The Western world has traditionally held the word “missionary” in high esteem, largely unaware that leaders of Eastern nations have often regarded the idea skepticism. That skepticism has grown over the past century, following the end of World War I and, even more so, since the end of the Second World War.
Why the disparity? With no intention of placing blame, but simple describing circumstances as they were, we must be reminded that much of the work of missionary agencies from the 18th century through the first half of the 20th century coincided with the establishment and growth of the British Empire as it established colonies and commercial trading routes.
All sorts of societal organizations, including churches, viewed those colonies, and the transportation systems connecting them, as opportunities for missions to advance their causes and growth.
The confluence of missions and colonial empire building was generally espoused as progress in the West. Those under colonial rule, British or otherwise, often regarded the two as one and, therefore, as colonialism. For those in the East, colonialism was comparable to suppression, if not oppression. What the West saw as advancing civilization, the colonies saw it as a potential abrogation of their culture and repression of their right to freedom.
The Example of India
It is interesting to note here that, at the same time Great Britain was colonizing America, the British East India Company was also colonizing India, during which period the “company” took control of the Bengal Subah at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The company held sway over India with a private army of more than a quarter million, more than twice the size of the British military.
The unsuccessful Indian Rebellion in 1858 led to the establishment of direct British control over India. Nearly a century passed before India at last gained independence. Since that time, the country has been a world leader in economic growth. Independence and self-rule always seek to preserve indigenous, but the memories of the past linger long.
Americans who were born and raised in the Southern states understand. The War Between the State was, for them, a battle for independence. Having lost that conflict, the South experienced a period somewhat similar to colonization when the carpetbaggers from the North established commercial enterprises and industries in the South, often at the expense of the “indigenous” Southern folk, regardless of race or standing.
More than a century following the end of the war, many Southerners were still feeling the pain of being “colonized.” Once a predominantly agrarian society, the South is now an industrial and commercial center. Progress? Yes, but the memories remain. To this day, some “born and bred” in the deep South still feel the pain of the losses their families endured.
Regardless of our perspectives on the American Civil War, if we better understood the post-war plight of the South, we would more clearly understand how people in colonized countries have viewed outsiders as a threat to their traditional culture.
The Issue of Independence
The preamble to the Constitution of the United States defines the document’s purpose as to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Independence is the right to govern ourselves as a free people. It is also our right to protect our culture and traditions. We call it “The American Way.”
As American as grown in wealth, power, and influence, it becomes easy to either impose that power on others or to act in ways that appear to do so.
Many nations depend upon trade with the U.S. and/or the protection of the U.S. military. To some extent, commerce and military presence closely resembles colonialism to people in those countries – or in their neighboring countries. “Are we the next to come under U.S. control?”
This is particularly true where one’s attire of color of one’s skin starkly contrast with the indigenous population. We need to understand how the rest of the world see us before we go to the rest of the world. We need to understand that resistance to the imposition of cultural change, which we may label as persecution, may really be the frustration of a nation struggling to be free of the control of outsiders.
Why Ambassadors are Different
In the political realm, there is no presupposition from either the sender or the recipient that an ambassador can or will interfere with the national identity of the host country. Rather, the ambassador is a personal envoy of another nation or kingdom.
An ambassador does not impose his or his country’s will on the host. His responsibility is to represent his own country in the midst of another.
It is interesting to note that the Apostle Paul identified himself to the Christians in ancient Corinth as an ambassador for Christ to promote a better relationship with him. (I Corinthians 5:20) He uses an interesting word to describe his function as an ambassador. The koine Greek word is parakaleō. Although some English translations translate the parakaleō as “beseech,” in a broader sense it means to console, to encourage, to comfort, and to strengthen. Each of those particular hues includes the concept of teaching.
A variation of parakaleō, parakalētos, appears five times in the New Testament. Four of those times it is translated as “comforter.” It connotes a helper, an assistant, an advocate, or an aide. In those four instances it refers to the one that Jesus calls “the Comforter.” (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7)
An ambassador provides a level of help, assistance, advocacy, and aid for those to whom he is sent from the one who has sent him.
The Need for Ambassadors
We need to carefully ponder our calling as believers to be ambassadors. That is, we represent the Creator who loves His creation. He has called us to demonstrate that we represent His love. That call is for believers to help, assist, advocate, and aid others who need help, assistance, advocacy, and aid.
Circling back to the idea of independent, indigenous cultures, we need to be careful to remind ourselves who we represent and how we represent Him.
Jesus did not call Americans to go to the uttermost parts of the earth. He called believers. Not all Americans are believers and not all believers are American. But, if we are honest, as American believers, we have innate desire, when we see the poverty-stricken and homeless, to help them become like us. But that is not our calling. Our calling is for us to become like Christ and, as we become more like Him in our hearts, to become more like Him in how we work with other people.
Solving the Missionary or Ambassador Dilemma
It is one thing to be proud to be an American, but not when it is more important to us than having a personal relationship with Christ and the responsibility to be His ambassadors. We are citizens of Heaven, children of the King, and ambassadors of Christ. His kingdom is not of this world.
When we carefully consider the potential extent of cultural clashes in countries who are as jealous of freedom as we once were, we eventually come to understand that we cannot help but be seen as Americans. Therefore, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for us to represent Christ alone. We are viewed as representing both when the two are not the same
The solution, as Dr. K.P. Yohannan and others have recognized for many years now, that the most effective way to be an ambassador for Christ is to be a person who ministers comfort and aid to his own people. He does not represent America, the United Kingdom, or any other global power. He represents Jesus alone as a citizen and an ambassador of God’s preeminent love.
In all fairness, even a person representing God in his native country may not always be able to do so without opposition. We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood. If we do, we are sadly mistaken, and we have become derelict in our duty as an ambassador.
However, because we represent a spiritual kingdom, we must regard any opposition as emanating from our spiritual foe.
Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God to protect ourselves from Satan’s wiles so that we can continue without being distracted in the work of being His ambassadors.
We urge you to pray with us as the Lord uses us to empower thousands of local ambassadors for Christ throughout Asia. These ambassadors minister in their own countries, representing and demonstrating God’s love, just as we should here in the West. Our preacher partners help, assist, advocate, and aid others when and where they need help and in the way they need help. In so doing, they function as the ambassadors we should all be.