An Open Letter from WRF Member Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher to WRF Member Dr. Paul Gilchrist Regarding "The Ethics of Missions"

The open letter below was written by Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher to Dr. Paul Gilchrist.  Both men are members of the World Reformed Fellowship. 

The subject in question is a document entitled "The Ethics of Missions" which may be found on the WRF website at this location - http://www.wrfnet.org/c/portal/layout?p_l_id=PUB.1.48&p_p_id=62_INSTANCE_XnIU&p_p_action=0&p_p_state=maximized&p_p_mode=view&p_p_col_id=column-3&p_p_col_pos=1&p_p_col_count=3&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_struts_action=%2Fjournal_articles%2Fview&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_groupId=1&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_articleId=430&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_version=1.0 . 

Dr. Gilchrist has written a response to that document and that response is available on the WRF website at this location - http://www.wrfnet.org/c/portal/layout?p_l_id=PUB.1.48&p_p_id=62_INSTANCE_XnIU&p_p_action=0&p_p_state=maximized&p_p_mode=view&p_p_col_id=column-3&p_p_col_pos=1&p_p_col_count=3&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_struts_action=%2Fjournal_articles%2Fview&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_groupId=1&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_articleId=442&_62_INSTANCE_XnIU_version=1.0

Dr. Schirrmacher is writing with respect to Dr. Gilchrist's response.

Dr. Gilchrist may be contacted at prgil@comcast.net  and Dr. Schirrmacher may be contacted at drthschirrmacher@me.com

Other members of the WRF are invited to submit materials on this subject (or on any other subject). 


Dear Paul,

The Positive

Let me start positively: You write: „I applaud the efforts to clarify the ethical standards for missions and evangelism.“ Thanks! For too long evangelicals hid behind their debates with WCC and Vatican over mission and defended everything they did and took any criticism of their methods as criticism of mission as such. But already the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 spoke clearly of mission corrupted – from my perspective mainly due to the Reformed influences of John Stott. It is part of Reformed identity that we always need reformation and that everything done by humans can and will be corrupted, even worship and mission.

It is positive that you advise: „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 ...“. Well, the preparation of a WEA code has been underway for years and we are finalising the process at the moment with a large committee responsible for a final draft, which includes WRF members like me and Tom Johnson. The „Recommendations“ of the Code recommend codes for each Christian body and of course an evangelical code can be much more precise, detailed and longer – even though one should not underestimate the disagreements between evanglicals in a lot of matters of ethics in mission.

By the way, you can see a clear Reformed influence in the „Recommendations“, as a thoroughly Reformed point of view has been added that cautions us not to use undue means in evangelism: „Christians affirm that while it is their responsibility to witness to Christ, conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 16:7-9; Acts 10:44- 47).“ (basis 7).

Never work with RCC and WCC?

Now to your criticism. My impression is that your main conviction can be found in a statement at the end of your text: „I am loath to join the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church to establish a code of ethics for missions“ as well as in a similar statement in the second paragraph. This of course is a debate for itself. To state your point would have taken just a few lines and you could point to a long tradition agreeing with you. I think that therefore any other text would have gotten the same criticism from your side anyway.

Your first objection is „First, the history of collaborative proposals too often falls short of any adequate statement of the issues.“ Well, my simple answer is this: This time it didn’t. The text clearly states that Christian mission does not have anything to do with war, violence, and all the other means that Christianity often used in history and which are still used by other religions, but are against clear Biblical commands.

You mention „Evangelicals and Catholics Together“. What is the link here? It was a statement by private people centering on saying what both sides have in common, and only of interest to the Anglosaxon world. It was the nice guys on both sides that made it possible. The „Recommendations“ are made by the three bodies officially and do not do not do so on the basis of a common theology, but only on the basis of a common viewpoint of the ethics of mission: God does not want us do use violence, force, etc. in mission, no matter what view of salvation, grace, baptism or the Lord’s supper we have.

