by David M. Howard
October 15, 1969, was “Moratorium Day” all across the United States. A wide variety of veterans groups, student organizations and impromptu gatherings protested the war in Viet Nam, calling for an immediate moratorium on the war. That day I was scheduled to speak in chapel at a Christian college.
October 15, 1969, was "Moratorium Day" all across the United States. A wide variety of veterans groups, student organizations and impromptu gatherings protested the war in Viet Nam, calling for an immediate moratorium on the war. That day I was scheduled to speak in chapel at a Christian college. As we entered chapel, students were handing out fliers backing the call for a moratorium. In preparing for that chapel talk it had occurred to me that some were also suggesting that foreign missions be curtailed or cancelled in favor of giving our attention exclusively to the urgent needs at our doorstep. My address that day was entitled, "A Moratorium on Missions?"
Most of us in the Western world at that time were unaware that there actually was a movement building up in the Third World for a moratorium on missions. As early as the middle sixties this had been suggested by at least one African leader. However, the term did not come into prominence until Bangkok in 1973 and then in Lusaka in 1974. Participants at Lausanne 1974 heard much discussion of the question. The Lausanne Covenant recognized this when it included the following statement:
A reduction of foreign missionaries and money in an evangelized country may sometimes be necessary to facilitate the national church’s growth in self-reliance and to release resources for unevangelized areas.
However, the very next sentence of the covenant, much less frequently quoted in news releases than the above section, went on to say:
Missionaries should flow ever more freely from and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service. The goal should be, by all available means and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have the opportunity to hear, understand, and receive the good news.
Thus, the signers of the Lausanne Covenant (including this writer) were ready to face the need for changes of strategy, but could not agree to cancelling the obligations of Christians in all parts of the world to "flow ever more freely from and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service." To do so would be to deny a God-given responsibility.
What is a moratorium? It is "a legal authorization, usually by law passed in an emergency, to delay payment of money due. . . " It is "any authorized delay or stopping of some specified activity" (Webster’s New World Dictionary). Why does a moratorium occur? It is declared when there has been a failure to pay a debt or a failure to produce in a given program. When a moratorium occurs, several options are open as alternatives.
First, dates can be set for renewal of payment. Second, alternative ways of paying the debt can be offered. Third, all obligations can be cancelled. Fourth, the original plan for payment can be studied to determine why the failure occurred and how to rectify that failure.
In terms of missions, we must ask if a moratorium is called for today. Since the word is being used primarily in relation to the church in the western world in its missionary outreach to the Third World, we will limit ourselves to that angle. If a moratorium is declared for failure to pay a debt or to produce in a given program, is this justified in the missionary outreach of the church? Has the church failed to pay its debt to the world? Has it failed to produce in its program of outreach to others?
The answer must be both yes and no. Yes, it has failed if its mission is to win the entire world to Jesus Christ. Yes, it has failed if its mission is to usher in world peace. Yes, it has often failed to identify adequately with a new culture it is trying to penetrate with the gospel. Yes, it has been unjustifiably imperialistic at times in its relationships with people from emerging nations.
Having said all of this, must we, therefore, declare a moratorium on all missionary outreach from western nations to Third World areas? Because we have failed, do we, therefore, call off all payment of debt? Let’s look at the other side of the coin for a moment.
Ralph Winter in his little book, The Twenty-Five Unbelievable Years, demonstrated brilliantly that the missionary outreach of the church from the western world has been dramatically successful in many ways. There is a witness today in almost every geographical area of the world. There are many examples of dedicated men and women of God from the west who have successfully identified with the culture which they are trying to reach. There are many examples of the church integrating itself into the life and society of a nation without becoming imperialistic or paternalistic. No, the church has not failed. And it will not fail because its founder has promised that he will build it and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
But suppose for a moment we grant that a moratorium should be called and that no more missionaries should be sent from the west. What are the alternatives? We mentioned above four options. First, dates can be set for renewal of payment. But the church cannot set dates. We do not know how much longer we have to pay our debt to the world. We only know that we are commanded to give the gospel to every person. We are told that the gospel must be preached in all the world, then shall the end come. Thus, this alternative is unsatisfactory.
Second, alternative ways of paying the debt can be offered. We could decide to only send money, not men. We could limit ourselves to radio broadcasting and literature outreach, without personnel actually going to another land. But does this really fulfill our obligation as members of the body of Christ? Can we become so impersonal that the individual identification of believers in the body of Christ with each other could be maintained only on the level of methodology? No, the very doctrine of the incarnation helps us to understand that it is to identify with others on behalf of their needs. Can incarnation take place with the body absent?
Third, all obligations can be cancelled. But who has the right to cancel such obligations? Certainly not the debtors. The only one who can legitimately do this is the one who first gave the command for a debt to be paid. Paul acknowledges that he is a debtor to all men, not because of what they have done for him but rather because of what Christ has done for him. Therefore, his debt can only be cancelled by Christ himself. Until Jesus Christ rescinds the great commission we are still under obligation to fulfill it in tangible, incarnational form.
Fourth, the original plan for payment can be studied to determine how to rectify whatever failure has occurred. This is the only viable option open to the church today. We need to get back to a biblical and theological foundation to understand better the obligation that God himself has placed upon us. We need to study afresh the great commission and the entire biblical scope of that mandate. We need to understand that from Genesis to Revelation (and not just in Matthew 28 or Mark 16) we find the worldwide concern of God for all mankind. We need to see that his plan for meeting that concern is through his chasm people, the church.
Paul understood this when he said, "To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known" (Eph. 3:8-10).
The original plan for payment is sound. Whatever failures have occurred (and they are many) have not been caused by a weakness in the plan, but rather by weaknesses in those who carried out the plan. But cancellation of payment is not the answer. Rather, a reevaluation of how to pay that debt is always in order. Perhaps we need it today more than ever before. Our brethren from the Third World are rightly calling this to our attention. We must listen to them so that we can understand better how to pay our God-given debt to those without Christ. So let’s not stop the payments, but let’s be sure they are being made in the most effective way possible.
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