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Missionary Code of Conduct

2011 January 25

I just recently became aware of a discussion that grew out of the 3rd Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelism in Cape Town this past October. It’s been interesting to hear responses to this event from people who were there – especially the response from indigenous people groups who saw the whole event as dominated by the ideas, plans, and agendas of the wealthy, white, Western church (a business as usual they desired to move beyond). Yet, I’ve been intrigued by the conversations I’ve heard regarding a push for an international code for Christian missionaries that seemed to gain momentum at Lausanne. As reported here

Christianity wants to show that it totally rejects abuse and all physical or mental violence, said the director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom of the World Evangelical Alliance, Thomas Schirrmacher (Bonn), on Wednesday evening at the 3rd Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelism in Cape Town.
The coming code of ethics is in favor of mission, however it will condemn all immoral forms, such as psychological pressure or material incentives for people who want to change their religion, said Schirrmacher, who is a sociologist of religion and the Spokesman for Human Rights of the Evangelical Alliance as well as founder of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (2006).
According to statements from the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, and the World Evangelical Alliance, such a document will be jointly adopted. The World Evangelical Alliance claims to be a platform worldwide for more than 400 million theologically conservative Christians from more than 120 countries. The World Council of Churches, a coalition of Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches, represents more than 500 million Christians. The Vatican represents more than a billion people. The three organizations together represent 97 percent of all Christians.

I studied missiology in grad school at Wheaton College, which is the epitome of the wealthy, white, Western church world. I know the missionary horror stories – the manipulation, the psychological violence, and the utterly un-Christian tactics used to get people to convert. I’ve explored the statistics regarding the high percentages of people with mental disorders who go into mission work. Regardless of the number of great people doing missions, there are also a disturbingly high number of seriously messed up people out there serving as official representatives of Christianity and inflicting serious harm around the world. For a good number of them the harm is justified if the net result is a few more people saved. And for even more of them the mental issues are overlooked because either “the workers are few (and the harvest plentiful) or because of an evangelical belief that psychology is liberal/satanic.

Needless to say, even as a sympathetic insider who has worked within the Christian world much of her adult life and who nearly ended up on the mission field herself, I am well aware of a need for a code of conduct like this. My real question is if establishing such a code would have any effect whatsoever.

The cynical side of me thinks that a code like this would be similar to codes created by most clothing manufacturers. They create these great documents about caring about human rights and high standards for how their workers are treated so that they can show concerned activists their policies, but then they never bother translating these codes into the languages spoken at their factorie. The ideals of the boardroom never actually reach the very workers they claim to protect. I have to wonder if a code of conduct like this would be ratified by these umbrella organizations but never actually reach the in the trenches folks who are expected to abide by it.

Similarly I wonder what the response of many of the very old-school evangelical missions organizations who still operate out of a neo-colonial mindset will be to something that may impede their efforts. I’ve been at enough conferences and training classes on missions to know that something like this can easily be dismissed as a tool of Satan meant to silence the advancement of Christ. Persecution (i.e. people being offended by you) is seen as a badge of honor for many missionaries. There is little conception that the faith they present and how they present it can be toxic. Calling people to love actual people and not just see them as project that must get saved is just not the way things are done.

Yet at the same time there can be power in the symbolic act of creating something like this. I think of how often people express the desire that they wish the Vatican would just take a strong stance against priests who molest children. While such a statement might not change what the priests do, it helps people outside the church see that the church doesn’t support the evil done by its supposed representatives. Missionary work has a sordid history and was for too long the bedfellow of colonialism and racism. Symbolically standing against doing evil in the name of Christ (while perhaps not changing actual practice) will help send the message that the church doesn’t monolithically support immoral manipulation and coercion.

I’m interested to see what becomes of this discussion for a code of conduct, and even more interested to see what impact (if any) it has on the world.


19 Responses leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011

    If the code of conduct included not scaring people with talk of hell I’d be all for it.

  2. January 25, 2011

    This is a really interesting discussion to me. I, too, can see various sides — the need, the cynicism, the potential value. I haven’t “explored the statistics regarding the high percentages of people with mental disorders who go into mission work,” but I’m initially surprised to hear it’s high. That because of the rigorous psychological screening I underwent before being accepted to go even short-term (2 years) with one particular organization. I’m inside this world, to a certain extent, but apparently I’m blind, also, to “very old-school evangelical missions organizations who still operate out of a neo-colonial mindset.”

  3. January 25, 2011

    Julie, do remember where you found statistics on the mental health of people who go into missions?

  4. January 25, 2011

    I had a conversation with an old roommate on this topic that surprised me. I mentioned that another friend of mine wanted to serve abroad with the Lutheran Church, and my roommate got really heated. The program was focused on community development work, not evangelism, and there were strict guidelines about being respectful and non-coercive when sharing faith. If that was the case, my roommate asked, why couldn’t she just do the work through a secular organization?