Of course Christians never really can leave out theology, and our common protest against abortion – which you think is possible - has a theological component, too. But the „Recommendations“ clearly state that their goal is not to state a common theology or downplay differences, but to make a common statement on an ethical question. Below I will go into detail as to why this is especially needed in the political situation of globalisation. The world’s largest religion states that mission should never be mixed with politics, war, violence, hatred, power games, false witness etc.

I personally follow the Westminster Confession’s (article XXV) view that churches are more or less corrupt or pure and that we have at the same time to assure the purity of the church and to work towards the „universal and Catholic“ visible church“. We never should let false churches be left alone, but discuss with them with an open Bible as long as they are willing to do so. And we always should remind ourselves: „The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error“. Yes, trying to overcome splits in the church can never be done by bypassing the truth and without studying the Bible, but we also cannot take the splits for granted and talk to anyone except other confessions. We always have to work towards reformation, in our own churches as well as in all others. Sitting together, studying theology and the Bible together across all confessional borders can lead to reformation of a church like the Church of Uganda or lead to common Biblical statements like the first two sentences of the „Recommendations“, that mission is the essence of the church and that every believer (not the church or an institution) has to be a witness.

The name giver of our school, Martin Bucer, was invited to help bring reform to the diocese of Cologne, the largest German state with Bonn as its capital. Bucer went despite a lot of criticsm from his fellow reformers and started to preach and reeducate the priests. He lost his reputation because of his ‚cooperation’ with the Catholics. Nevertheless many people ‚converted’, Protestant churches were started, which are still around, and a reformation started that was Protestant by content but not by name. After a year, Melanchton came along and was amazed about the achievements and started to rebuild Bucer’s reputation. The whole thing failed, because troops from Bavaria captured the state and the archbishop. Bucer took his programme to England, where it became the basis for the Anglican reformation – the main reason for its Reformed undertone in dogma.

When Bucer later was asked by the kaiser to help formulate a common confession acceptable both to the Protestants and the Pope, he started to work on it and got many reformers to help him in meeting many Catholics interested in reform. He even got the help of John Calvin, who helped to formulate two great statements of justification and the Lord’s supper –still wrongly seen by some as Calvin’s ‚Catholic’ lapse. When the kaiser wanted to force Bucer to add transsubstantiation to the document, Bucer refused and had to run for his life, proving that he was not a compromiser. Nevertheless he and Calvin were convinced that they were obligated to take every chance for reform and achieve more unity among the confessions, even though they knewthey probably would fail.

A new situation

May I add something here as someone involved in discussions about mission with the WCC for decades and as someone who has written extensively on the Roman Catholic Church, e.g. a history of indulgences. On a number of issues here is a huge difference between the present situation and the situation 30 years ago.

Take, for example, the new role of central ethical questions like homosexuality and abortion. Today we are in agreement with the Catholic Church at a time when these are contentious issues. Thirty years ago  when our traditional ethical standards still were general standards of our societies it was of little interest that we were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Catholic Church on the issues. We are also in agreement with more than half of the members of the WCC, as not only do the Oriental and Orthodox churches think like we do, but also many other WCC member churches.

Also the overlap between WCC and WEA has become large. Like it or not, in part evangelicals talk to themselves when talking to the WCC. Take the Church of Uganda for instance. As an Anglican church it is a member of WCC, 30 years ago mainly liberal or at least main line, now mainly evangelical: Archbishop Henry Orombi is meanwhile a member of the Board of Directors of the World Reformed Fellowship, and gave a superb contribution at the last General Assembly in Ediburgh. This is the complicated world of today, where the real lines no longer are between bodies, but within all bodies.

Take the call for a moratorium for missions at the end of the 1960s or the heated debate over a claimed ‚obsession’ for missions among evangelicals. Is it not a major step forward that the Vatican and the WCC agree with us that there is no church without mission and no Christianity without „proclaiming the Word of God“? This will greatly help evangelicals wherever mission as such is in inter-Christian dispute. If you read the whole document you also will find another very evangelical fact: The Bible is the guideline for mission. It is easy to see the core statements referenced with Bible verses throughout. 40% of the text itself consists of Biblical quotes or phrases, the reason being that it often was the easiest way to reach agreement by the three bodies by using this kind of language!

