by Zachary Harris
I wish to challenge the prevailing assumptions which support our notion of security in missions.
Security is a significant aspect of modern missions in “restricted-access” nations (nations that do not grant missionary visas or severely limit missionary activity). The term refers to precautions taken to protect missionaries and/or indigenous believers from the notice of authorities. I wish to challenge the prevailing assumptions which support our notion of security in missions.
Though the details of security in different mission situations vary, the basic trends can be summarized. In the field, security-conscious missionaries must be careful with whom they share their faith and how much they tell people about their ministry activities. Even a trusted friend could become an informant for the secret police or religious fundamentalists. The term “tentmaking” now connotes a “platform” or “cover” which will allow someone entry into a closed country.1 The “underground church” model is used to circumvent persecution. At least one organization explicitly states its intentionality in gathering secret fellowships: “Believers are brought together and integrated into house churches where they meet in secret to worship and fellowship together.”2 Communication related to ministry is guarded. “Secure e-mail, pseudonyms and code terms are three practical tactics teams employ” (Love 2000, 208). These and other security measures are designed to keep missionaries from being expelled from the country and to protect the indigenous believers from persecution.
Although security is of practical importance to the missions community, I don’t think our open discourse has sufficiently examined the biblical validity of this assumption. We must let God’s Word judge our theories, no matter how logical they seem. It is not difficult to understand why modern missionaries view security as both a necessity and a wise course. Security is pragmatic; it gets missionaries where they want to go and works to keep them there. Doesn’t having a secretive ministry seem better than being expelled and having no ministry? Security also appears to be compassionate. A missionary’s carelessness regarding security can cause the local church to suffer.
However, biblical truth sometimes overturns our human wisdom. We must ask whether we learned our notion of security from Scripture. I don’t think so. First, I don’t see security modeled or taught in Scripture. Second, I believe it has a negative effect on our testimony of God’s glory. Third, I don’t think the common arguments in favor of security are biblically correct.
Jesus was able to say at the end of his life, “I have spoken openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said” (John 18:20-21; see also Matt. 26:55). Granted, Jesus at times avoided crowds and provocative questions. These instances are important to our understanding, but meanwhile we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture: Jesus was a public figure with a public message.
Likewise Paul was able to say at his life’s end, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:20, 21). It is good that we share the gospel, but we need gifted preachers who will declare the gospel as Jesus and his apostles did.
The New Testament presents a clear model of an open, public church that engages society. Conversely, there is no model of secrecy. (At least, not any commendable model of secrecy— contrast John 12:42-43.) Massey (1997, 141) claims that the church of Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-27 was underground. Wurmbrand claims that Acts 9:15-16 was Paul’s call to be an underground pastor (1999, 11) and that the man who led the disciples to the upper room (Lk 22:7-13) was an informer for the underground church (36). I leave it to the readers to examine whether the New Testament truly sets any precedent for underground ministry.
PUTTING FOCUS ON THE GLORY OF GOD
Even if security isn’t a biblical teaching, is it harmful? I would claim yes because secrecy fails to reflect God’s nature and character. Message and methods are inseparable. First, God’s nature includes the fact that he is the creator of the universe, including all tribes and nations, and thus he is sovereign over all men’s affairs. When the church is proclaiming Christ to society openly, we are saying, “Our God is THE God, this applies to everyone, take notice.” In contrast, as George Otis Jr. asked, “Can the Muslim community take seriously the claims of a church in hiding?” (1991, 261).
Any indication that we live more in fear of secular governments and hostile world forces than in God also injures our witness of his glory (John 12:42-43). The God of the Bible is God over every religious and political leader who is hostile to Christianity. Those who reject him remain in the most precarious position, not those who serve and love him (Matt. 10:28, Phil. 1:27-28). God’s people operate in the light (John 3:21). His enemies operate in the darkness (Luke 22:53).
God desires for his gospel to extend to all people, even those hostile to him (like Saul, secret police informants and mullahs). Throughout biblical history, God has engaged the public and interacted with entire cities and nations through his prophets and apostles, and via his judgments and blessings. Except for spiritual blindness, God is not hidden from anyone in the world. Thus we have no right to share him selectively with others. In order to reflect his character accurately, the church should be proclaiming him from the rooftops (Matt. 10:27).
