A Christian tells friends and churches that he is going to Cambodia as a missionary and that he needs full financial support. However, Cambodia doesn’t grant missionary visas, so he gets a job teaching English as a second language. Since the job is very part-time and low-paying, it really doesn’t support him. But it allows lots of time for ministry. Naturally the Cambodians ask him, “How do you make a living this way? Are you a missionary?” Is he justified in saying, “No, I’m a TESOL teacher.”
This is a tough question. It causes differences of opinion among committed mission leaders. We want to be open their input. But I am concerned that many are dishonoring Christ by our response to this issue. Since we can only answer briefly here, I will give a few cardinal points and then offer a GO Paper for further reading.
First, how can we deceive people in order to proclaim the good news that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”? This seems utterly contradictory to the message entrusted to us. The reason that Christ is the truth and that the gospel is true is not merely because the God of the Bible is the ultimate reality. It is also because God is always truthful–he never lies. How then can it be compatible to deceive in order to deliver the Truth?
Second, of all world religions, people have a right to evaluate Christianity by whether Christians embody their message. Only the gospel claims that God is holy and humans full of sin, and that God supernaturally transforms us into people who practice righteousness. The supernatural character of the Christian messenger powerfully authenticates the gospel; unrighteousness negates it. Our lives must back our words. Total integrity and truthfulness are indispensable for credible witness.
In fact, living out the gospel in the workplace is the first part of our witness. Christ calls us to genuinely serve our employers as if we are serving Christ himself (Eph. 6:6). Serving our employer, our colleagues, and our clients with excellence, integrity, and genuine care is central to our witness.
Third, Scripture denies that the ends justify the means, no matter how lofty. Peter instructs us to live such good lives among non-believers that will be forced to acknowledge our uprightness in spite of seeking to accuse us (I Pet. 2:12). Though we will not generally suffer for doing good, we are still to do good even if it brings suffering (I Pet. 2:20-22; 3: 13-17).
Those passages which might be interpreted to justify lying in extreme situations, cannot be credibly interpreted that way. Rahab’s lying to save her and the Hebrew spies’ lives is never affirmed by God, only her faith (Josh. 2; Heb 11:31). The Hebrew midwives lie to Pharoah that the Hebrew women were having their babies before they arrived can be understood the same way–God approved their faith, not their lie. However, could the passage be interpreted differently–that the physically strong Hebrew women were in fact having their babies before the midwives (who possibly slowed their arrival) could arrive? That these passages legitimate lying in limited cases is a possible interpretation. However, this cannot be proven because, in the text, God only approves the faith, no the lying.
Another case strongly counterbalances these cases of silence in which God does not explicitly condemn lying. God clearly condemns Abraham’s repeated lie (half-truth) that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife to save his life. In both cases Abraham lies to the pagan king in authority and God rebukes him through that king (Gen. 12:10-20; 20).
We cannot ignore similar texts where lying is condemned and take a few cases of lying where God explicitly affirms “faith” but not the lying and make them normative to justify lying in dangerous situations. If, in fact, such lying is justifiable, we must work much harder to build a careful rationale for limited exceptions on rigorous ethical-theological grounds.
Instead of justifying lying in extreme situations, the Bible affirms that Christians must be ready to suffer for righteousness’ sake (Mt. 5:10; I Pet. 3:14-17) and that suffering for Christ is something that is “granted” to us (Phil. 1:29). In fact, the apostles “rejoic[ed] because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Ac. 5:14) Revelation informs us repeatedly about “those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9; 20:4) Scripture seems to call us to truthfulness and good works without exception with willingness to suffer for that righteousness. (Note: Truthfulness does not require us to voluntarily disclose everything. No one can or does. But it requires integrity.)
Fourth, mission workers who misrepresent themselves presume, at least indirectly, that the host people are stupid and won’t figure them out. But they aren’t stupid. Over and over mission workers have told me that the people know what they are doing anyway, so it doesn’t matter. At least it gives the authorities grounds for plausible deniability to fundamentalist elements in the society. But, when the people figure it out, they see that Christians believe deception is legitimate, at least for noble purposes. But does this not this do damage to the message and to God’s glory?
