Shrewd as a Snake, Innocent as a Dove: The Ethics of Missionary Dissimulation and Subterfuge

by Larry Poston

Macro and micro ethical issues of tentmaking, contextualization, and contextual movements among Messianic Jews and Muslims.

“Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other.
The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.”
(Ecc. 7:16-18)

Whenever I quote the above passage to my students as an illustration of the Bible’s ambiguity regarding ethics, reactions are always directed toward the phrase: “Do not be overwicked…” The question is asked, usually with a grin: “Does this mean I can be a little bit wicked, then?”

The Ambiguity of Old Testament Ethics
There are several examples in the Bible of the complexity involved in godly decision-making. For instance, most Christians insist that according to the commandment forbidding one to “bear false witness against one’s neighbor,” God is displeased when we speak less than unadulterated truth. But when the Hebrew midwives Shiprah and Puah were commanded to kill the males born to Hebrew mothers, they “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17).

Questioned by Pharaoh as to why they disobeyed, their reply was that Hebrew women gave birth more quickly than Egyptian women and they (the midwives) were unable to arrive in time to carry out the genocidal directive (1:19). It is exceedingly doubtful that such would have always been the case, and the judgment of commentators is that the midwives either blatantly lied to Pharaoh or at least distorted the truth. Whichever was the case, “God was kind to the midwives…he gave them families of their own.” So, did the God who “cannot lie” (Num. 23:19) commend the distortion of “truth” in this case? 

Rahab the prostitute hid the Hebrew spies and lied to her questioners regarding them:

“Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went…” But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax… (Josh. 2:4-6)

Here is an incontrovertible case of deception. But despite this subterfuge, Rahab was considered worthy to become one of the human ancestors of Christ (Matt. 1:5) and her name is recorded in the Hebrews “Hall of Faith” (Heb. 11:31).

And when God sought a means of luring the evil King Ahab to his death,

…a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, “I will entice him.” “By what means?” the Lord asked. “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,” he said. “You will succeed in enticing him,” said the Lord. “Go and do it.” (1 Kings 22:20-23)

Here is a case where God commands lying.

The Ambiguity of New Testament Ethics
It may be argued that requirements under the New Covenant are more stringent. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expresses a higher standard for Christian conduct than what was required for the Israelites (Matt. 5:17-48). But in that same narrative, Jesus commands his followers to be as “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” The snake is symbolic of Satanic evil, so being “shrewd as a snake” would imply that one is to be sly, cunning, and crafty—even a bit “shady” at times.  

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus appears to give approval to a wastrel manager who adopted a strategy of “making friends for himself through use of worldly wealth.” Jesus is actually complimenting the man’s shrewdness, and his words are an indictment of Christians for their naïveté in relating to fellow humans.

Jesus practiced this sort of shrewdness on occasion. In John 7:8-14, he told his brothers, “I am not going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come.” The text records that “having said this, he stayed in Galilee. However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret…” So there was a definite “secretiveness” about his actions from time to time. Whenever he healed individuals or revealed himself as Messiah to his disciples, he invariably commanded that they “tell no one.” 

So, are God’s requirements with respect to “openness” and “honesty” unbending? Or are they sometimes flexible? If this were a perfect world, humans should (and could) take absolutist positions in all situations. But the human race is mired deeply in its sinfulness both at the individual and at the societal/institutional level, and because of the instances in scripture noted above, we must think differently about such things than would perhaps be our preference. 

Generally speaking, principles revealed in God’s word are absolute in that they are essentially a reflection of his immutable nature. To go against such principles is offensive to him. But God sometimes allows, and even honors, certain forms of what many would consider subterfuge and dissimulation. 

Ethical Decision-making in Missiological Contexts
Because of the nature of their work, missionaries are constantly confronted with questions of ethics. This article deals with a sampling of macro and micro issues that fall under the following categories.

“Tentmaking”—performing a non-ministerial type of work as a means of establishing residency in a “limited-access” country, with the ultimate goal of communicating the gospel message. Is it ethical to pass oneself off as an aid worker or an ESL teacher when one’s primary motivation is to engage in Christian ministry?

“Contextualization”—adapting one’s lifestyle, the gospel, discipling techniques, aspects of theology and ecclesiastical structures to a foreign context in order to better establish Christianity. Is it permissible to adopt any and every cultural custom in order to make new converts feel at home in the Christian faith?

Contextual movements such as Messianic Judaism and Messianic Muslims—involving retention of a national or religious identity to avoid the negative consequences of openly declaring oneself to be Christian. Is it ethical to pass oneself off as a Jew or a Muslim when one is in actuality a born-again follower of Jesus?

