The dangerous calling of Christian missions
America’s evangelical Christians are facing a critical time of testing in the 21st century. Among the most important of the tests we now face is the future of missions and our faithfulness to the Great Commission. At a time of unprecedented opportunity, will our zeal for world missions slacken?
Just as doors of opportunity are opening around the world, the church seems to be losing its voice. A virtual re-paganization of Western culture is occurring around us at a velocity unprecedented in human history. At the same time, we are also witnessing the rise of militant Islam. One need only consider the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS to see just how dangerous the missionary enterprise has become.
Christians therefore live in the midst of two competing worldviews, both of which are hostile to the claims of Christ. Yet, we also offer the only meaningful alternative to rampant secularism on the one hand and militant Islam on the other. In other words, America’s secular elites do not have a compelling response to the theological claims of Islam. This fact highlights that one of the fundamental problems among Western elites is that they cannot understand a theological worldview — particularly the theological worldview of Islam. Being basically rational and secular in their own worldview, Western elites find it almost impossible to understand the radical actions of Islamic terrorists.
For example, Islamic teaching distinguishes the house of Islam (Dar al-Islam) — that part of the world which is under submission to the Quran and Shariah law — from the house of war (Dar al-Harb) — that portion of the world that is not yet brought under Shariah rule. That logic is simply something that the modern secular mind really cannot understand and the American government seems almost resolutely determined to ignore or even to deny.
Even a cursory glance at the headlines shows the danger Christians now face with the threat of ISIS and other militant groups within Islam. These organizations have undertaken several major attempts to exterminate Christians in much of the Middle East and North Africa. Furthermore, the Pew Research Center recently reported that the majority of Christians will soon be living in the so-called “Global South” including sub-Saharan Africa. This means that the church of the future is a church more likely to find itself in places of persecution and hostility.
With the moral revolution advancing at breakneck speed and the rise of militant Islam, we are living in a world growing more dangerous by the day. That world — the real world — is one of clashing ideologies and conflicting worldviews. The real world is also a world in which theology always matters, and a world in which an empty secular worldview is no match for an Islamic theology set on conquest and driven by revenge.
In the wake of these potential threats to Christianity, we must remember what Jesus told his own disciples in John 15:18-21:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
So while international organizations and governments try to determine the root cause of terrorism against Christians, we must remember that Jesus offers us a distinctly theological answer, “But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” (John 15:21).
Jesus’ reasoning is clear: those who hate Christ extend their hostility to his followers. Seen in that light, the persecution of Christians around the world — the persecution experienced by Christians throughout the history of the Christian church — is something that has deeper theological significance than even the secular world can understand. The secular world sees oppression, martyrdom, and terrorism. Christians, looking through the lens of Scripture, see a theological issue that cries out for a theological response. We come to understand that the reason why this kind of opposition to the church takes place cannot be adequately explained by politics, economics, or sociology. Jesus told his 12 disciples these things even as he himself was headed for the cross.
One of the most lamentable symptoms of today’s emotionalist Christianity is its tendency to inaction and aversion to risk. We can trace this symptom to any number of causes, and most of them are theological. Many Christians suffer from warped understandings of the will of God, the nature of true discipleship, and the character of the Christian life.
Being a Christian, however, has always been a dangerous enterprise. In fact, Christian discipleship is inherently dangerous. Jesus himself told his disciples that he sends them as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt 10:16). These dangers are not only physical but spiritual as well. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
The call to suffering is inherent in Jesus’ command, “Follow me.” Indeed, if we are listening, we recognize these truths even in the songs we sing in Sunday morning worship. In “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” Luther wrote, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.” Even in John Newton’s classic “Amazing Grace,” we sing about the “many dangers, toils, and snares” that accompany our life in Christ.
Further, the Apostle Paul, so often a model for Christian faithfulness in the pages of the New Testament, serves as an example for us here as well. Consider these words from 2 Corinthians 11:23-28:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one — I am talking like a madman — with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
In the life of Paul, we find that following Christ means being exposed to dangers. Also like Paul, we must not shirk or avoid these dangers — we must embrace them. We embrace them because we know that gaining the world but losing our soul is a futile transaction. We embrace them because we know whatever dangers and trials we may face, Christ is worth them all. We embrace them because we have a resurrection hope which places our hopes for comfort, security, and peace not in this life but in the life to come.
This world is indeed a dangerous place — Jesus told us that it would be so. With the rise of both militant Islam and the velocity of secularization in the West, Christians cannot afford to remain silent and cease proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. In times like this we must follow the example of men and women like William Carey, John Paton, Bill Wallace, Lottie Moon, and Hudson Taylor. We must remember the words of Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
This is, as the late Carl F.H. Henry advised, a time for evangelical demonstration. Our words of support for the missionary cause are meaningless if we do not produce a new generation of bold, courageous, and committed Christian missionaries. Let us make our convictions clear and commitments firm, even in the face of hostility and danger. Evangelical Christians must take our stand for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone has made atonement for our sins. In a day of hostility and danger, we must point to the only gospel that offers salvation. We must learn again to define the true gospel in terms of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is the sum and substance of the genuine gospel — and the true gospel is always a missionary gospel — and a gospel that is active even in the world’s most dangerous contexts.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Joseph Emerson Brown Professor of Christian Theology.