A Moratorium on Missionaries?

by Gerald H. Anderson

Dr. Anderson, senior research associate in the southeast Asia Program at Cornell University, is president of the American Society of Missiology.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 16, 1974. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Should the Western churches cease, for a time, sending money and missionaries to the Third World in order to break the domination/dependence syndrome that has long characterized the relationship?

An African church leader recently laid before the World and U.S. National Councils of Churches a proposal that there be a moratorium on sending and receiving money and missionary personnel. John Gatu, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in East Africa, said that their continuing sense of dependence on and domination by foreign church groups inhibits many churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America from development in response to God’s mission. ". . . [Our] present problems," he explained, "can only be solved if all missionaries can be withdrawn in order to allow a period of not less than five years for each side to rethink and formulate what is going to be their future relationship. . . . The churches of the Third World must be allowed to find their own identity, and the continuation of the present missionary movement is a hindrance to this selfhood of the church."

However shocking this proposal may seem, it is imperative that Christians in Europe and North America face the issue squarely -- for one reason, because it will probably be a major item for discussion on the agenda of virtually every Protestant mission board and society that is related to the ecumenical movement; for another, because the feelings voiced by Mr. Gatu are shared by a number of church leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as in Europe and the United States.

Thus Emerito P. Nacpil, president of Union Theological Seminary near Manila, Philippines, told an assembly of church leaders and missionaries gathered in Asia in 1971 that under present conditions a partnership between Asian and Western churches "can only be a partnership between the weak and the strong. And that means the continued dependence of the weak upon the strong and the continued dominance of the strong over the weak." The missionary today, he said, is a symbol of the universality of Western imperialism among the rising generations of the Third World. [Therefore I believe that the present structure of modern missions is dead. And . . . we ought . . . to eulogize it and then bury it . . . In other words, the most missionary service a missionary under the present system can do today in Asia is to go home.

Again, Father Paul Verghese, a former associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches and now principal of an Orthodox theological seminary in India, writes from that country:

Today it is economic imperialism or neocolonialism that is the pattern of missions. Relief agencies and mission boards control the younger churches through purse strings. Foreign finances, ideas and personnel still dominate the younger churches and stifle their spontaneous growth. . . . So now I say, The mission of the church is the greatest enemy of the gospel."

A third voice in harmony with Mr. Gatu’s is that of José Miguez-Bonino, dean of Union Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Recently addressing a group in the United States, Dr. Miguez said:

We in the younger churches have to learn the discipline of freedom to accept and to refuse, to place resources at the service of mission rather than to have mission patterned by resources. . . . We cannot for the love of our brethren or for the love of Cod let anybody or anything stand in the way of our taking on our own shoulders our responsibility. If, in order to do that, we must say to you, our friends, Stay home," we will do so because before God we have this grave responsibility of our integrity.


The first thing to be said about this growing sentiment in Third World churches is that it should be seen as a sign of the world church’s vitality. It is an indication that the "younger churches" have come of age. And the leaders of those churches are ready and able to articulate what this new sense of strength and self-confidence implies with regard to the traditional structures of relationship to the churches of the West, The challenge they pose is the fruit of our labors in world mission over the past 180 years.

Second, the basic issue in the moratorium proposal is integrity -- for both sides. On the part of the Third World churches it is a question of authority and control as they seek to establish and express their own identity. On the part of the churches in Europe and North America it is a question of accountability and faithfulness to the mandate for world mission inherent in the gospel. Therefore the relation between selfhood and universality, while crucial, should not imply contrast or opposition, for a church ought to be both local and universal.

A recent study of this problem, carried out by George A. Hood for the Conference of British Missionary Societies and titled In Whole and in Part, suggests that a better formulation of the issue would be: How may the interdependence of the church in mission be expressed throughout the world and in every place? Hood reaches the conclusion that the clearest expression of interdependence across the whole spectrum of the church’s life is found in giving and receiving." Indeed, he says, "the greatest threat to interdependence is self-sufficiency. . . . Some parts of the church are clearly being impoverished by feeling unable to give and others by their inability to receive." The most important implication of these facts for mission boards is that they need "to make the ideas of wholeness, interdependence, mutuality, more central."

