On 2 April 2020, Akinyemi O. Alawode published an article “Politics in Christian Missions”1 in which he states that Christian missions and politics each have different goals, and asserts that “there has always been a conflict between politics and Christian missions where politics seeks to play a controlling role…”,2 resulting in hurt to the mandate of Christian missions. He further asserts that politics does no good to the work of missions and recommends steps to be taken to avoid politics in Christian missions. This may not be an uncommon view.
But can politics and Christian missions ever be kept separate? If not, what should Christian leaders do? And how should mission organisations, missionaries, and church members behave in the face of politics?
In his article, Alawode defines politics as the acquisition of power, control and manipulation in any society, group, organisation and leadership. Politics (Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká, ‘affairs of the cities’) is the set of activities that is associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.3 For Harold Lasswell, politics is about “who gets what, when, and how”.4 And David Easton calls it “the authoritative allocation of values for a society”.5 Aristotle’s rather kindly view was that “to be political… meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through violence”.6
The word “politics” may be used positively or descriptively as “the art or science of governing”, but unfortunately it often carries a negative connotation.
A variety of behaviours are employed in politics, including promoting one’s own views and interests, negotiating with others, making laws and policies, and exercising influence or force directly or indirectly. People often form parties, formal or otherwise, to represent their views and interests. Whether it is intentionally done or not, “social manipulation to secure and maintain influential positions” is also political behaviour.
On the other hand, Christian missions are organised efforts to spread the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ to the unreached. They involve sending individuals and groups across boundaries, most commonly geographical boundaries, to evangelise and plant churches while also providing for other needs of the society being reached such as education, medical or other social services. The goal is to fulfil the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20 and is well summed up by the apostle Paul in Colossians 1:28 (NIV): “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
For the love of Christ compels us. Paul even uses a political metaphor to describe our engagement as Christ’s representatives in the ministry of reconciliation—we are, he says, “ambassadors for Christ” (Greek: ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ οὖν πρεσβεύομεν) (2 Cor 5:14,18 & 20).
Politics and missions are inseparable
Politics and missions are inseparable, given that politics is the way that people living in groups make decisions. It is about the making of agreements between people in order to be able to co-exist in tribes, communities, cities, or countries.
In everyday life, the term ‘politics’ refers to the ways that peoples in countries are governed, and to the ways that governments make rules and laws.
So as long as there are human institutions—whether externally in the form of governments of countries (with their laws, regulations, and policies) or internally within organisations, churches, mission agencies (with their constitutions, regulations, and policies)—we will unavoidably engage with politics.
What should Christian leaders do?
Very often, when (external) government or (internal) organisation policies impede or appear to impede mission mandates or practices, leaders and policy decisionmakers adopt the mindset that policies must prevail, and practitioners should comply. The emphasis is therefore on the hierarchy of decision making. For Christian leaders in decision making however, what should the biblical emphasis be?
The biblical imperative is found in Micah 6:8—God has shown humanity what is good! What does the Lord require? To practise being fair, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him.
How should mission organisations, missionaries and church members respond?
The corollary is, when (mission) practitioners encounter laws, constitutions, policies, or regulatory requirements that seem to impede mission mandates or practices, their tendency is also to focus on hierarchical decisions and view them negatively. Instead, what does Scripture teach us?
Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to be subject to the governing authorities… “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgement… for the authorities are ministers of God” (Rom 13:1, 2 & 6).
Furthermore, he wrote to Titus to remind the church “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Tit 3:1-2).
These may be hard instructions to obey, especially in democratic societies that place a premium on individual rights and freedom. But they are the Word of God.
May God grant us the courage to change the things we can, serenity to accept the things we cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.7
1 https://www.ajol.info/index.php/hts/article/view/213134. See also, HTS Theological Studies https://hts.org.za/index.php/hts/article/view/5657
2 Alawode, A.O., 2020, ‘Politics in Christian missions’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 76(1), a5657. Pg 3.
4 Lasswell, Harold D. (1963) . Politics: who gets what, when how. With postscript. World. OCLC 61585455 [https://www.worldcat.org/title/politics-who-gets-what-when-how-with-postscript-1958/oclc/61585455]
5 Easton, David (1981). The political system: an inquiry into the state of political science (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-18017-5.
6 Leftwich, Adrian (2015). What is politics? The activity and its study. Polity Press. ISBN 978-0-7456-9852-6.
7 Adapted from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer https://yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/2709-you-can-quote-them.
Prof Dennis Lee serves as Area Director in Methodist Missions Society. He is a Visiting Professor with Copenhagen Business School, a Fellow with Singapore University of Social Sciences, and an alumnus of Regent College (MTS ’88 & MDiv ’89). He worships at Kum Yan Methodist Church.