I am eager to take other confessions as they are today, not as they were in history or as I learned them in seminary. Thus I see developments where things get worse than before, and I see developments where things grow much better. And this is true not only for the Catholic Church or WCC’s members churches, but also for the evangelical community. There are great developments, where Biblical teaching is returning and Biblical commands are taken much more seriously worldwide, but at the same time there are developments which can make one sleepless. And it is harder than ever to tell the deviding line between pure and unpure churches and who are the real believers and who are only Christians by name.

You also speak about homosexuality and problems in the US, when you say it is sin. What again does this have to do with the „Recommendations“? Again, Evangelicals are, in agreement here with the Vatican and with some of the largest member churches of the WCC, the Orthodox churches and the Pentecostal World Fellowship. On the other hand this is not a question without unrest within the evangelical community itself. The line does not go here between WEA and WCC, but often within denominations that are members of the WCC or WEA or both.

The worst possible meaning?

To be frank: my impression is that because on principle you object to any common ecumenical text you read this ecumenical text in the worst possible way and just find what you want to find.

For example,  you write: „Finally, I am concerned and strongly object to the charge that ‚Christians too are sometimes involved … as those participating in violence’.” And then you list a lot of Muslim and other violence and state that nothing similar is true in our circles. I have the impression that you really twist the text here to make it look bad. Let me quote the whole sentence: „There are increasing interreligious tensions in the world today, including violence and the loss of human life. Politics, economics and other factors play a role in these tensions. Christians too are sometimes involved in these conflicts, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, either as those who are persecuted or as those participating in violence.“ You do not take the „sometimes“ in consideration. You omit the „voluntarily or involuntarily“. You omit that Christians are not only involved „participating“, but also „as those who are persecuted“. And you do so as if the text speaks about us, but it speaks about „Christians“ in general, which includes those misguided Christians on the outer left and right wing of world Christianity that use violence or political power to spread their views, as well as Christians in name only who have never had an experience of Christ in their lives. In some countries, when Christians are attacked (in violence that  others have started), they nevertheless strike back far beyond self-defense. Of course, there is a huge difference between them and violent Muslims in quantity. But in some Orthodox countries like Greece there is still violence against Muslims and Evangelicals. Of course, there is no accepted theological argument to back it up, as there is in Islam. But we should always stand up against violence and the misuse of state power in the name of the gospel and see that in line with the convictions of our Reformed fathers anything good can be corrupted, including a Bible-believing Reformed position. Certain Reformed preachers endorsing theologically the apartheid regime in South Africa using violence against Black human rights activitsts, some Presbyterians in in Northern Ireland who exacerbated an already explosive political situation from their pulpits, the few pastors that took the theory of ‘Christian Reconstruction’, emerging from our camp, on to practice and bombed abortion clinics, they all prove, that the danger is not only with others.

Yet another example: You doubt whether we really quote the Great Commission and give it its due weight: „Note that the Great Commission is not specifically mentioned as the starting point, but the thrust is to continue in solidarity with one another“. We do not misquote the Bible verses when quoting the Great Commission and our message from Mt 28 is not just that there should be „solidarity“. We actually quote all five existing ‚great commissions’ by Jesus (from the four gospels and Acts) to prove, that we should „continue faithfully“ to witness, as Christ has „commissioned“ us, even if it „is difficult, hindered, or even prohibited“. What a message! And yes, as the commission was given to all apostles and to the church as a whole, this is something we do „in solidarity“ together „wherever possible“. Or should we do it „fighting each other wherever possible“? Incidentally my colleague, John Langlois, who wrote the first draft, actually started with quoting the Great Commission. This was changed later to include all the elements of the Great Commission and the four other versions of it, as stated above, without quoting just the verse in order to make it even stronger.