Similarly, the WCC’s 1973 Bangkok Conference on "Salvation Today" said (report of Section III) that "the whole debate on the moratorium springs from our failure to relate to one another in a way which does not dehumanize," and that "in some situations the moratorium proposal, painful though it may be for both sides, may be the best means of resolving a present dilemma and advancing the mission of Christ."


There are indeed situations in which withdrawal of missionaries may be in the best interests of the Christian mission -- for instance, where the sociopolitical setup of a particular country or area is utterly contrary to the gospel and where the established church is identified with the status quo. It was a situation of that kind that, in 1971, led the White Fathers (a Roman Catholic mission society founded in 1868 and known officially as the Missionaries of Africa) to withdraw all their personnel from Mozambique. The Vatican-Portuguese Missionary Accord has aligned the Roman Catholic Church and its local hierarchy with the colonial regime in that country, and when all positive efforts of the White Fathers failed to end the flagrant injustices visited on blacks in Mozambique, they decided, according to one report, that "they had to withdraw so as not to allow themselves to be considered partners of the church-state collusion." While other mission societies operating in Mozambique have chosen to continue their witness there by a silent presence, the controversial decision of the White Fathers has been widely heralded as "an act of authentic Christian witness in the face of difficult options."

It was a different motive that, in 1969, prompted the unilateral decision of Methodist missionaries in Uruguay to withdraw for at least one year. They viewed their action as "a vote of confidence for the national church in its effort to work out a new life" -- that is, as a way of supporting the indigenous church. Their voluntary withdrawal, they believed, would free the church of Uruguay to establish its own structures and to lay down the conditions under which whatever missionaries it invited to come back would be obliged to serve. (Thus far the Uruguayan church has invited only one missionary couple to return.) This move of the Methodists, like that of the White Fathers, has proved controversial. Some call it a bold act of witness, others see it as a new form of paternalism, this time telling the national church what it does not need.

These, however, were limited moves. The moratorium proposed by Gatu and Nacpil is much more far-reaching. They are talking about all missionaries under the present structures of sending and receiving. Surely their approach is too shortsighted and simplistic for an exceedingly complex set of historical circumstances. We cannot responsibly solve the accumulated problems of nearly 200 years of missionary relationships by suddenly going into isolation; nor will the New Testament allow us to do so.


In the first place, so sweeping a moratorium would promote the domestication of the churches in their respective cultures, and this in turn would promote the further encroachment on them of tribal religion. Already cultural paganism infests the churches in most areas of the world -- nowhere more so than around the North Atlantic basin. To insulate them further, as the moratorium would do, could only encourage this pagan trend. The fact is that the "foreign" missionary presence in the life of any church should serve as a particular reminder of the "alien" nature of the gospel to every nation and culture. Unquestionably we in Europe and North America need this reminder especially. But churches in other parts of the world are not immune to some of the same temptations we face in the West.

In the second place, if we truly believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humankind, we must consider the effect of the proposed moratorium on the evangelization of the vast multitudes of non-Christians throughout the world, particularly in countries where the national churches represent but a tiny fraction of the population. One thinks immediately, for instance, of India’s 548 million people, with Christians numbering only 14.2 million or 2.6 per cent; of Pakistan’s 43 million, with 335,000 or .8 per cent Christians; and of Bangladesh’s 72 million, with 216,000 or .3 per cent Christians. In these and many other countries, the population increases each year by more than their total Christian community. Yet the moratorium would serve to immobilize the churches of the West in relation to mission in these areas. It would limit us to mission where we are -- an altogether unbiblical concept -- and negate the concept of mission as the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.

In view of the enormous need and opportunity for missionary witness and service in all six continents, it is appalling that we of the West presently make so small a part of our resources available for this purpose. The mainline ecumenical denominations are particularly remiss in this respect. Thus the 11-million-member United Methodist Church -- the largest denomination in the National Council of Churches -- has seen a decline of missionaries serving overseas from 1,450 in 1968 to 824 scheduled for 1974; and of every dollar given to that church, only 1.1 cents actually goes for work outside the U.S. Again, the Missionary Orientation Center once operated at Stony Point, New York, by five of the major Protestant mission boards has now closed because not enough missionaries are being sent overseas to maintain it. And the number of U.S. Catholic missionaries serving abroad is the lowest in ten years, down from a high of 9,655 in 1969 to 7,649 in 1972.