Tentmaking could easily be considered a form of subterfuge. A person gains access to a country that is technically closed to overt missionary activity through the practice of a secular profession. Teaching English as a Second Language, functioning as an educator, serving as a relief or development worker, as a physician or nurse, as a businessperson—a Christian tentmaker plies his or her trade during the day, so to speak, and in his or her free time establishes relationships for the purpose of communicating the gospel of Christ.

In one sense, such an approach is perfectly legitimate. One must have valid credentials (i.e., academic degrees and/or skills) to work in limited-access countries, and one must perform a job competently if he or she is to remain over a longer period of time. But if the host government had been aware of the person’s primary motivation for entering the country, would that government have given permission to enter? If the answer is no, and the person is aware that the answer would have been no, subterfuge has been used to enter. 

This kind of situation may not be problematic as long as the visa or work permit does not specifically restrict one from “religious proselytizing.” But what if such prohibitions are included? Is “data dropout” (omitted certain information) justifiable in such cases? Or even an outright falsehood—“for the sake of the gospel?”

If one is withholding information to maintain freedom to act on behalf of kingdom concerns, is this the same as when Jesus commanded that his true identity not be revealed (see Matt. 8:4, 12:16; Mark 3:12; and Matt. 16:20), or when the disciples claimed that they “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)? Or is such withholding of information a violation of the command that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…” (Rom. 13:1-2)?

I suggest that the consciences of individual Christians are tuned by the Holy Spirit to different levels, meaning that the consciences of some might identify with the Acts 5 passage, while others may adhere strictly to the precepts of Romans 13. Those with “Acts 5 consciences” could enter closed countries on a basis that those with “Romans 13 consciences” would not find acceptable. Surely, such differences existed even among the twelve apostles. Simon the Zealot, for instance, most likely had a conscience very differently formatted from that of, say, Nathanael—“a true Israelite in whom there was nothing false.”

With respect to contextualization, the question becomes, “How far may one ‘bend’ theology and lifestyle to accommodate and win indigenous persons? Should one downplay aspects of biblical faith which may be ‘stumbling blocks’ to the target audience for the sake of winning converts? Or should one be up front about such matters from the beginning in order to produce a truer convert from the start?”      

Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 is the basis for nearly all matters of contextualization:

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law…so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

But were there no bounds to such a philosophy? Surely, Paul would not have advocated becoming “a prostitute for the sake of reaching prostitutes,” or “a thief in order to win thieves?” 

Perhaps an examination of some micro issues would help in establishing parameters for contextualization. With respect to bribery, for instance, Ecclesiastes 7:7 states that “extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart,” mirroring the Mosaic Law which prohibits the practice, “for [it] blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous” (Exod. 23:8). Proverbs 17:8 and 21:14, however, offer a different evaluation: “A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds;” and “a gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.” So, does the Bible permit or forbid bribes? 

Our answer must certainly deal with the factors of motivation and situation. The payment of money or goods to gain permission to carry out an activity in violation of a biblical precept would be impermissible. On the other hand, money or goods bestowed to smooth the way for a biblically legitimate activity might be seen as a “tip” (i.e., a reward given for special service), and would therefore “soothe anger” or “pacify great wrath.”

With respect to the issue of smuggling (i.e., the transportation of items such as Bibles clandestinely across borders), Acts 5:29 (“We must obey God rather than men”) is often invoked by advocates. But are Christians actually under a divine command to place a Bible into the hands of every person on the planet? That we are to “preach the gospel to every creature” is unquestionable. But such preaching took place throughout the 1,400 years that preceded the printing press—and was relatively successful.  

Messianic Jews and Messianic Muslims
Messianic Jews and Messianic Muslims have been controversial partly because of questions raised regarding the integrity of those who belong to these movements. Is being a Messianic Jew or a Messianic Muslim a form of dissimulation that is a betrayal of biblical requirements for followers of Christ? Or is it being “true to one’s heritage” in a way that preserves kinship networks that facilitate additional evangelistic encounters?

Messianic Judaism is a movement that sprang up in the United States in the late 1960s. While some Jewish-background believers justify retention of their Jewishness by classifying their activities and customs as strictly cultural, for many, retaining Jewishness has also meant retaining religious customs derived from the Mosaic Covenant or from rabbinic (i.e., post-exilic or diaspora) Judaism. In addition, a large number of non-Jewish believers have become enamored of the so-called Jewish roots of the Christian faith and have incorporated aspects of Jewish worship into traditional Protestant worship services. 

