Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

It didn’t take long for the John Allen Chau affair (see previous Julia Duin post) to make the leap from hard-news coverage to newspaper op-ed pages and other “Culture War” venues.

Before looking at two examples, from the cultural left and then the right, let’s pause for a second for a bit of background.

Faithful GetReligion readers may remember the “tmatt trio,” a set of doctrinal questions that I have, for several decades now, found useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks or cultural conflicts about the Christian faith. I am convinced that the Chau affair is linked to one of these hot-button questions.

Please remember that the purpose of these questions is journalistic. I have learned that asking them always leads to answers that contain all kinds of interesting information. Here is the “tmatt trio” once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, the Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a Boston Globe piece that ran with this killer headline: “Missionary didn’t die from tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.” The author is Globe associate editor and columnist Renee Graham. Here is a crucial early thesis statement:

In the Old Testament, Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haughty pride caused John Allen Chau’s destruction and fall.

He’s the young man from Washington state who decided that what a small tribe on a remote island needed was his personally delivered taste of that ol’ time religion. What he found was an early grave.

Chau didn’t die from the tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance. A self-styled Christian missionary, Chau tried to foist his presence and beliefs on the Sentinelese tribe.

Now, read this next passage carefully and think about question No. 2:

In his zealotry, Chau viewed himself as a righteous man eager “to declare Jesus to these people.” …

Like centuries of self-aggrandizing missionaries before him, Chau saw himself as a humble servant of God. He sought to use his waterproof Bible to compel those he viewed as savages from their perceived godlessness. Their worth extended only as far as his ability to coerce them into accepting his beliefs. This is piety weaponized into a tool of domination and supremacy, meant to crush nonconforming cultures.

You would think, reading this, that Chau was a lone ranger with little or no training and no links to a missionary organization or supervision by anyone else.

Note that phrase “self-styled Christian missionary.” Then again, note the wider reference to “centuries of self-aggrandizing missionaries” and the coercion and the crushing of “nonconforming cultures.”

It’s hard to imagine any kind of evangelistic missionary work (read question No. 2 again) that would be acceptable to Graham and similar critics.


Now, over at the Washington Post, Ed Stetzer — executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College — was offered a chance to fill in some Chau details, while defending the actions of believers who give an affirmative answer to “tmatt trio” question No. 2.

The headline on this piece, which can be viewed as a partial response to critics of centuries of missionary work: “Slain missionary John Chau prepared much more than we thought, but are missionaries still fools?”

First, here is some Stetzer material digging into the preparation that Chau received before his ill-fated mission:

While both Christians and non-Christians have raised profound questions about the biblical and ethical appropriateness of pushing into places where you’re not wanted, much criticism of Chau has focused on what appeared to be his lack of preparation.

In his journal, Chau used the word “holler” to describe what he did after sneaking onto the beach of the remote North Sentinel Island in a kayak. The scene of the young American yelling, in English, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you,” before being killed by a bow and arrow isn’t the most sophisticated image of missionary outreach in 2018.

But new information … paints a more complicated picture of Chau, including an interview with Christianity Today. In the interview, Mary Ho, who leads All Nations (the agency that sent Chau on missions), indicated that he was heavily vaccinated and even quarantined before going on the mission.

Let’s keep reading:

There are still medical and legal questions, but this new information does focus the debate more on the question of the central goal of evangelizing and less on the preparation for doing so.

Chau’s intent -- according to others I’ve spoken with who knew him, went to school with him and helped him prepare -- was to live among the North Sentinelese, learn their language, attend to their physical needs and then seek to share his faith with them. Obviously, the long-term strategy did not work, and Chau will become not only a topic of debate but of study for missiologists, people who train missionaries.

That’s my field. I have a PhD in the subject and have trained missionaries to go to many places, including India. I am also the dean of the mission school at Wheaton College, where we unapologetically and enthusiastically train missionaries to engage their own cultures, as well as cross-culturally, from their culture to another. And even for me, even with the new details, Chau’s case is complex. It reveals more than anything the quandaries for those of us seeking to understand what it means in 2018 to share the gospel with all nations.

Ultimately, the big question appears to be whether believers can share their beliefs with other people. The right to convert to another faith is a right protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.

Why is there a picture of St. Patrick of Ireland linked to this post? Stetzer adds:

Propagating one’s religious beliefs through missionary activity is practiced by segments of the world’s largest religious groups, including Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. …

A missionary named Saint Patrick came to the tribal people of ancient Ireland and converted my ancestors from Celtic polytheism. This is not a new idea. Christianity has been a missionary movement since its beginning. … In his final address to his followers, commanded them to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). And, speaking to Christians everywhere and in all eras, the apostle Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

Many Christians would say we deny the missionary call if we neglect the hard and difficult places in the world. We are truly called to go to “the ends of the earth” with the gospel (Acts 13:47).

Read both of these articles carefully.

Has anyone seen any other mainstream news essays and op-eds worthy of including in this discussion?

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