    Now both my roommate and I are Lutheran Christians, but the idea of overseas mission service still really pushed her buttons. Her parents are immigrants, so I wonder if they experienced coercive mission strategies firsthand.

    Would a code like this one help ease her fears? Or would she still be cynical? I don’t know. But maybe it’s a step in the right direction.

  5. January 25, 2011


    Knowing folks as we do, I suspect you’re right that people who feel absolutely Spirit led to go to the mission field will do so regardless of whether or not there is a code of conduct. And some of those folks–maybe many of them–will be exactly the sort of people this proposed code is hoping to shape.

    Reminds me of a conversation with a Baptist missionary in Africa who was rejoicing that a local mganga had been set on fire by the villagers; “The fields are white for the harvest” he said with a secret smile. Still makes me wonder if he dropped a subtle God-hint or two to the faithful that witch doctors deserve whatever they’ve got coming–I’m guessing that he would have disregarded any code out there.




  6. January 25, 2011

    While I am in favor of a document that encourages missionaries to move beyond the colonial approaches of centuries past, when I think about what a document like that might look like, it almost seems to be self-contradictory. The “privileged” will commit to treating everyone humanely, in the way that we define and pre-determine. Also, an international document of this type will run into conflict in unique cultural situations. Can you guarantee that a citizen of a communist country will not suffer as a result of conversion? Or a person living in a society with conflict between Muslims and Christians?
    Is our goal to prevent any suffering as a result of becoming a Christian, or to join with the suffers? Perhaps our code of conduct should be something like, “We commit to joining in the sufferings, psychological and political manipulations, physical pains and familial breakdowns of those persons to whom we are attempting to bring the love of Christ. For only by joining in their pain, are we really living and doing what Jesus did.”
    Just some thoughts – thanks for this post :)

  7. January 25, 2011

    This can be great if it includes an understanding of what it might look like to allow people to develop what Christianity looks like within their own cultural expression vs. being forced to mimic the white, western representation. That could benefit us all.

  8. January 25, 2011

    Good reflections Julie, thanks.

    The future of Christian mission is certainly amorphous since there is no unified body of Christianity, but I would hope that a document like this would serve to direct and be a witness to outsiders looking into the Christian religion and mission enterprise.

    I really appreciate your observations about the realities of putting this sort of general statement into practice. These sorts of statements stand to judge our current condition and hopefully move us to a new one, but much like my own experience, we all fail to live up to the ethical/moral goals we set for ourselves in particular and in general. Yet, I hope and imagine there are pockets of Christian missionaries serving all around the world who embody this code of conduct before it was ever put into writing.

    I believe there must be a revolution in theology before mission is truly changed. Much of our Western, systematic theology is the product of colonialism and racism. By that I mean the Christian imagination (Willie James Jennings) imperceptibly works out of the assumptions of race, instead of very particular, local modes. Race and colonialism are so deeply tied to many of our theological musing, we do not even recognize it. Yet, like Paul’s theology, theology is born from mission. So, maybe it’s the chicken and the egg? How we practice mission will actually shape our theology, and vice versa. So, is this code of conduct born out of mission experience? Yes. Do we need these sorts of codes to transform mission? Yes.

    I’d be interested in seeing/experiencing the int’l communities that are embodying such a code.

  9. January 25, 2011

    First – yes there are tons of missionaries who do live out a code like this everyday. Sadly they often are in trouble with their sending churches and agencies because their experience being with people in the world has completely blown apart their tiny boxes of theology.

    As for the stats about mental illness and missionaries. I (sheepishly) don’t have the references. In college I took a biculturalism class and that was one of the topics we focused on. Mostly regarding how numerous missionaries had trouble fitting in in their own culture and so sought mission work in another culture. They of course never fit in there either causing some toxic situations. Wycleff had done studies with its missionaries that revealed much of this ill-fittedness stemmed from mental issues in the missionaries. Missionary is just like any other help-oriented profession – it attracts people who actually need the sort of help it provides. So just as you get people with eating disorders or abuse victims flocking to psychology departments at any school, people with god/messiah complexes going to seminary, people who had trouble fitting in go to other cultures to force people to adhere to their idea of what normal should be. But as we also studied in the class, many mission agencies began to wise up to these issues and started stringent psychological testing of all candidates.

    As for the neo-colonial mindset, I think the worst example I’ve ever seen was with a couple who came to the church I was working at to ask for money. They straight out compared the people in the town they were going to in Africa to monkeys. They said the people there just sit by the road all day being lazy, and that they like it when you give them peanuts. They were going there to save the people from just sin by giving them Jesus. I made sure to do whatever I could to ensure the church didn’t give them a dime. (and we didn’t). But its out there and its disgusting.

  10. January 25, 2011

    The whole issue of missions is one I’m presently uncomfortable with – and I used to work for a sending agency in the seat of the “wealthy, white, Western world” as you aptly put it. I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately on Christmas customs from a number of European countries and I’m struck with how instrumental empire was in helping to Christianity to spread.

