First Things

I was six months into my role as Managing Director of Eagle Television in Mongolia when our station–the first independent TV station in Mongolia’s history, and the only local Christian television station on the Asian continent –was forced to shut down as the result of a longstanding disagreement between its business partners. I was devastated.

Eagle TV was founded for a dual purpose: First, to advance the missionary cause of Jesus Christ, and second, to promote basic concepts of freedom and democracy (freedom of speech, press, and conscience). We referred to our mission as Faith and Freedom

Eagle TV started as a unique partnership of US Christian businessmen and Mongolian political leaders who wanted to strengthen their country’s newfound freedom after the fall of Communism. For eight years Eagle TV operated successfully, sometimes dramatically impacting Mongolian culture, religion, and even politics. Six months after I arrived, I had to preside over its demise as a result of the partner’s longstanding disagreements over issues of financial contribution and managerial control. The cessation of business activities eventually led the Mongolian government to revoke Eagle TV’s broadcast license in October 2003.

            As I stood before our staff of 80 shocked employees, handing out the Mongolian equivalent of pink slips, I kept wondering if I was somehow responsible for the loss of the station. Would the staff view the shut-down as my fault, being the “new guy?” I wondered if I could I have done more to act as a mediator between the shareholders and somehow save the station. My greatest fear was for what the larger community would think of the Christian manager and shareholders who shut down Mongolia’s only politically independent TV station. How it would affect the reputation of Christianity in Mongolia?

            Over the many months that followed I encountered various opinions about the station’s closure from Christians and non-Christians alike. Some were well informed while others were based on ignorance of our situation; telling me, “You can’t marry religion and politics,” “Missionary TV isn’t compatible with politics,” and “You portrayed Christianity as taking political sides.” Shortly after our shut-down, as I reviewed legal documents about Eagle’s long and complicated political and religious history. Could the detractors be right? Are Faith and Freedom that incompatible? Is the Great Commission apolitical?

No longer willing to wait for a solution to the political infighting that kept us from being granted a new terrestrial license, the American shareholder, AMONG Foundation, launched a new television operation. Using the previous name, Eagle TV, we began broadcasting as a cable network on January 17, 2005. The surprise restoration of Eagle TV caught everyone off-guard. Independent news and the representation of Christianity through television were restored to Mongolia. Despite the struggles of the previous years, our commitment to Faith and Freedom could not have been stronger. In fact, our commitment to freedom flowed directly from our faith.

Faith & Freedom: American Style versus American Missionary Style

Politically conservative Christians in the States have busied themselves with the agenda of defending the Constitution and restoring ideals such as freedom of speech and religion to their own communities. Although most politically minded U.S. Evangelicals focus on their own domestic issues, they rarely give thought about those same issues for their foreign brethren. Anna Greenberg and Jennifer Berktold note in their report Evangelicals in America,

When it comes to international priorities, they think first of those that will keep America safe from foreign aggression. Homeland security and the war on terrorism are the top priorities for white Evangelicals, rather than reaching out to the disadvantaged or even protecting the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in other countries.1

Many (though not all) conservative American Christians who work on the mission field take a similar view about these basic freedoms in their host countries. As one missionary wrote me, “Much of my effort is given to separating myself and the gospel from ‘freedom and democracy’ in the minds of the people I deal with.”2 Another missionary took an even stronger stand, stating, “Democracy is not a biblical position, as many Americans try to make it! It is not found in the Bible.”3 And while these positions seem understandable coming from the missionary working in a foreign culture, Christians from their host countries don’t always share the same view. One example is Chinese dissident Yuan Zhiming who according to a New York Times Magazine, article believes “Democracy is not just a political mechanism. The root of democracy is the spirit of Christ.”4

            There is an irony in missions supported by a free society: While many Christians work to defend liberties of conscience in the United States, their politically like-minded brethren on the mission field feel they must avoid any semblance of advocating them elsewhere. As one missionary in Belgium wrote, 

We come from a conservative background. We were raised this way and we have grown to appreciate this view. Our political view is filtered through the Word of God and we believe that it should be the basis for all government and law. [But] we don’t discuss political things. We stick to areas related to the church. We try to leave politics out of our regular conversation with nationals.5

Paradoxically, many of these missionaries encourage people to embrace what may be an “illegal faith” in their host country and live as if they possessed these political liberties in the first place. This irony is punctuated by missionary efforts over the last 200 years that have helped facilitate democratization in many countries, particularly in South America and Africa. According to Paul Freston, author of Evangelicals in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, many disciples of missionaries have gone on to become local church leaders, then leaders of political opposition groups–many motivated by their newly adopted Christian convictions, advocating political rights for Christianity in their countries.