Problematic is the fact that the “portable Judaism” developed by Johanan ben Zakkai and his successors represents a humanistic religious development that retains certain elements of Old Testament Judaism but which also goes beyond these and, in many cases, reinterprets them. Many of the rituals connected with holidays and the development of and dependence upon Talmudic commentary appeared separately from the revelation of the One True God. A case in point: Rabbinic Judaism requires Jewish males to wear a skullcap when participating in synagogue rituals. Conversely, the New Testament forbids a male to wear any kind of head covering while performing religious functions (1 Cor. 11: 4). When forced to choose, Messianic Jews generally follow the rabbinical practice instead of the New Testament requirement—a highly troublesome decision.

As for rituals derived from the Mosaic Covenant, the Book of Hebrews pronounces these to be obsolete (Heb. 8:13). They are only shadows in comparison with the spiritual realities entrusted to the Church (Heb. 10:1-10). New wine is not to be put into old wineskins; an old garment is not to be patched with cloth from a new one (Matt. 9:16-17). Seeking to retain one’s Jewishness essentially violates the principle of Ephesians 2:11-21 and Galatians 3:28. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that followers of Christ constitute a “third race” whose members are no longer to distinguish themselves as Jew or Gentile. 

More disturbing than Messianic Judaism is what is often called the “Jesus mosque” phenomenon.  New believers in certain contexts are not called Christians; they remain Muslims, claiming that the word simply means “persons who are submitted to God.” They often choose not to associate with historic Christian churches where such communities exist. Baptisms are performed clandestinely or dispensed with altogether. Worship takes place in so-called mosques. The daily prayers are prayed at the times that Muslims pray, and the main worship service is held on Friday rather than Sunday. Muslim leaders are outraged by such deception, considering it unworthy of spiritually-minded persons; from a Christian perspective, it is difficult to see how such believers could acquire any sense of  being “called out of darkness into light” as the New Testament so clearly directs (2 Cor. 6:14-18). 

Perhaps subjecting such practices to two specific questions could go a long way in resolving the issues involved:

1. Does my status or do my activities involve adoption or retention of specifically religious items or practices? In other words, in claiming to be a Messianic Jew or a Jesus Muslim, am I incorporating aspects of rabbinic Judaism or of classical or folk Islam in order to hide my identity as a distinct follower of Christ? If so, am I not in violation of the standards set by Deuteronomy 12:4?

2. Does my status and activities involve retention of cultural items which could be categorized as essentially neutral? If upon discussion with indigenous persons regarding the meaning assigned to specific practices, I discover that there are no religious connotations to these, then may I not choose to adopt such practices as a means of more closely identifying with my target audience in accordance with 1 Corinthians 9:22-23?

Motivation and Martyrdom
In Muslim contexts where conversion sometimes carries the death penalty, converts fear for their lives and hesitate to assemble. Do we advise such converts to adopt the Jesus mosque strategy, to remain undercover, and to participate in activities as though they were still vitally connected to the Islamic faith? May Christians practice what Muslims term taqiyya—withholding truth, “bending” truth, or blatantly stating an untruth in order to avoid persecution or death? Or should the historic Church traditions of martyrdom trump such concerns? Should Christians today not be willing to face the possibility of a painful death, knowing that such a consequence may constitute the only ultimately consistent and dynamically powerful testimony necessary to bring Muslims (or others) to Christ?

Ramon Lull (1232-1315) answered this question when he gave himself unstintingly to a mission among North Africa’s Muslims—and paid with his life relatively early in his career. Some have judged that the benchmark he established has led to the slowly accelerating success of ministries to Muslims in that part of the world. Perhaps this is what the Church of Jesus Christ needs: men and women of the kind John Wesley spoke of “who fear God and nothing else, and who hate sin and nothing else.” Such persons would not hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way if need be.

Several years ago, Frontiers printed posters that students hung in their dormitory rooms to inspire them to concentrate more fervently upon their missiological studies. The posters featured faces of people in limited-access countries, framed by the gripping statement:


It is likely, I think, that our ethical decision-making would become much simpler if it was based upon such a sentiment. Let us, then, put our hands to the plow, and not look back to the things behind.


Larry Poston is professor of religion at Nyack College in Nyack, New York. He and his wife served with Greater Europe Mission and lived for several years in Saffle, Sweden, where Larry taught at the Nordic Bible Institute.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 412-419. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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