 You read into the „Recommendations“ dangers which are not there. For example, you quote “Interreligious cooperation is an essential dimension of such commitment”, but you twist it into „does this mean that biblical evangelism must involve the missionary in ‚interreligious cooperation,’ say, with Buddhists, Muslims, et al?“. The sentence itself says clearly what we speak about, namely the worldly realm: „Christians are called to commit themselves to work with all people in mutual respect, promoting together justice, peace and the common good.“ Nowhere is there any hint that the gospel should be changed towards interreligious cooperation or that such cooperation is a dimension of preaching the gospel! It only makes sense where we work in the wordly and political realm towards the common good, and this is what Daniel and Joseph did.

Persecution

One third of your text lists examples of persecution and warns against islamization, as if the „Recommendations“ deny this. You even defend Geert Wilders, an immoral racist in the Netherlands, who rightly won the secular right in court to criticise Islam in any way. What does this have to do with the „Recommendations“? I want the right to preach the gospel publicly to Muslims and to warn against islamization. But as a Christian I do not need the right to speak in hatred and with false witness against Muslims. The Ten Commandments are an ethical boundary for missions to Muslims too. Wilders is the perfect example of what we mean with our „Recommendations“, even in a secular society, he has the right to do what he is doing.

As someone fighting persecution of Christians professionally, I can only add that persecution was on my mind throughout all the five years of ecumenical discussions over the „Recommendations“. This is clear if you see the context of the document, which is the widespread persecution of Christians and a major threat to mission work by anti- conversion laws, hate crime laws, Muslim-inspired UN declarations, press campaigns against mission (especially evangelical mission) and gross misunderstanding of mission as politics. We were urged to do what we did by Christians from countries where Christians are persecuted minorities and seen as a spearhead of a political expansion of Christianity. We also were urged by politicians interested in defending mission as part of religious freedom to state clearly that mission is not a political power game. All this might look different in the US, but I am not surprised that we receive an overwhelming ‚Thank You’ from churches, including evangelical churches in the global south.

And of course there is a common ‚ecumenical’ experience behind the code: In real persecution the offenders do not differentiate between Catholics, Orthodox, main line Christians, Evangelicals or Pentecostals. They do not discriminate between one group and another - they kill them all as, for example, in Turkey and in India. And wherever Christians have the chance to defend ourselves in the political world, we should do it together with one voice, as it is done in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and India. In free countries it is hard to understand this, but in countries of persecution with Christian minorities, all Christians have to rely on each other. It is dishonouring to the Christian God if Catholics try to achieve something at the expense of Evangelicals or Evangelicals at the expense of Catholics.

Countering wrong accusations (and some true cases of corrupted mission) we were looking for documents stating that Christian mission by its very definition excludes violence, force, bribery, drugs and other immoral means to get people to convert. But we did not find clear statements on an official or regional/world level, including no evangelical ones, even though the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 clearly states that even mission can be and has been corrupted. We ourselves might take it for granted that Christian mission is peaceful and respects the dignity of human beings, but not the world public, especially one that sees the means that some Muslims use to spread or defend their religion. Looking back into history, we cannot say „Christians never did something like this“. Most Christian countries are „Christian countries“ because of wars, political developments or colonialism – the US as a younger nation being an exception here. The pure expansion of the church by mission and convincing people is quite new in history and makes up less than 10% of church history. We evangelicals might have a better record (even though some people in non-Western countries, who see the Iraq war wrongly as a result of an evangelical president, see this differently), but can we really say that we have always been free from mixing God’s mission with state politics, power games, financial interests or feelings of triumph over others?

