“…The woman on this photo is Dalit, an Untouchable, a member of the lowest caste in India. She had never learned to read and write until she became a Christian; the local church taught her to read and write. She has brought many of her friends and family to Christ, and you can see some of them on the photo. After sharing with us her testimony, she said, ‘I want to read to you my favorite verse, from Revelation.’ I was astonished. A few months ago this woman couldn’t even read, and now she is studying Revelation? She opened the church’s Hindi Bible and read from Revelation 3:20: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.’ Then she explained: ‘I was taught my whole life by my parents that as a Dalit, I am lower than true humans. No one of the other castes wants to eat with us Dalits because we are low and impure; to do so would be the same as to eat with their dogs. And here is the Great God Jesus, the Ruler of the universe, telling me that I am of such value in His eyes that He knocks on my door and He wants to come in and eat with me!’”
A missionary to India told us this story at a mission weekend in a local Presbyterian church. For safety reasons I can not tell here the names of the missionary and the organization; what’s more important here is the Dalit woman and her testimony.
I have often been criticized by well-meaning Christian brothers and missionaries for my view of missions. I believe missions the way we have been doing them throughout the 20th century were incomplete and truncated. We have been “converting souls.” We have been “planting churches.” We have done many activities that only touch a very limited part of the life of the individual – his commitment to a personal faith of the heart. May be we have also changed the individual morality of a few people around the world. In general, our work has been mainly to snatch souls out of the world and put them in a spiritual “safety net” where they can wait, and wait, and wait until that final day when Jesus will take them to heaven, and they will have eternity to enjoy with him. Meanwhile, we have taught them, the only thing we can do is snatch more souls and put them in the same waiting position as us. No matter what denomination the missionaries come from, no matter what great words they use to describe their mission work, it eventually boils down to this: convert souls, teach them to convert other souls, and have them all wait in a world that is crumbling and beyond repair.
I have pointed to the inadequacy of this philosophy of missions in my articles. I believe Christian missions can not legitimately be limited to the personal faith of the converts and church planting. Missions are supposed to be comprehensive, and missionaries are supposed to bring to foreign lands not only a personal faith – however important it is – but also a cultural faith, a faith that self-consciously builds a new culture, a new society based on the Biblical Law. A missionary is supposed not only to challenge the idols in the heart of the individual, but also the idols in the heart of the very society that individual lives in. Without such comprehensive challenge, a convert is not a true convert, and if he doesn’t apostatize in the future, at least his life will be a miserable inner struggle between his attempts to personally serve the God of his heart and his cultural servitude to the idols of his culture. A missionary has no right to deliberately avoid teaching and preaching a comprehensive worldview that affects every area of life, including philosophy, science, economics, government, and many other areas. A missionary is there to challenge the world’s system, not to snatch souls from it. Only such a missionary that doesn’t shy from challenging the worldview of the local cultures and replacing it with a comprehensive Biblical worldview will have lasting impact on a culture for Christ well beyond his own lifetime. The failure of so many modern missions to change history – despite the billions of dollars poured into them – can be traced back to this important truth: If you only speak to issues peripheral to a culture, you will be relegated to the periphery of the culture.
The common objection against this view of missions is that most people around the world are uneducated and they have no understanding of a comprehensive worldview. Therefore a missionary should only seek their conversion, hoping that in future, when through the instruction from the church their intellectual powers and their education reach higher levels, he will start giving them the comprehensive worldview that they need. Most of the time, of course, the missionary never does that – the highest level of intellectual instruction a mission would give a local people is starting a local seminary with a very limited range of topics, pure theology, worship, and may be counseling. The broader questions of government, philosophy, art, economics, etc., are seldom touched, let alone taught systematically. The excuse is that the local people wouldn’t understand them; that people who were illiterate to start with will hardly begin to understand these greater issues.
The Dalit woman in the story above is a strong refutation of this excuse.
No matter what a person’s background is, no matter what his culture, family, nation, or history is, we are all taught a comprehensive worldview even from the early days of our life. We learn about ultimate values – and not only as an abstract religion but as applied morality also. We learn about the source of those values: God, or the gods, or the tribe, the Party, the inexorable forces of history, of the ancestors, etc. Part of our growing up is learning about the nature of humans and their place in the world. Our actions, our self-awareness are based on our understanding of what a human being is. On the basis of that understanding we learn to make the difference between human beings – our ultimate values inform us as to who of the human beings around us is of higher value than others, or tell us that all are of the same value. Based on that, we build our understanding of the complex relationships between the human beings in the society. The society’s structure is based on that understanding, which in turn follows from our religion and our set of ultimate values. No matter what our education is, whether we are even literate or not, we all understand the intricate interpersonal relationships in the culture – and we understand them, and participate in them based on the values given to us by our religion and the comprehensive worldview which follows from it.
