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 unevangelized.
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 them.
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 something else.
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 anoint David.
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 there!
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 Commission.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 9Marks February 26, 2010. Used with permission.