I began the research for a book on this phenomenon by surveying missionaries around the world about their experiences and views on politics in their host countries. America missionaries representing 24 countries took part in the initial research. I was shocked by some of the responses I received. I expected most would embrace conservative (American-style) right-leaning to moderate lines of political ideology. After all, most evangelical missionaries share common beliefs about the Bible, Jesus Christ, moral values, personal liberties and the like. The missionaries who took part in the research are all from the United States, the birthplace of modern evangelicalism, rooted in the eighteenth-century awakenings that influenced the American Revolution. But those common beliefs don’t always translate into practical application in all areas of life–especially political ideology in our postmodern world. Take the following example:

            While surveying interview responses from staff and leaders of an international church-building ministry, one person remarked, “The Bible doesn’t teach freedom of speech.” Yet his co-worker said something different about such basic freedoms: “They are born of the freedom realized in Christ, and constitutionally established by men.”6

            How is it that many missionaries and missions organizations, empowered and supported for their work by American capitalism and American freedoms, must distance themselves from the provision that makes much of their work possible, while many of the countries they reach are moving toward the political ideologies of freedom and democracy? Did the Apostle Paul distance himself from his Roman citizenship when he was on mission, or did he take advantage of it? (Acts 22:25-29, 25:10-12). Didn’t the original eleven Apostles also serve as an example when they refused to obey Israeli limitations on their religious speech? (Acts 4:18-20, 5:27-29)

            My experience at Eagle Television was unique. For Eagle’s American shareholder, AMONG Foundation, faith in Jesus Christ was paramount, but Faith and Freedom7 are closely related. I am not referring to the specific policies of the American government, which changes leadership every four years, but to the foundational principles that make the American system possible. From my perspective, freedom of speech, press, and religion-as espoused in the First Amendment, according to the original understanding of the Founding Fathers—are so closely tied to biblical concepts; it is hard to divorce them. But not all Christians or missionaries agree, for practical as well as philosophical reasons.

The Rule of Law and Men

After interviewing missionaries and Christian leaders about these concepts and their application on the mission field, I was perplexed by what seemed to be a lack of contextual understanding of certain biblical passages. One person remarked that Ephesians 4:298 contradicts the idea of freedom of speech. It didn’t occur to him that contextually the passage is an admonition about a Christian’s personal behavior, not a public policy statement. Other missionaries communicated that since God established a theocracy in the Old Testament, it proves that freedom of religion is not a biblical concept. Yet they didn’t seem to take into account the theory that the Mosaic theocracy of Israel might have been originally established for one nation, at one time. In fact, the Mosaic Law did not forbid contemporary nations around Israel from pursuing their own political ideas. Even Israel committed this error, but in reverse: Jewish leaders took the public policy statements of the law and turned them into a yoke of personal service. In retrospect, we understand that neither view was the Old Testament’s entire intention. This is not to say that theocracy is wrong. Indeed, when Jesus returns, the government will be theocratic–but now is not that time.

            Ask Christians if they would like to see the Bible enacted into contemporary civil law, equally enforceable as laws passed by Congress: Many who may not understand the Bible’s application through history, may say, “Yes! It’s God’s Word.” But many others who have a different understanding of the broader context and history the Old Testament will quickly answer “No!”  Who wants to prescribe the death penalty for working on Sunday?9 The Bible is God’s Word, true and accurate–but not every part of the Bible is prescriptive for everyone, or for every time. Much of the Bible is demonstrative. That is, many stories in the Bible demonstrate how people, or God, handled certain situations, but those stories are not always meant to be interpreted as a command to always handle similar situations the same way today. More so, there are clear commands and principles in the Bible that transcend people, politics, and place: commandments on morality, personal behavior, the identity of Jesus Christ and so on. But there are others that some argue are not intended for use today and, some might say, for any time since, such as the Levitical priest’s job of mixing dust and ink from a scroll into a bowl of water and forcing a woman drink it to discover if she has committed adultery10

            Which is the biblical position: God uses political commonwealths? God uses monarchies? God uses military occupations? God uses dictatorships? God uses Federalism? God uses parliamentary democracy? God uses democratic socialism? God uses Marxism?

            Answer: According to some interpretations of the Bible, at different times in history, all of the above. In Joshua and Judges, a sort of theocratic commonwealth governed Israel. In the times of Samuel and the Kings, He established a monarchy. Prior to Babylonian and Persian rule, he foretold a military occupation and urged Israel to submit to it.11When Israel was carried into exile under a foreign government God commanded them to obey their conquerors and to even pray for the occupying society’s welfare.12 Some of these governments were anti-Jew, or favored pagan religions. Moreover, the Apostle Paul clearly stated in Romans 13:1 that “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” If you believe that God sometimes establishes forms of government as “authorities,” and not simply the men who run them, then Paul’s admonition would seem to cover the rest. The real issue isn’t so much was God “uses,” as opposed to what God “prescribes,” or perhaps more importantly, what does God Himself do?

