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Missionaries’ rights

Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’  (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)

What right has the Christian missionary to go to another country and urge people to turn from their local religion to Jesus?  This question is often asked.  When I visited Brazil, I found it was being asked about missionary activity among tribespeople in the Amazonas region.  Couldn’t they just be left to their own faiths and practices?

Jesus’ words, quoted above – His so-called “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s gospel – focus the issue acutely.  For He calls His disciples to be intentionally, internationally invasive: they must go and make disciples of all nations.  They are to go absolutely everywhere and make Christian disciples.  Nowhere is off limits.

But in the giving of the command, He also gives the answer to our question, the reason why missionary activity is appropriate.  It is this: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.

Matthew’s gospel has established that Jesus is not just an influential teacher and healer, but the Messiah.  The Messiah was an authority figure – indeed, the great rescuing King God had been promising to send for centuries.  Moreover, Jesus is the very Son of God.  For 28 chapters Matthew has shown us the evidence.  So it is no surprise to us, by the end of the gospel, that Jesus says all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Imagine for a moment that someone from two doors down comes and asks you to tidy your garden.  That might be rather cheeky.  But if they were your landlord, it would be rather different!  Just so, Jesus is the Lord of every nation, every culture, every person.  To limit Him to particular cultures only is to deny people access to their true Lord and Saviour.

The right of the missionary to make disciples of all nations stems from this authority.  Mission is not imperialism: imperialism is imposing one’s rule where one has no right, but Christian mission is taking back for the Lord Jesus what is already rightfully His.

Note that the way Jesus wants disciples to be made is by baptising and teaching them – in other words, by peaceful, reasoned persuasion.  Christianity has no place for jihad, military crusades or any idea of conversion by force.  Note also that it is making disciples for Jesus, not imposing our own culture.  When the “Cambridge Seven”, some Cambridge graduates, went as missionaries to China in 1885 they adopted local customs and practices rather than imposing English ones.  And we also need to note that the Bible does not suggest that “missionaries’ rights” means that missionaries should act independently of each other (see Galatians 2:9).

So this is why the missionary can and should go and make disciples.  In the end, the question of missionaries’ rights rests entirely on the question of who Jesus really is.

It is in the conviction that all authority in heaven and earth really has been given to Him that we are holding our annual World Mission Sunday this Sunday (Nov 16th, 12.40pm).  The aim is to help each of us know our part in this.  Don’t miss it!

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