Picture yourself as a missionary
Picture yourself as a missionary, ready to teach the Bible to an unreached people group for the first time.
You have worked for years preparing for this moment. You have trained for this, studying the Bible, learning principles of Bible translation and church planting. You have learned the national language, and then moved to a remote location to live among people with incomprehensible customs and unintelligible speech. You have spent years living among them, learning to know and love them, as they learned to know and love you.
Finally you are ready. Together with your local helpers you have translated the needed Bible portions, covering the key events and doctrines from creation to the story of Jesus and His death and resurrection. You have written Bible lessons based on these Scriptures, and you are confident that if only some of the people would listen, God would use this Scripture and these lessons to flood their souls with Truth, the truth of Jesus. And, God willing (and He is willing! See 2 Peter 3:9), some would believe and be saved!
No religious vacuum
But one more detail remains before you may begin teaching in the village.
You aren’t operating in a religious vacuum. The people belong to a powerful religious system which won’t give up ground easily. The people must obey their religious leaders. As a guest in their land, you must show those leaders respect and obey them to some extent as well.
It is the custom that religious teachers who teach publically must obtain permission from the powers that be. The civil powers have already given you their permission to teach. After all, freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution, and the government supports your right to carry out your mission work. But what about the religious leaders? Will you ask their permission? What if they say, “No!”? What will you do then? And if you don’t ask permission, what will you do? Will you teach anyway? If you do, you might get kicked out of the area. Then how will the people hear the Gospel? How will a mature church ever be planted among them?
This is the dilemma we faced in 2002, when we were ready to teach the Landumas publicly. What do you think we did? What would you have done?
Interview with the big boss
We really only had one choice. If we were to teach the Bible to the Landumas publically, we had to ask permission from the top religious leader of all the Landumas, really of almost all the Africans, in the region. So it was with a measure of fear and trepidation, but prayerfully and with boldness and trust in God, that we went to see Ali.
We had had some limited contact with Ali in the past, but had never had a prolonged conversation with him. We found him to be a talkative and interesting man.
During our discussion with Ali, we explained that we had translated portions of the Bible. There is no Landuma word for the Bible as a whole, so we listed the parts of the Bible which they have heard of, that is the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel. We also added “the books of the prophets” to cover the rest of the OT. We said we wanted to teach the Landumas what God says in these books, so they could know God’s Word. We told him that since he was in charge of the region, we felt it was important that we inform him about our work.
In his reply, Ali asserted some things he wanted to make sure we understood:
- “God sent down 104 books. Initially he sent 50 books to Adam, 30 books to Enoch, 10 books to Abraham, and 10 books to Moses. That makes 100 books so far. Then he sent the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel, and the final book to the final prophet.
- “Since you didn’t mentioned the final book (the book of Ali’s religion), as one of the books you intend to teach, it appears you don’t intend to teach the same religion as we profess.
- “All the books from God are in agreement. We know that because all the prophets asserted that God is one, and they told their followers to worship this one God only. None of them commanded people to worship the prophet himself.
- “When you believe the final prophet, you have believed also Moses, Jesus, Abraham, etc.
- “The final book snuffs out (erases, supersedes) all the other books. If you only obey the former books, you are abandoning the final book, and you have rebelled against God.”
Is that your final answer?
Wow. How do you answer that? Well, if he would have allowed us to sit there and teach him the Bible, as we wished to teach all the Landumas, from Genesis to the ascension of Jesus, we could have provided an adequate answer.
Instead we reminded him that there are already many Landuma religious teachers who teach the final book. They know it better than we do. We just want to teach the former books.
After more discussion, Ali told us that he wouldn’t stand in our way, we could teach our books to the people. Big sigh of relief! (And no, we did not ask him if that was his final answer.)
Give honor to whom honor is due
Some might suggest that we are commanded by God to preach the Gospel, and therefore we shouldn’t have to ask permission of anyone. After all, the apostles didn’t ask permission of the religious leaders before they began preaching Jesus on the day of Pentecost.
This is a valid question. But it’s not the only consideration. Jesus also told his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” Matthew 10:16. Though Jesus boldly confronted the religious leaders of His day with His verbal and even offensive attacks on their doctrine, attitudes, and practices, He didn’t do that all the time. He chose the right moment, and then had His say. For much of His ministry He tried to avoid stirring things up, to operate under the radar, as it were.
One fascinating thought to ponder is the degree to which Jesus accommodated to the culture into which He was born. When God came to earth He didn’t totally vaporize the sinful world with what we might call “God’s culture,” as it were, which is what would happen if the Holy God ever really appeared on earth in all His glory and splendor. No, He “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7) to the point where He could adapt to a human culture, functioning in it and as part of it as any other man, yet without sin.
We, too, are called to adapt to the culture of the people we live among – not just we missionaries, but we Jesus believers, wherever God may have called us to live – becoming all things to all men to whatever extent necessary (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) in order to effectively do what God has called us to do (disciple all ethnic groups – Matthew 28:18-20), yet without sin, without being morally or spiritually tainted by that culture (Romans 12:2). And that is why we sought permission of the religious leaders to teach the Bible publicly the way we did. Honoring the leaders in this way is what was expected of us, it was the right thing to do in this culture, and the right thing to do biblically. Praise God for giving us favor before this leader!