The Dalit woman, even while illiterate and uneducated, living in her most humble conditions, had that comprehensive worldview. Her family taught her their religion – the belief in their many gods, and the re-incarnation of souls. Based on that she was taught the ultimate values of their society: multiple gods meant a fundamentally fragmented society of different castes, tribes, groups, blood lines, etc. She had a view of man and of the value of human beings which is the ultimate view of all pagan religions: Human beings have their worth based on their racial-genetic complexion. Therefore, she knew, her own caste, being determined genetically, made her be less than a human being, one whom the higher castes, the true human beings wouldn’t even look at, let alone touch or (God forbid!) eat with her. She knew her place, and she knew her value on the basis of the comprehensive worldview she was taught. Her illiteracy didn’t prevent her from knowing the ultimate values, and understanding their implications and applications in the culture.
So when she came to Christ, she recognized the change that meant to all her ideas. It wasn’t just a personal faith in a different god for her; it was also a change in the worldview. The new worldview gave her a new set of values, and in that new set of values human beings were not evaluated on the basis of the their race and genetics anymore. A human being is now of such an value before God that He sent His own Son to die for the salvation of those who are chosen. The new religious faith can’t live with the old ideas about culture – a new God means a new view of man, of society, and of relationships. The Dalit woman, barely literate, knew more than many American missionaries out there: Religion determines everything.
And therefore, faith can not be taught without also teaching how it affects and changes the culture.
But the value of a human being is not where the comprehensive worldview of the Bible ends. Many other things follow from it. In the Indian culture – and everywhere else, too – the prevalent religion shapes not only the personal relationships between people of different castes: it also shapes the economic and government structures. The economic life and position of the Dalits depend on the culture’s view of their ritual and religious “uncleanness.” They are not allowed to take certain jobs and occupations. The religious system doesn’t result only in the physical separation between the castes – it controls the very economic structure of the Indian society. It also controls the government structure – on a local and national level. It controls the education system, the trade relationships, even the very scientific beliefs. No matter how educated or uneducated a person is, they still have a comprehensive worldview which is part of their faith in their gods – and they act it out in practice, in their everyday individual and corporate life.
Therefore, a missionary can not legitimately avoid preaching to every area of life; he can not legitimately declare that he is preaching “only the Gospel” without the cultural part of the Gospel. If, in the words of Henry Van Til, “a culture is religion externalized,” then a missionary that only limits the Gospel to the salvation of the individual soul is preaching a “half-Gospel,” the Gospel only “internalized,” omitting the cultural applications from the Gospel. To a Dalit woman who have lived her life under the oppression of a pagan religion of racism and segregation, such a missionary wouldn’t have much to say in her specific cultural situation. Long term, his preaching wouldn’t change much in the culture, unless she and the others in her culture take the time to discover from the Bible the cultural applications of the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Great Commission commands us to disciple the nations. (The Greek text doesn’t have our modern translation, “make disciples of all nations.” The direct words are, “disciple the nations.”) That means a missionary that goes to a foreign nation must bring with him not only a personal internalized religion but also the external applications of that religion. He must address the idols of the heart but also the idols of the society. He must preach and teach to the very fabric of that society, exposing the ungodliness and wickedness of its economic system, of its family customs and government structures. He must bring a comprehensive world-and-life view that completely changes the way the local converts view reality – no matter how “uneducated” and “unsophisticated” those converts are. The Dalit woman was blessed to have discovered how much the new faith she had acquired changed her ideas of her value before God and in her culture. Her illiteracy did not prevent her from having a worldview, and did not prevent her from realizing what changes she had to make in that worldview based on her new faith. The illiterate Dalit woman was truly evangelized, knowing that the Gospel did not only concern her eternal salvation but her whole life as well, and the life of her whole society.
We need to “evangelize” our own missionaries today to the comprehensive nature and demands of the Gospel. And teach them to teach others to change the whole world for Christ. Just like those early Christians who changed Europe, and then the world.