On the other hand, integrity has great impact. A mission worker in a Central Asian country reported the response of one government leader to these two different approaches. The leader told the Christian that they didn’t like or respect a certain Christian group because they claimed to be in the country to serve in certain ways, but they did not do so. On the other hand, they liked Christians like him (the one he was talking with) because they did what they said. Integrity authenticates the gospel.
Fifth, misrepresentation also implicitly denies the power and love of God. Abraham did not trust God to take care of him before the threatening power of the Egyptian pharaoh. Peter didn’t trust God when he vehemently denied Christ three times during Christ’s trial in order to save his hide. We know that God can wipe out rulers with a mere breath (Is. 40:24) and protect his servants in a blazing furnace (Dan. 3). Other times God allows his people suffer and even to die which demonstrates the supernatural power of the gospel which could not otherwise be seen. Truthfulness about ourselves communicates that God is bigger than all else. He can deliver if he chooses, and if not, he is worth dying for. Dishonesty almost always negates this.
Sixth, suffering for Christ’s name delivers powerful testimony to the gospel that cannot come any other way. Suffering for our witness to Christ shows how deeply convinced we are of his truth and how totally we value him. Paul’s social rejection, destitution, beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, stoning, mistreatment by some Christians, and finally his execution all bear powerful testimony to the reality and worth of Christ. Suffering also demonstrates God’s supernatural power in us. Similar testimony is given by “the great cloud of witnesses” of Heb. 11 (cf. 12:1). The Bible supports our using every legitimate means to avoid persecution, but not unrighteous means. Instead, when God allows persecution we should respond like the apostles and rejoice because we are counted worthy to suffer for Christ (Ac. 5:14).
Seventh, Christians know that life is far more than physical life. Real life is knowing the true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (Jn. 17:3). Glorifying God and enjoying him forever is the purpose for which we are designed. To live for anything else is eternal and ultimate death. Centering our lives in God is real life and continues into eternity. Dying opens up more of life because to die is to be with Christ (Phil. 1:20-23).
God calls us to submit to governing authorities in every way except where they order us to violate God’s commands including the command to evangelize. At that point we must respectfully disobey without deception and be willing to suffer the consequences. (Clarification: This does not mean we have to do aggressive evangelism like street preaching and pressing unwanted religious conversation on people to prove our courage. Rather, we seek to obey the laws wherever we can, but we cannot be silent.) By being willing to face persecution rather than deceiving to avoid it we demonstrate our confidence that our life is eternal.
Eighth, modeling is paramount in all ministry including missions. We cannot escape doing it; new believers cannot escape copying it. Christians overseas are modeling all the time. If they model total integrity, trust in God’s power and care, love for God above life, willingness to suffer for Christ, and assurance of real and eternal life, so will new believers. If on the other hand they model deception, fear of human authorities more than God, love for safety above God, avoidance of persecution by any means, and lack of joyful confidence in eternal life, then so will new believers.
Finally, a couple of practical comments: The critical issue is integrity—that we really are who we say we are, not whether we receive support. Some countries’ economies are so poor that even doctor’s or university professor’s wages are too low to live on. In such cases it is legitimate to raise additional support. Tentmakers can openly explain that they want to work there because God has given them a love for the people and that some friends and family are willing to assist them during this difficult period in the country’s economy.
Any blend of self-support and donor support can be used as long as the tentmaker is honest about it. I would suggest that Christians need to work half-time or more at their vocation to honestly identify themselves by their vocation. This raises another question: Can Christians join a missionary agency thus identifying themselves as missionaries, and then legitimately call themselves a teacher, an engineer, or whatever, even if they work more than half-time in her job? I leave this for further thought.
We believe it is best for tentmakers to identify themselves as Christians up front. It is no surprise for the rest of the world for Americans to be Christians. Many think all Americans are. For them there is no divorce between religion and the rest of life. Because of television, movies, and our foreign policy, many think Christianity is decadent. What a wonderful opportunity to surprise people by our integrity, excellent work, and caring relationships. We want people to know that we love Christ from the beginning and to watch us. Then we want to live and speak in such a way that we shatter their expectations and arouse them to ask questions about our faith. When people ask if we are missionaries, we can honestly say, “No. I’m a teacher, engineer, or whatever. But I love Jesus Christ and wish that people everywhere could know more of his love.” For more, see “GO Paper A-4: Tentmaker Ethics” by Ruth Siemens.