CNN published an editorial written by Jeremy Courtney on Wednesday entitled “Three arguments against covert Christian 'spycraft'.” Courtney calls for the end of Christian missionaries entering closed countries as teachers, aid workers or business owners while simultaneously working as missionaries. Many times, this is the only way that these missionaries are able to access closed countries, but Courtney flat out calls these missionaries “liars” for three reasons.
Unfortunately, they are not very good reasons, and I am going to unpack some of those for you today.
Mr. Courtney, if you do happen to read this, please email me, and I would be happy to publish any response you might have verbatim so that maybe we can continue this dialogue. Maybe I am simply misunderstanding your points, and you could help me clarify my understanding.
1. It’s fundamentally dishonest.
Courtney first argues that these missionaries are fundamentally dishonest because when they come back to America and speaks to our churches, they talk all about all the people they are reaching for the cause of Christ as if that is their only mission. However, when they speak to government officials in whichever hostile country they are placed in, they say they are there to teach or provide aid as if this is their only mission. He says that this kind of duplicity is dishonest and later in the article refers to it as a “shell game.”
First of all, these missionaries are legitimately going to these countries to do a job. If they are going to teach, they are going to be in the classroom. If they are going to operate a small business, they are going to open their doors every morning to sell their products. There is nothing dishonest about doing what you say you are going to do even if it is not an exhaustive list of everything you intend to do while in a particular country.
For example, I had friends in college who came from China to study at the University of Vermont. If you asked them why they were here, they would say that they came to study. However, they also came to visit places like New York City and experience American culture. Did they lie to the government by saying they were coming for education? Certainly not even though they had other things they wanted to do while they were here.
It is possible however that Courtney’s larger problem is that most people decide to be missionaries first, and then they find a job that will allow them to operate in a closed country. Missionary work is truly their higher priority. He might say that that is the difference between my friends in college and the missionaries we are talking about. Despite all the other things my friends wanted to do, education was the main reason they were here. At the very least, he might say, they were officially documenting their main intention with the government even if they had secondary, less important ones that didn’t make it on their paperwork. The missionaries on the other hand are not putting their main purpose on their visa applications.
The problem is that the definition of dishonesty involve some kind of fraud or misdirection. If this missionary does the job that they say they’re going to do on their visa application, then I don’t see how the charge of dishonesty holds up. They are honestly working as teachers or aid workers.
It would be dishonest is if the missionaries denied being Christians to gain access to a country. If a Christian missionary tried to enter Iran claiming to be Muslim, that would be fundamentally dishonest, and like Courtney, I would condemn that. However, that’s not what we are talking about here.
For another interesting dialogue on this topic, I recommend that you read "Lying, Hostile Nations, and the Great Commission" on 9Marks.
2. It undermines the cause of religious freedom.
On this point, Courtney essentially argues that they can be feelings of betrayal when a Christian business owner is “exposed” to actually be a Christian and perhaps be trying to actually convert people to Christianity while simultaneously running a business. This creates a cycle of mistrust that he believes ultimately causes paranoid and oppressive regimes to crack down on religious minorities even more.
He is still relying on his first claim that these Christians are being somehow dishonest, and we already looked at the problems associated with that claim. However, the bigger problem with this particular point is that that the evidence simply doesn’t seem to be there. Courtney cites no cases where missionaries have led to the decrease of religious freedom.
I have a feeling that whether or not there are Christian missionaries in Iran, the formal position of the government is not going to change. Missionaries did not create the isolationist and anti-religious policies of North Korea. Both of these countries and their policies towards missionaries are a direct consequence of the ideology of their own leadership. Starting with the Islamic Revolution, Iran became much less open to Western things including Christianity. North Korea has basically isolated itself from the entire world, so they do not want ideas like Christianity coming from the outside.
It is not enough to make a claim. Courtney needs to provide evidence of missionaries directly causing a chain of events that leads to less religious freedom. On this point, it seems to be a major stretch to push an oppressive regime’s decisions on to a distinct minority of missionaries in any closed country especially without evidence.
3. It puts targets on the back of local Christians.
This is probably the strongest point of Courtney’s argument, but it still has some problems. His argument is that in places like Syria, there has been a Christian minority for a very long time. These minorities have survived by essentially not causing problems. By bringing in missionaries who stir up the people as he claimed they did in the previous two points and create anti-Christian sentiment, these local Christians are going to have new targets on their backs.
This is problematically shifting the responsibility to the victims. Groups that would murder these groups of local Christians need to be responsible for their own actions. Perhaps they are mad at Christian missionaries who have come to their towns from foreign countries. Does that mean that the missionaries are wrong for the coming and sharing ideas, or are these angry groups wrong for murdering as a response to those ideas?
If the problem is truly the murdering of local Christians, then that is where we need to focus our attention. We need to encourage any country where this takes place to realize that innocent citizens are being massacred. We need to show them the human rights violations that their own citizens are committing.
If there is a target on the back of local Christians, the responsibility for that lies on no one other than the people who are pulling the trigger. They need to be held responsible for those actions. To pass the blame onto Christian missionaries seems to give persecutors a free pass to persecute. That doesn’t seem to be a fair shift of blame.
Jeremy Courtney has a wonderful organization that does wonderful work in many incredibly dangerous places in the world. He truly cares about the least of these, and I am grateful that he is doing this work.
That being said though, I think that his diagnosis of foreign missionaries actually being a problem is sadly mistaken. I am obviously not saying that missionaries are always perfect, but I am saying that calling them fundamentally dishonest, a hindrance to religious freedom and bringing danger to local Christians is not the way that we go about building up our brothers and sisters who are spreading the gospel around the world.