Next, integrity and truthfulness are important characteristics of God. I treasure the fact that there is nothing clandestine about Christianity unlike many other religions and cults, no secret rites nor multiple levels of membership (Acts 26:26). Half-truths that we tell under the guise of security testify not to God’s character but of false gods who are admired for their ability to deceive cleverly. Especially in societies where trust and honesty are rare commodities, we are merely conforming to the world’s pattern if we resort to hiding fundamental truths about ourselves from those around us.
I respect Tebbe (1989), Roemmele (1993) and Morris (1998) for raising the issue of integrity among tentmakers. However, I disagree with their concepts of integrity which seem to justify intentionally deceiving people by telling partial truths.3 Note that when Jesus outsmarted the religious leaders (e.g. Luke 20:1-8) he didn’t deceive them. They knew he had avoided their question. Of course we don’t always have to spill everything we know, but if my heart (and newsletter) says, “My primary reason for being here is to share the gospel of Christ,” that’s what I say with my lips.
As the omniscient and omnipotent one, God loves to do things that only God can do. God works through his people, defying all human wisdom and understanding, delighting to show that there is none like him (Exod. 7:2, 8:23, Deut. 4:32-39, Judges 7:2, 1 Sam. 17:46-47, Ezek. 7:4, John 11:42-44, Acts 4:13-17, etc.). We lose opportunities to participate in God’s work when we limit our actions to the humanly reasonable and possible. I raise this point to contest the notion that security must exist because we have no choice. It is common to hear that in restricted (or “creative”) access countries “mission work has to be done almost in secret because security concerns are very significant” (Geisler 1998, 36 emphasis added). Nothing has to be that God has not decreed has to be. Has God decreed for his church to operate in secret? I claim the contrary.
The following examples demonstrate why secrecy fails to reflect God’s glorious nature and character. God is sovereign, so we should not be motivated by fear. God wants all humankind to hear his gospel, so we cannot be selective. God is honest, so we should not deceive. God alone is omniscient and omnipotent, so we should not try to develop a better strategy than what he laid out. “What is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs” (Matt. 10:27).
Missionaries may give a theologically correct verbal description of God, but if actions speak as loudly as words, security practices proclaim a different message.
RESPONSE TO SECRECY ARGUMENTS
Because the concerns that give rise to the “need” for security seem to make sense, they deserve a response. First, security is motivated by a desire to keep a missionary in one place for long enough to share his or her life and (God willing) plant a church. We must remember, though, that God’s Word guides not only our goals but also the means of approaching them. Human strategy (such as the “long-term missionary influence” strategy) cannot preempt principle. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan. 3) on the one hand, and Stephen (Acts 6:8-8:4) on the other, all went face-to-face with the threat of death. All simply sought to glorify God in their present situation without knowing the eventual outcome. God saved the lives of the three men in Daniel and he was glorified through it (Dan. 3:28-30). However, God took Stephen’s life and he was also glorified through his martyrdom (Acts 8:2-4). Though entirely different outcomes, God fulfilled his purposes in each. I am convinced that our job is to be passionate for doing what is right, not what we conceive to be most effective.
Josef Tson relates how he planned to attempt to return to Romania despite the possibility of being arrested at the border.
One student asked, ‘Josef, what chances do you have of successfully implementing your plans?’ I smiled and said to myself, ‘Now this is typically Western thinking.’ Chances of success? I never thought in those terms. My thinking was in terms of obedience. (Tson, 3)
Tson also writes, There are many “wise” and well-intentioned friends who argue that one can be a Christian “in his heart,” or that one can be a Christian in secret. But Jesus did not leave that possibility open to his disciples. (1997, 78)
Georges Houssney writes:
It is not only imprudent or ineffective to make our own plans rather than God’s. It is actually “heaping sin upon sin.” How often do we make plans and design strategies derived from human study and wisdom?…God wants to be the one to take the initiative, not only in the marching orders of the Great Commission, but also in the details of how ministry is carried out on an ongoing basis. (1996, 20-21)
Elsewhere, speaking about tentmak-ing as practiced today, Houssney writes,
Are we really making a difference for Christ? Some nationals in Muslim countries have told me, “We do not think so-and-so is a Christian because if he were a true believer he would tell us what you have told us.” (14)
Houssney and Tson have both faced threats on their lives as a result of proclaiming Christ in hostile environments. Both continue to maintain that Jesus did not intend his followers to operate in secret. Others in closed countries have also concluded that “a fruitful ministry cannot be secretive, it is like a ‘City on a Hill’ which cannot be hidden (Matt. 5:14)” (Frakes, 2001).
