Dear Apostle Paul:
I know this comes almost two thousand years late, but I want to thank you for helping carry the gospel to Europe where my ancestors eventually came to know Jesus. Sometimes in your mission travel you faced ferocious opposition, even attempts on your life. So it probably is no surprise that some in my generation think you were a crank (supposedly kept women silent, seemed to accept slavery . . .). Even some Christians today believe that the practice of mission is obsolete or offensive (. . . the modern world is pluralistic, we should not try to change other people’s belief systems . . .)
I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many places where you ministered, Paul—including Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. I’m astounded that you went such geographic and cultural distance by foot and perilous sea. You announced to the diverse Roman world that a loving God became mortal among us.
You said God-in-Christ so confronted powers of sin that he faced crucifixion—death reserved for those who challenged the sovereignty of imperial Rome. You told everyone who would listen that God raised Jesus from the dead because you met him on the way to Damascus.
Missionaries who abused power made you angry (super apostles, you called them). You surely would reject the cultural imperialism that sometimes accompanied Christian mission in later centuries.
But bad examples of mission did not stop you from seeking good models. You shared the love of Jesus “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). You knew Jesus could transform individuals, communities, and the world. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” you wrote. “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16).
I am ashamed that some Christians in later centuries launched Crusades against other religions, that Christian faith sometimes gets tangled up with military exploits of my own country. But I am inspired by your confidence that the gospel can liberate individuals and societies.
Sociologist Robert Woodberry recently analyzed the long-term social, political, and economic impact of Protestant missionaries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His findings, published with exhaustive documentation in the secular American Political Science Review, indicate that missionaries “were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms.”
“Conversionary” mission activity, as Woodberry calls it, led to increased opportunity for women, better health care, and less corruption. These changes happened in societies where missionaries actively attempted to persuade others of their beliefs, emphasized Bible reading, and taught personal salvation. Such outcomes would not surprise you, Paul. You knew the gospel was good news for individuals and societies that turned to Christ.
When I was in Greece recently and visited Neapolis (modern Kavala), where your ship put into port on your first visit to Europe, I thanked God for your witness. I prayed that I would have courage to cross boundaries today to tell others about Jesus, and thanked God for missionaries around the world who follow your example with imagination, courage, and integrity.
© 2015 J. Nelson Kraybill ********************************
Note: The article by Robert Woodberry to which I refer is “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review, May 2012, pp. 244–274. This piece won the 2013 Luebbert award of the American Political Science Association for best article in comparative politics published in the previous two years. For a popular summary of Woodberry’s thesis, see Andrea Palpant Dilley, “The world the missionaries made,” Christianity Today, January/February 2014, pp. 34-41.
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