Presently ethical codes on mission work are being written on many levels – see a great research article in issue 2/2010 of the International Journal for Religious Freedom. The International Institute for Religious Freedom of WEA has been involved on an academic level in virtually all state, secular and multireligious codes, like the famous Oslo Code „Missionary Activities and Human Rights: Recommended Ground Rules for Missionary Activities” of 2010. We want to ensure that those secular codes protect our religious freedom to spread the gospel and reconcile the right to mission with other human rights – and so far we have been very successful. It would be devastating if such codes were to give the impression that our way of doing mission is morally wrong or against the human rights of people.

Should we leave it to others to say which kind of mission is covered by religious freedom and which is not? Should we not give a Christian perspective – which is often even more narrow than secular codes? (Thus false witness against others can be covered by the freedom of speech, but surely not by Christ’s command.)

In 2006 the Vatican and WCC started a timely process for a code of mission. Should we have sat aside and waited for a statement that might have sounded in the end as if evangelical mission is the problem – as has happened in earlier decades? We decided to get involved as WEA on behalf of our persecuted fellow Christians, because they said, that they need a strong statement from World Christianity, as persecution and accusations are directed against Christians in general and more and more persecutors do not distinguish according to confessions. We could have produced and will produce our own evangelical code of ethics of mission, but in the political arena, the joint code will be much more powerful.

Dangers?

You say that rules like ‚not to denigrate others’ are a problem, as they „easily“ take with the left hand what has been given by the right hand and as it is the question which defines it in detail. This could be an argument against any Christian ethics. If you follow the Ten Commandments and do not want to use false witness in evangelism, could this not be used against evangelism itself and is it not sometimes difficult to define „false witness“? Nevertheless, the command is there and valid for evangelism, and no possible danger can get around its validity. And when you ask „who determines when a statement regarding some other religion denigrates that religion“, the „Recommendations“ are quite clear: In the final analysis, God himself. When we ask all „never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith“, what is your goal by stating the dangers? Should we „denigrate, vilify or misrepresent“ others? Of course not. Our God and our faith are great enough in themselves, we do not to make them look bigger through false witness and denigration. This does not forbid criticism. The „Recommendations“ say: „Even when the gospel challenges certain aspects of cultures, Christians are called to respect all people“ and „Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions.“ Thus it clear that the solution is not to give up criticsm of other religious views or culture, but to do this „in gentlenessand respect“, as 1 Peter 3:15 calls us to do. So all one can criticse is that such a short paper as the „Recommendations“ does not go into further details.

Why do you ask whether or not Muslims give us the same rights as we give them? We are talking about ethical commands from Scripture. They are true no matter how others live and behave. If we wait until others love us first, we can wait forever.

Suggestions

May I comment on most of the suggestions you list at the end and some other remarks, always starting by quoting them?

„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 ...“ This is exactly what the „Recommendations say.“ They say it comes from God, it starts with Jesus as „the ultimate witness“, it cannot be bypassed, because it is „commissioned“ by him, and therefore „Mission belongs to the very being of the church.“ We did not go further on purpose because 1. the statement had to be very short and 2. we did not want to engage in defining mission in detail, because of our differences. But the „Recommendations“ counterbalance the ethics of mission with the very, very clear statement, that not to witness (and thus being nice to all) is no option for Christians. Without mission they would have to believe in another God, so Christians have no choice, they have to witness. Isn’t it great in light of all the debates over mission in the last decades that world christianity can state this again in common?

„I suggest that ‚Christian missions’ and ‚ethics’ be defined from a biblical and theological perspective.“ This is exactly what the „Recommendations“ do, albeit very briefly. No other standard is mentioned. God is seen as the author of mission as well of our ethics, including human rights grounded in the human dignity through creation by God. Of course, a purely evangelical text would explore this in more detail, but nowhere is another source of missions mentioned, no office, no institution, no experts.

