I know a couple that I wish you could meet. I’ve only met them once, but even that was an extraordinary privilege. They are people of vision and courage. Each year they leave their home for months at a time and travel to a remote part of the world in order to train pastors and other Christian workers in biblical, systematic, and practical theology. The work they do advances the gospel in hundreds of communities through the ministry of the local church.
If I told you their names, you probably wouldn’t recognize them. But whether you realize it or not, you may be one of their partners in ministry, because they are supported by Tenth Church. Each year we provide a significant portion of the money they need for their living expenses, as well as for the pastors they train. But we do not publicize their work, and when we pray for them in public, we do not mention their names. The reason, of course, is that the work they do is dangerously illegal in the country they serve. They are undercover missionaries.
Since 9/11 the work of such missionaries has come under sharper scrutiny. Critics both inside and outside the church are concerned that Christian evangelism in Muslim countries may lead to terrorist reprisals. Many secular people also suspect that missionary work is manipulative, and wonder why it is even necessary. Don’t people have a right to worship the way they want to worship? Why should Christians from places like America go to non-Christian countries and try to persuade the people there to become Christians? Why do they have to go now, at a time of so much religious tension? And isn’t the humanitarian aid they offer really just a cover for trying to make people convert to Christianity? These are some of the questions that people have been asking, including in a recent article in TIME magazine [David Van Biema, “Missionaries Under Cover,” TIME (June 30, 2003), pp. 36-44].
All this scrutiny is a concern, especially because many of the questions people are asking seem to reflect a hostile suspicion towards Christian work. Missionaries who serve in dangerous places try to fly under the radar. The last thing they want is to alert foreign powers about the strategies they use for establishing a Christian presence in non-Christian countries without doing overt evangelism. Here at Tenth we take every reasonable precaution to protect the operational security of our own missionaries.
The problem, of course, is that there are still many countries that do not allow true freedom of religion, especially when someone wants to convert to Christianity. Yet we believe that missionary work can and must continue. This is a biblical imperative. Virtually the last thing Jesus said to his disciples was, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18, 19a). This is the church’s prime directive. Because it comes from the Lord of every earthly power, it supersedes the laws of every nation. Whether it is legal in some places or not, our calling as Christians is to give all nations the gospel.
As we go to all nations, we need to be sure that our missionary work is not deceptive. We want to be able to declare, with the apostle Paul, that “we have renounced… underhanded ways… . But by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). This does not mean that missionaries have to advertise what they are doing. There is a legitimate place for Christians to work secular jobs in places where missionaries are forbidden. After all, we are Christians wherever we go, so in one sense missionaries are simply ordinary Christians who are living out the love of Christ in a different location. What we may not do is pretend to be Muslims, as some missionaries reportedly have done, or in any way to deny our ultimate allegiance to Christ.
We also need to help people both inside and outside the church understand that missionary work is not coercive. Unfortunately, many non-Christians still think that evangelizing people from other faiths is manipulative. But the gospel is an invitation, not a threat. Our duty as Christians is to tell people that God offers the free gift of eternal life to everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ. What people do with that good news is between them and God. Our responsibility is simply to give it to them in the context of a loving friendship. As Christians we do not seek to control people, or even to convert them, as if that were something we even had the power to do. All we ask is an opportunity to tell them about Jesus; if it pleases God to convert them, he will do it by the power of his Holy Spirit.
Missionaries who serve in places where even sharing their faith is forbidden need our prayers for wisdom about how covert or overt to be in their witness. It is unwise to cause unnecessary provocation. However, we still need to be bold. Sometimes I fear that in the West we spend too much energy trying to shield our missionaries from suffering. This is not meant as a criticism, but only as a caution. Suffering is of the essence of Christian ministry. How will people understand the cross of Christ unless they see its sacrifice worked out in the life of someone who loves them enough to die for them?
In order to carry out our mission to the world, some of us may have to make the ultimate sacrifice. All of us should be willing to do so. I mean this in all seriousness. I believe that in order for the power of the gospel to be unleashed in the darkest parts of the world, some Christian missionaries will have to suffer and die for their faith. What sacrifice are you willing to make? When we really understand what Jesus did for us on the cross, and what he wants to do through us for the world, we will gladly lay down our lives for him.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org