Christian missions can be done well… and not well. But does this mean that we should abandon missions? Is it really that bad? Read this adapted article from the CSB Apologetics Study Bible to think deeper on the question, “Do Christian missionaries impose their culture?”

DO CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES IMPOSE THEIR CULTURE?

Many people believe Christian missionaries impose their culture on others. Missionaries allegedly soften up native peoples by weakening their cultural resistance, leaving the field open for colonists and Western capitalism. Mission has been described as enslavement or even as genocide, and the gospel has been called the “everlasting story of the West against the Indians.”

ADDRESSING THE STEREOTYPES

Such extreme accusations signal that we are entering a world of stereotype and caricature. We first find them in the nineteenth century but stereotypes of missionaries became widespread in the mid-twentieth century, with the recognition that some cultures can oppress others. This insight was applied to “Christian” cultures of the West, especially as supposedly spread by missionaries.

Most caricatures have a basis in fact, however flimsy, and some missionaries have fit aspects of the stereotype. The early church faced similar issues (Ac 15; Gl 2) when the apostles rejected the imposition of traditions upon new converts. The fact that Scripture records such disagreements is strong witness to its historical reliability. It’s also a warning to churches to be vigilant against imposing local customs on other people groups. The stereotypes assert that missionaries have consistently ignored this warning. Have they?

GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN

Missionaries cannot avoid taking their own culture with them, but they can avoid imposing it on others. As Henry Venn remarked in 1868, long before the twentieth-century secular discovery of pluralism, that the “marked national characteristics” of the church will be its “perfection and glory.” Indeed, at a time when the study of native cultures was almost racist in its focus on the evolution of culture from primitive to sophisticated, some missionary scholars—such as James Legge, Robert Morrison, and John Farquhar—insisted on the value of native cultures.

Examples abound of missionaries recognizing cultural diversity and pioneering its study and preservation. This isn’t surprising, as missionaries often lived alongside native people and learned their language in order to translate the Bible. From José de Acosta in Latin America to William Carey in India, from Jacob Grigg in Africa to John Smith in Jamaica, missionaries have helped preserve cultures and native languages. Linguist Mary Haas has estimated that ninety percent of the material available on Native American languages is missionary in origin. Some missionaries courageously identified with native peoples. For example, Samuel Worcester went to prison for his defense of Cherokee rights.

Stereotypes of missionaries aren’t only factually inaccurate; they can also be unjust toward African, Hispanic, and Asian peoples. The stereotype of Christianity as white and Western misrepresents the church’s origin and has long been out of date. The period of Western dominance came full circle many years ago when the church’s centers of gravity moved to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Moreover, we do no favors to native cultures in saying a few missionaries easily overpowered them. This presumes native cultures fell easily to Western influence and obscures the violent oppression of native people.

MOVING FORWARD

Stereotypes that treat Christianity as Western, and native cultures as weak, are culturally biased at best and unintentionally racist at worst.
All cultures, developed and developing, fall short of biblical standards and need the gospel. We shouldn’t fear or ignore all criticism of missionary methods. But to be helpful, such criticism should be informed and fair. Stereotypes of missionaries are neither.

CSB APOLOGETICS STUDY BIBLE

This blog post is adapted from the CSB Apologetics Study Bible.

Want help to better understand, defend, and proclaim your beliefs in an age of increasing relativism? Then you should check out this revised and updated edition. It includes new articles and extensive apologetics study material. Additionally, everything written comes from today’s leading apologists! You will gain a deeper understanding of the relevant apologetics issues and questions being discussed today.

7 Comments

  1. Alfredo V Paica Reply

    God moves differently in the hearts of peoples, and the gospel can penetrate in so many ways.
    So Jesus rightly said The Holy spirit will guide us into the whole truth.regardless of customs, tradition & belief.