„I caution against a code of ethics that unwittingly could be used to silence the Christian witness.“ How is that? Since we follow the ethic of Jesus in proclaiming his gospel, how should this ethic silence witnessing? And where do the „Recoomendations“ silence any witness? It is the clearest ecumenical document in existence that states that Christian witness never can be silenced. Or should we not speak about the ethics of mission, because others might misuse this? Everything can be misused, but how can this be an argument against a text like 1 Peter 3:15? That Christians react peacefully in the face of persecution is misused. Attackers know that they do not have to fear much when they attack Christians. Nevertheless it is right that we, like Paul, use legal means where possible and wise, but otherwise suffer and do not arm the Christian community for a fight against our enemies.

„We cannot let the unbeliever define what an offense is and elevate it to the level of ‚violence’ thereby silencing the Christian witness.“ Agreed. But where in the „Recommendations“ is this done or recommended? The document defines unethical means of witness by God’s standards, starting with the example of Jesus, and uses the Bible to define them, but nowhere states that non-Christians should define this, or that we should stop witnessing when others think it to be unethical.

A great first sentence

The preamble of the „Recommendations“ comes from the very heart of our convictions and could have been written in 1846 when the Evangelical Alliance was founded or be a preamble of WRF: „Mission belongs to the very being of the church. Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian. At the same time, it is necessary to do so according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings.” When I wrote my book „World Mission – Heart of Christianity“, I never dreamed that one day an ecumenical document representing more Christians than any other document before would tell this to the world as the only possible truth.

The Evangelical Alliance has been working towards unity under the Word of God, cooperation in world mission, religious freedom and human rights (eg fighting slavery) from its very inception in mid 19th century, and all four areas are fulfilled by this document, as the Secretary General highlighted in his speech at the launch. This document does not lead us away from our history and convictions, but proves, that our basic convictions are the core of Christianity.

All evangelicals involved in the process were all conservative, mission-minded and convinced evangelicals and we made clear from the beginning, that we will and cannot sign anything, that is against our conviction. (Of course we were glad about the same truthfulness from the other partners.) We knew that we could not start to define dogma, because the differences are too large; we knew that a lot would be missing in such a short statement; we knew that the langauge could not be purely evangelical (even though it is now very biblical), but we all agreed that nobody would be urged to accept a sentence just for unity‘s sake. When I read sentence by sentence again and again, I cannot see to which sentence an evangelical should object. We do not state that all religions lead to God or that Jesus is not always the truth. The text does not set tradition over the Bible or define the church in a Catholic, Orthodox or liberal understanding. Nowhere is a dialogue propagated, in which we see our truths and other religions on one level, but one where we are „to strengthen“ our own Christian „identity and faith“ first. 40% of the text is made up of phrases taken from the Bible anyway.

Inter-Christian mission?

I would like to add a topic that you do not mention but seems to lie behind some of your statements. Some critics have taken the document to forbid inter-Christian proselytism. Actually the topic is not mentioned. The larger part of propagating the faith of world religions takes place within, not between, those religions! Most Muslim ‚mission’ is directed against other Muslims, eg towards secular or liberal Muslims. Mystics preach to islamists, islamists to Ahmadiyyas, Alevites to Sunnites. Jews rarely do ‚mission’ to non-Jews, but are heavily involved in trying to win over people from the large branches of Jewish faith to others. Christianity is no exception here. I have a library of Catholic books from the US trying to convince Evangelicals to become Catholics.

The „Recommendations“ do not mention the topic and thus do not further or forbid this. On the other hand they very clearly speak about the topic, by saying: Whenever you witness, do it following Jesus’ example and keeping God’s commandments. So while it is true that we should be aware of the human dignity of Muslims in witnessing, it is also true when Catholics minister to Evangelicals and the other way round. When Southern Baptists try to win over Pentecostals, I still expect them to keep God’s commandments in dealing with other people. When Baptists try to convince Paedobaptists and the other way round, or congregationalists try to prove bishops to be wrong, and the bishops (eg of the Hungarian Reformed Church or the Anglican Church of Uganda) defend their case – debates taking place even within the World Reformed Fellowship – we should always do this by spiritual sober arguments, not by power games, by denigrating people, or else. We will and should win people for God’s truth not by might, but by His Spirit only!