Houssney, Tson and Frakes are living examples of those who have ministered openly in (Muslim and communist) countries where conventional wisdom said, “You can’t do that.” Other missions leaders, while not taking this anti-secrecy stance, recognize that secrecy at least has biblical limitations. “There is no biblical justification for a covert operation, and it is possibly the greatest hindrance to progress in church planting among Muslims” (Livingstone 1993, 34).
Reading Luke’s use of the term “witness” reveals that almost every time someone acted as a witness, they did so in a public setting. Why was a public declaration in courts or in the streets so important? God wanted something more significant than a widespread awareness of Christ’s resurrection. God was establishing an unshakable church. (Hawthorne 1999, 115)
Jesus did say, “Be as shrewd [or wise] as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Many missionaries today believe it would be unwise to expose themselves and the local church to hostile members of society. In my experience, this is the most popular verse given to support security practices. However, within the same sermon Jesus said to “be wise,” he also said, “what is whispered in your ear proclaim from the roofs” (Matt. 10:27).
As noted earlier, this same Jesus, who spoke of being “wise,” ministered publicly, even to the point of frightening and angering the authorities, ultimately leading to his death. Thus I urge those who refer to Matthew 10:16 to support security in missions to re-examine their concept of wisdom. The fear of the Lord, not of people, is the beginning of true wisdom (Prov. 9:10). The wisdom of God is foolishness to people, and the wisdom of people is foolishness to God (1 Cor. 1:18-20).
I know two men in Region X who were openly proclaiming the gospel. The religious leaders of Region X specifically warned them to quiet down, for they didn’t want this message spreading. What did these two do? They preached openly. Modern missiology might condemn them as unwise. Many today would say that these immature men traded long-term effectiveness for foolish, short-term exuberance. Many would say they were insensitive to the persecution they could bring on the local church, and the effect on long-term workers.
Our modern missiological strate-gizing must be careful, lest we find ourselves condemning the ministry of the apostles Peter and John (Acts 4-5) in Region X (Jerusalem).
To be wise in God’s sight can mean something as foolish as the biblical model of open air preaching in hostile territory. (Paul was stoned because of his public ministry—Acts 14:19. Did he then change his course?) Not that anyone who wants should appoint themselves as a preacher (Rom. 10:15). But walking the next thirty seconds in God’s ways, whatever that may mean, is more valuable than fifty years of rationed obedience.
The other main concern for security proponents is knowing that foreign missionaries rarely suffer significantly (e.g. torture, imprisonment or martyrdom) themselves. While missionaries are likely only to face expulsion from the country, the local church can suffer greatly. This concern feeds on our syncretistic Western Christian values, which we subsequently impose on other cultures. The Bible clearly teaches, in no uncertain terms, that persecution, including martyrdom, in this world is “part of our Christian birthright” (Reapsome 1997, 6; see Matt. 10:16-39; John 15:18-16:4; Acts 14:22; 1 Thess. 3:2-4; 2 Tim. 1:8; Heb. 10:32-34, 13:3; 1 Pet. 1:6-7, 4:12).
Let me be perfectly blunt. If the model of the New Testament church were practiced in closed countries today, it would most likely mean a lot of shed blood, imprisonments, revoked visas, and numerous other trials and sufferings. In other words, the New Testament model results in the consequences that the New Testament teaches us to expect. Two fellow Christian workers were killed in Lebanon during my time as a missionary there. Do I want more of that? Of course none of us want to suffer for its own sake. But Scripture and Christian history, in contrast to modern Western evangelical theology, emphasize that we are to expect suffering, persecution and martyrdom as normal, and that God will always bless us more than we can imagine. That is all part of God’s design. The biblical teaching on suffering is so radically foreign to anything most of us from “open” countries are familiar with, I’m afraid we are unable to digest or even imagine the full force of Scripture without watering it down.
Jesus prepared his disciples not only to “die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31) but also to shed real, genuine, literal blood. When the persecution inevitably came, the disciples had been trained both by Jesus’ words and his actions. They prayed not for protection, but for greater boldness (Acts 4:23-32). This doesn’t happen spontaneously in human nature. But the Good Shepherd had prepared them in advance. If we teach believers more how to avoid suffering than to trust and rejoice in God through suffering, we are not doing them any favors. We’re leaving them unready for reality.