  2. First, let’s admit we all “impose” our culture, whether macro or micro, on others. We bring our biases and blind spots with us, formed in whatever cultures, whenever we engage and enter another’s world with all of its biases and blind spots–as well as strengths.
    Second, there have historically been power differentials between ministry workers who engage a different culture than their own and those they hope to influence. For instance, right now there are many foreign teachers hoping to influence those they teach, and perhaps more largely their families and communities, not to mention foreign doctors bringing foreign approaches to health, foreign aid workers bringing foreign approaches to caring for the needy, and foreign community development workers…. In the presence of power differentials, there is vulnerability to abuse, whether it is devious and evil, thoughtless, or unintentional and unobservable.
    Third, there is embedded in this question the assumption that people like their culture and community just as it is. This is certainly not true for me, even if it is for everyone else! People may genuinely desire or even desperately crave change in c&c. Further, they may also hope for a better position or role for themselves relative to others, since every c&c has its conscious and unconscious winners and losers.
    So we’re left with the uneasy truth that influence brings responsibility. James 3 draws attention to this. A mantra I’ve shared with many is to “stay, flourish, and contribute” in that order. This may help, but it will not be sufficient. Of course, “love one another” is more than trite advice as well. And “pray in everything” has already been mentioned.

  3. I have been in the overseas mission field for 16 years and working for local tribal people for 6 years before that. Regrettably I have found this to be true, with just about all church mission groups whether local, national or international. Very often, those who bring the Word have not been prepared for cross-cultural work. Then there’s the problem of weak Biblical foundation. There’s also the denominational interpretation of the Word sometimes the interpretation being culturally based from the messenger’s standpoint which can sometimes not be relevant or completely opposite from the recipient’s cultural context. Mission work requires much “knee-work” and the continuous seeking of our Lord’s wisdom and guidance for each step. Getting there, we then need to help our new brothers and sisters in the Lord to learn “knee-work” and the continuous seeking of our Lord’s wisdom and guidance for each step, and not to rely on us but on Him, who Is The Light of the World, the Source of All Things.

    • Cierra Klatt Reply

      Thanks for your informed response, Jonathan! It’s neat to hear from people who have had to experience this first-hand. Also, thank you for your years of work serving the Lord!

    • Lutchie Wiens Reply

      I’m an Mk and I still live and work cross – culturally. Unfortunately, it is true in some cases, especially with those missionaries who think that their race and culture is superior than others. Not only they impose their cultures to the natives natives, they imposed their own into other co-workers to show who is more important and stronger. This is why they uprooted us from the original place where we were working and claimed that there was no church. And sent my family to wherever they seemed fit. This is the reason why I encourage those who go out for missions to prepare and respect the cultures they are going into and to deem God’s Word over all cultures. God’s kingdom is about humbleness and love, not superiority complex and power. But, when it comes to God’s Word, the cultures would definitely have to change in some ways or another. For example, I know of a tribe here that was known for aggressiveness. Those who have heard the gospel changed and they are not aggressive anymore. They channel their energies into hard work and other healthier activities.

  4. Jesse Young Reply

    I don’t like that this article does not give any examples of imposing ones culture. What are we talking about? Dress standards, language, political beliefs, western etiquette, personal hygiene? What are we supposed to be and not supposed to be imposing on converts? There were certain behaviors and customs that Jesus imposed on his converts. He told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. Was he imposing his culture by telling her not to commit adultery anymore? 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. Was Paul imposing his culture by imposing the traditions of Christian living. He even went as far as to tell the women how to dress more than once. Was he a bigot?

  5. I love the study of the history of the early Celtic church, of Patrick, Columba (columcile) etc. from that I learn that the independent Celtic missionaries didn’t change local culture but taught the gospel and allowed it to change any cultural practices that were contrary to the teaching of Christ.
    The Roman church, however, sought to enforce cultural change in their “converts”, including their manner of dress, the style of church buildings, language spoken – everything. Compared with the celtic believers, the papists were largely unsuccessful, and converts quickly returned to paganism.
    The Celtic church worked in many ways similar to Bible believing missionaries today. Sadly the Celtic church lost its independence and was overtaken by Rome and absorbed into Rome around the 4th century. They even claim Patrick to be their own, though was never was a Catholic.

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