Can missionaries traveling to a country that's hostile to Christianity and
the Great Commission lie about their reasons for coming? Can they point to
a secondary purpose for coming?
Scripture consistently presents God as a global God with global purposes.
But the missions task is far from finished. There are still thousands of people
groups with no witness to the gospel whatsoever, and thousands more that have
just barely been touched with the good news of Jesus. Particularly in Northern
and Western Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and
Southeast Asia, the magnitude of lostness is staggering. Over half of the world's
population lives in these areas, but village after village, town after town,
district after district, language after language, people after people have
never heard the biblical gospel. In this window stretching from the Atlantic
coast of North Africa to the Pacific coast of Asia, the church has largely
failed to fulfill the command of Jesus in the Great Commission.
The difficulty, of course, is that these parts of the world that are least
evangelized are also the areas that are most hostile to Christian witness.
There is strong religious opposition to Christian missionary activity in these
countries. This area is home to Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and these religions
are deeply entrenched in the cultures of these nations. An attack on the religion
is perceived as an attack on the people group, and leaving the religion is
regarded as ethnic treason. There is also usually some level of political opposition
to Christian missions.
The vast majority of countries in this part of the world either do not grant
missionary visas, or else restrict missionary activity so as to preclude any
attempt to convert members of the majority religion. In effect, human governments
and human societies have stated their intent to veto the Great Commission.
HOW TO RESPOND TO HOSTILITY
How should the church respond to this opposition and hostility? Throughout
much of the modern missionary era, evangelical churches in the West have allowed
pagan governments to dictate the limits of their obedience to God. If the government
of a particular country wouldn't grant missionary visas, that country was left
Such an abdication of responsibility, however, is nothing less than disobedience
to Jesus. He did not say, "Go and make disciples of every nation that gives
you a missionary visa." The church has an obligation to God to
make disciples of all of the people groups in the world, regardless of whether
missionary activity is welcome in a given country or not.
There are, obviously, non-residential means of getting the gospel into closed
areas. Short-wave radio programming and satellite television can jump over
borders. Internet evangelism is becoming prominent. Bibles and literature can
be produced elsewhere and then brought into the country by various means. Churches
can and should reach out to expatriates from these countries who live among
However, there are serious limits to these approaches. Radio, TV, and the
internet can be blocked. Even if they get through, few people know about the
programs or ever watch them. Bibles can be intercepted at the border and confiscated.
If these are the only means used to get the gospel to unreached people, the
vast majority will remain completely unreached.
That leaves the most basic of all missionary approaches: personal witness.
From the day of Pentecost until today, the gospel most often penetrates new
ground through the lips and lives of believers who take up residence among
those who have not yet heard, bringing the Word of God with them. The fact
that they cannot come as missionaries simply means that they need to come as
Different countries have different visa categories and residence requirements.
There are legitimate ways for Christian believers to live in countries that
do not allow missionaries per se, doing jobs that the country permits.
Believers with professional skills or business experience are particularly
suited for this type of work. They can take the gospel, as they are doing their
job or running their business, into places where missionaries as missionaries
are not allowed.
IS THIS HONEST?
Is this honest? Some Western Evangelicals find this approach to the
Great Commission troubling. They feel that Christian workers who enter a restricted
country by doing a secular job are somehow lying if their basic motivation
for going is to share the gospel. Now if a Christian worker never actually
does what the visa application said he or she would do, then the charge of
dishonesty would be accurate. There is no excuse for lying. The end does not
justify the means, and obedience to the Great Commission can never make it
right to lie.
However, when workers show integrity by doing what they told their host government
they would do, there is no dishonesty involved. In order to be considered "honest,"
we are not generally required to explain everything we could possibly say about
our intentions every time we speak. Besides, every Christian should intend
to share the gospel with unbelievers everywhere they go and in everything they
do. The advance of God's kingdom should be the primary motivation behind every
job or activity undertaken by any believer. Living for God's glory involves
honestly doing what we say we are going to do. It also involves sharing the
gospel, whatever our job title might be.
A BIBLICAL EXAMPLE
The Old Testament offers an example of God himself commanding one of his people
to go to a place and present a secondary purpose as his reason for coming in
lieu of explaining the primary purpose. In 1 Samuel 16:1-5, the prophet Samuel
went to anoint David as king, but he knew that Saul would be furious if he
found out, and quite possibly lethally so. So God himself told Samuel to take
a heifer with him to Bethlehem to offer there as a sacrifice in order to allay
Saul's suspicions (1 Sam. 16:2). Samuel's primary reason for going to Bethlehem
was not to offer that sacrifice—it was to anoint David king. Yet Samuel
was not lying when he said that he had come to offer the sacrifice, and he
was not lying when he did not explain that his real reason for coming was to
Under God's explicit direction, Samuel honestly did one thing, which he talked
about, in order to protect his ability to do something else, something commanded
by God, which he did not talk about. This was not deception, but godly prudence.
BALANCING ETHICAL ISSUES
Taking the gospel to other countries forces us to balance a number of ethical
issues. We can never lie. We must honestly do what we say we are coming to
do. We can also never deny that we are followers of Jesus (Matt. 10:32-33).
Believers should be bold about their identity in Christ wherever they are.
Even in a restricted environment, believers cannot allow security concerns
to silence them from sharing the gospel. There is no point in simply being
However, we can honestly do one thing, and talk openly about it, in order
to protect our ability to do something else, which we do discreetly. We can
and must fill secular roles in restricted countries in order to obey the Great
The author of this article is a missions strategist for Central Asia.
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