By contrast, many conservative evangelical Protestant groups are increasing their overseas mission work. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, for instance, with only 92,000 members in the U.S. now has 893 missionaries overseas, and of every dollar given it for work beyond the local church, 85 cents goes toward overseas missions.


I cannot subscribe to the so-called "mystical doctrine of salt water" -- the idea that being transported over salt water, the more of it the better, is what constitutes missionary service. Neither do I think that more missionaries mean more mission." I maintain, however, that men and women sent to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in cross-cultural situations are integral to the mission established in the incarnation. I agree wholeheartedly with the policy summed up by one mission agency in a recent working paper:

We wish to affirm the validity of the missionary presence as an essential part of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is communicated through persons and becomes evident through the interaction between persons. We believe the place of persons at the heart of mission to be an abiding reality; We also wish to affirm the validity of the missionary presence as essential to our understanding of the universality of the church.

If the participation of persons in world mission is lacking or is limited by arbitrary rules, all areas of the church’s life will suffer. In point here is R. Pierce Beaver’s recent warning:

. . . one front of mission cannot be neglected or denied without adverse effect on other fronts; and already the domestic agencies of the churches are being afflicted with blight and malnutrition. The mission is one, and it is worldwide. . . The sending mission of discipling the nations to the ends of the earth is always the spiritual thermometer which measures the faith of the Christian community.

This is not to suggest that the styles and structures of missionary involvement should be static. The WCC’s Bangkok Conference cited above rightly urged missionary agencies to "examine critically their involvement as part of patterns of political and economic domination, and to re-evaluate the role of personnel and finance at their disposal in the light of that examination."

Yet the need to review and re-evaluate present structures and strategies does not suspend the Christian mandate for world mission -- not if we see "the missionary presence as an essential part of the gospel." Else we would be guilty of sub-mission. As the Bangkok Conference said (Section III):

What we must seek is . . . a mature relationship between churches. Basic to such a relationship is mutual commitment to participate in Christ’s mission in the world. A precondition for this is that each church involved in the relationship should have a clear realization of its own identity. This cannot be found in isolation, however, for it is only in relationship with others that we discover ourselves.

Actually, the overwhelming weight of opinion in the Third World, and in the "First" World too; is very much on the side of continued missionary presence. Even Mr. Gatu admits that "not many" African church leaders agree with his moratorium proposal. Nor do leaders of "younger churches" elsewhere. Recently, for instance, the United Church Board for World Ministries indicated to the Kyodan (the United Church of Christ in Japan) that owing to budgetary stringencies, it might have to withdraw some missionaries. The response of the Japanese was that they would undertake to raise enough money to keep the missionaries, because -- as they said -- they felt that in their situation the foreign missionary presence was essential to the integrity of the gospel and of the church. This past year, in fact, the Kyodan raised about $100,000 for this purpose.


Finally, we must assess the moratorium proposal in the light of the increasingly vital internationalization of the missionary enterprise. Today, the Third World is not only sending missionaries to the Third World; it is also thinking in terms of mission to America and mission to Europe -- thrusts that mission boards and the World Council of Churches are working hard to effectuate. A recently published research report, Missions from the Third World (available from William Carey Library, 533 Hermosa Street, South Pasadena, Calif. 91030), reveals that currently at least 209 Protestant agencies in the Third World are sending out 3,411 missionaries. This global inter-involvement in mission, going beyond traditional relationships and patterns for decision-making and exchange of personnel, holds enormous promise for the future.

The new era in world mission challenges all churches to manifest the universality of the ecclesia by sharing resources in the common task of expressing the redemptive action of God, in Christ. But, as the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries says, meeting that challenge will require of us more total commitment and wholeness of vision, greater intentionality and receptivity, and more serious and joyous international sharing and interdependence than we have yet known."