    I can’t shake the discomfort I feel in wondering if Christianity would have been able to spread as far as it did if it didn’t have the force of law behind it (the Christianization of Norway and subsequent Lutheranization a couple of hundred years later). I have to admit, I have a hard time understanding missions without its empire framework.

  11. January 25, 2011

    Julie, thanks so much for this post. As a ex-missionary kid from a dysfunctional family who has just started working in a church-based relief & development organisation (!) I found it refreshing to know that these conversations are happening. I’m definitely interested in seeing where this goes.
    I am still at the stage of questioning whether there really is a need to ‘send’ people anymore. Are there not ways we as a global church can equip each other – particularly those in marginalised areas to minister and serve locally more effectively? In my work I come across stories everyday of the legacies of missionaries that have set in place structures of marginalisation, inequality and un-grace.
    I continue to grapple with my family’s and my own history and what being a missionary really can or should mean….. But I’m grateful for those having the uncomfortable conversations.
    Blessings, Alison

  12. Greg permalink
    January 26, 2011

    I would be more comfortable, Julie, with your comments on missionary methods and missionaries if you had done a term or two (say, four to eight year) as a missionary. Sadly, what you write may verge on slander. Are some missionaries mentally ill? Sure, some. But the missionaries I know are representative of evangelical populations in their home countries. As a missionary, the prevalent issues I see for myself and others are isolation from the general population, a wealthy lifestyle, undue pride in our abilities, some racism, and a desire for spectacular results. I don’t see many instances of manipulation or psychological violence. But still, we are accountable to God for our sins.

    I absolutely agree that there should not be psychological pressure or material incentives for people to change their religion. Is there? Yes, some, and it’s abhorrent. But I am uneasy about importing a definition of psychological pressure from outside the faith. I’m sure you recall John the Baptist’s words, “The axe is already at the foot of the trees…[and]…he will burnj up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” There’s some psychological pressure there, sure, but I hope you wouldn’t say that John was wrong in what he said or how he said it.

    Was Lausanne “dominated by the ideas, plans, and agendas of the wealthy, white, Western church”? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. It may have been.

    Is the mission movement still dominated by the Western church? Yes, and it urgently needs to change. It must change. But I’ve also heard powerful and influential non-Western agencies and individuals complain about Western domination as a means to gain even more power. There are non-Western countries with power in missions. Manipulation is a sin, just as the lust for power is, and both must be repudiated.

    I don’t know any “very old-school evangelical missions organizations who still operate out of a neo-colonial mindset.” I’m sure there are some, but the organizations I’m familiar with are falling all over each other to incorporate diversity among members and leaders and to listen to brothers and sisters from the South and the East.

    Finally, I am very sympathetic toward Alison. There’s a long history of child neglect in missions circles. Parents have often neglected their children for the sake of “the work” and missionary kids are still being neglected. Not every one, not most, but many. And sadly, there’s a sordid history of child abuse in missions, as well. Most major evangelical mission agencies have put policies and staff in place to, hopefully, make abuse a sin of the past and to deal with the offender and and serve the abused child quickly when it happens.

    • February 15, 2013

      I was an mk. While I do have some bitter feelings about my history, I feel this article was extreme, judgmental, unfounded, and ignorant.

      I agree wholeheartedly with Greg’s more diplomatic response. I could not have said it better.

      There are some, but it’s not the rule. Get some facts, and don’t diss another lifestyle, particularly one you have no experience in.

  13. January 26, 2011

    “The program was focused on community development work, not evangelism, and there were strict guidelines about being respectful and non-coercive when sharing faith. If that was the case, my roommate asked, why couldn’t she just do the work through a secular organization?”

    Interesting. I was a Lutheran missionary kid (60’s and 70’s) in Japan. This was definitely the understanding of how we were to live. I just assumed we shared faith by example. By living a life of gentleness, respect and agape love..and simply answering questions honestly when asked about our faith. St. Francis of Assisi is known (among other things) for his quote ” preach the gospel everyday, but only use words if you must.” I think that pretty much sums it all up.

  14. January 27, 2011

    Codes of conduct are like mission statements — high-sounding claptrap that makes no real difference. They will be signed by people who never needed to sign them, and ignored by the people who contravene them.

    • Thomas K. Johnson permalink
      February 1, 2011

      Why do you think God gave the Ten Commandments? That was a code of ethics, really the code of ethics. What we write today is, at best, an application of those old rules to our situation.

  15. February 1, 2011

    You can find further arguments on the usefulness of an ethics code in the article
    “Why Evangelicals need a code of ethics for mission” by Thomas Schirrmacher & Thomas K Johnson in the International Journal for Religious Freedom. Free download of whole journal issue at:

    • Sam permalink
      August 9, 2016

      Could anyone help me with a sample code of ethics. I desire to have one for the missionaries in our church

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