            When looking at concepts for a biblical frame of government, we must go farther than the form; we must get to the heart of its origin. From a biblical perspective, we should ask two questions:

  • What are the common and consistent principles God uses to personally govern all people, regardless of race, politics, or religion? 
  • Should we imitate those principles?” 

God’s Government

            The Old Testament shows God taking an active and visible role in establishing a decentralized government for Israel and maintaining it for 400 years. Then He took an active role in establishing a limited monarchy13 for another nearly 500 years. Then He took an active role in subjecting Israel as a vassal state for another 400 years. During this time the Jews were expecting a political Messiah to crush their enemies. What did God do? He sent His Son, Jesus, who represented Himself as King of all men (a King without respect to people, politics, or place), but He urged obedience to the Roman military and Israeli religious governors. Suddenly, from the perspective of the Jewish patriot, it would seem God became confused and told His people to walk down two forks in the road at the same time. It is for historical accounts like these and their application in the modern world that Bible teachers constantly repeat the refrain: context, context, context.

            This is about two things: Religion and Politics. Jesus, commonly seen as a religious figure, was crucified for political reasons. When He returns, He will crush the political systems of the world for religious reasons. Only then will the two be blended in a theocratic union to govern the world. In the meantime, we are left to work out the balance in between as we try to express our religious convictions within, and out, of the political arena. Let us be clear, a large part of life is about religion and politics. We learn them in school. We talk about them with our kids. We watch them on TV. We argue about them with our friends. We choose a path in life, a career, and even our loves and hates in part because of the influence of religion and politics. We define our basic freedoms with religious ideas politically expressed. They are the two eyes that oversee all we do, the two hands that mold our present and future lives, and the two feet that walk together into the unknown.

            The missionary movement—without necessarily knowing or intending it—has been a front-line force advancing the three most important principles of freedom and democracy: freedom of speech, press, and conscience.14 But postmodernism, cultural correctness and good intentions have pushed many missionaries to do that which is impossible–divorce their political ideals from the religious concepts and liberties that molded them.

Notes

  1. Evangelicals in America, Anna Greenberg and Jennifer Berktold, page 13, Copyright ©April 5, 2004, Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, Inc.
  2. Email interview with a Southern Baptist Missionary. June 30, 2003.
  3. Email interview with missionary from Global Outreach International. July 3, 2003. 
  4. The Pilgrimage From Tiananmen Square, Ian Buruma, © April 11, 1999 New York Times Magazine. 
  5. July 2003 email interview with a career missionary of 19 years now living in Belgium.
  6. Responses from International Cooperating Ministries (ICM) staff and leadership, June 22, 2003.
  7. In this context I am using Faith and Freedom to refer specifically to Christianity in general and the three basic freedoms of speech, press, and religion or conscience.
  8. Ephesians 4:29, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only that which is good for the building up of others, that it may encourage those who hear.”
  9. Exodus 35:2, “Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day is holy to you, a Sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.”
  10. Numbers 5:12-30. The ink used in ancient times was not poisonous, but certainly this process would not have been pleasant.
  11. Jeremiah 27:12-13, “And I spoke words like all these to Zedekiah king of Judah, saying, ‘Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live! Why will you die, you and your people, by the sword, famine, and pestilence, as the Lord has spoken to that nation which will not serve the king of Babylon?”
  12. Jeremiah 29:7, “Seek the welfare of the city into where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”
  13. Unlike some of the ancient city-kingships in the Middle East, or old-world monarchies, the Mosaic Law provided unique restrictions to the authority of Israeli kings. These are found in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. The Old Testament gives the reason for restricting the power of a monarch so “that his heart might not be lifted up above his countrymen.”
  14. The more familiar forms are speech, press, and religion. However, I prefer the term “conscience” over “religion,” because it can cover a wide variety of denominations or sects, in addition to religions. The early framers of American politics actually tried to prevent federal political preference being given to various sects or denominations as opposed to religions. That they favored protestant Christianity over other religions is quite clear from the documentary evidence.

2 thoughts on “First Things

  1. Very well written Tom. I found it thought provoking. It may be interesting to study the effects of mainline Protestant and Catholic influences on political culture on the foreign field. Of course a great deal of discernment is required because things like liberation theology and feminism as a theology are antichrist ideologies that discard the image of God for a collectivist, naturalist solution (some form of collectivism)

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