “to some a savor of life unto life, and to others a savor of death unto death.”  The prophets of the Old Testament revealed God’s verdict of judgment not only on their own people Israel but upon the gentile nations while equally proclaiming the grace and mercy of Yahweh both on Israel and the gentiles.  Jesus and the apostles likewise addressed the sins of believers as well as the sins of the nations but freely offered the mercy and grace of the gospel, calling for repentance and faith.

·         I caution against a code of ethics that unwittingly could be used to silence the Christian witness.  I have noted above how a Roman Catholic demand that there should be no proselytizing has been interpreted that Evangelicals should not witness to Catholics.  The same is true regarding expressions like “should not use coercion or violence” which is sometimes interpreted by Muslims that missionaries are coercing their people into becoming Christians.

·         I further suggest that we clearly define areas of “cooperation, collaboration” in which missionaries may work.  We should clearly define what is reserved for missionary activity in the preaching and proclamation of the Gospel which may not be vetoed by members of other religious bodies

·         I am loath to join the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church to establish a code of ethics for missions.  

·         I would encourage WRF to collaborate with the WEA to write a code of ethics for missions to be used by evangelical and Reformed churches, keeping in mind the concerns expressed above.  Thus, I am in agreement with Schirrmacher/Johnson that it is “the right time for the global evangelical movement to formulate a public code of ethics for Christian mission.”  This should be done taking into account WRF’s first and foundational confessional statement, namely: “We affirm the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the authoritative, God-breathed Word of God, without error in all that it affirms.”



July 21, 2011