Scripture thoroughly overturns our culturally-based ideas about persecution and death (Ps. 116:15, 1 Cor. 15:55). God desires his people not merely to accept sufferings grudgingly, but rather to rejoice in them (Matt. 5:12, Acts 5:40-41, Phil. 1:21, James 1:2-4, 1 Pet. 4:13). Philippians contains an inspiring overflow of Paul’s God-centeredness. His first words about his imprisonment read, “That what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (1:12). He goes on to further describe his pleasures: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21) and “I want to know Christ…and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (3:10).
But the privilege is not Paul’s alone, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (1:29). If “suffering is a gift to be embraced” (Piper 1996, 221) let’s not sour the indigenous church towards this privilege that the Father lovingly bestowed upon them by imposing our unbiblical Western expectations of safety and comfort.
In addition to bringing us into intimacy with Christ, we can count suffering as beautiful because God has ordained it as a witness to testify powerfully to his gospel (John 12:24, Col. 1:24). In recent decades God has used his Word to broaden our view of the various encounters which are vital for Christian witness to the unreached. It is time for us to recognize “suffering encounter” as an essential ingredient to seed the new church, rather than going to great lengths to avoid it (Tson, 1997). In short, we need to see the biblical case that persecution is one of God’s mechanisms to advance the gospel, not merely as a barrier to such advance.
I claim that the secretive ministry of missionaries under the guise of “protecting the local church,” does not biblically do any favor to the local church. Many of us would be ashamed to bring persecution on the local church, because we are not prepared to (or haven’t had to) face persecution ourselves. The Good Shepherd “protected” his disciples from persecution by preparing them spiritually to face it. As Bonhoeffer said, when Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die. If we are willing to take on such a biblical mindset, and willing to accept any suffering our Father grants us, then we need not be ashamed to call others to come along with us, suffer and die for the fruit of God’s glory and our ultimate joy.
A FINAL APPEAL
Obviously more to the issue exists than I can address in this article. A more comprehensive survey and response to questions is located in the paper on my website (Harris 2001). In particular, I examine the biblical role of silence (where information is withheld without deception) and of fleeing from persecution (for the sake of ministering elsewhere, not out of fear), and the validity of a time for new believers to mature into greater boldness. These points provide some balance to the issue.
God has done and is doing wonderful things through underground churches and security-cautious missionaries. By suggesting a different view, I by no means invalidate the good that has been accomplished. Rather I give thanks and praise to the Lord. What we all want is to see God glorified and people come to know him. To that end I commend these thoughts to the family of believers for consideration.
1. The term “tentmaking” is originally taken from Acts 18:3 referring to Paul’s secular work done alongside ministry. Nothing indicates that Paul used his tentmaking work as a “cover.” See 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10 for his motivation. We must be careful not to confuse the original and biblical meaning of the term with the current connotations.
2. I love the idea of house churches. It is the underground aspect I disagree with. We should take note not to equate the “house church” concept with “underground church” concept.
3. Morris, if I understand him correctly, would say that my feelings about honesty are not necessarily biblical, but a result of the culture I come from. I acknowledge that Jesus withheld information, God keeps secrets, and that honesty need not include blurting out everything at all times. But to me the key is this: God does not deceive! When God is silent, we know he is withholding information. I claim that is altogether different from presenting ourselves as merely tentmakers, if our primary motive in being where we are is to proclaim the gospel. That is not merely silence, it is deception. Let us not label this deception as integrity.
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Morris, Robert D. 1998. “Shrewd Yet Innocent: Thoughts on Tentmaker Integrity.” The International Journal of Frontier Missions 15:5-8.
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Piper, John. 1996. Desiring God. Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books.
Reapsome, Jim. 1997. “Partnering in Suffering.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 33(1):6-7.
Roemmele, Michael. 1993. “Cloak-and-dagger Tentmakers Need Not Apply.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 29(2):164-169.
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Tson, Josef. Undated. Theology of Martyrdom. Wheaton, Ill.: The Romanian Missionary Society.
Ton [Tson], Josef. 1997. Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven. Wheaton, Ill.: The Romanian Missionary Society.
Wurmbrand, Richard. 1999. “Prepare for the Underground Church—Now.” In The Triumphant Church. 9-38. Compiled from the writings of Richard Wurmbrand, John Piper and Milton Marton. Bartlesville, Okla.: The Voice of the Martyrs.
Zachary Harris served as a missionary in Lebanon and Syria with Horizons International of Boulder, Colo. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in mathematics.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, p. 328-335. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.