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Why Missions Must Be Nonpolitical

Prioritizing the gospel of the Kingdom.

I tried to imagine gladiators in full combat — the sound of clashing swords and the roar of the crowd. Even standing in the Colosseum in Rome, I had difficulty comprehending that human beings and animals were sacrificed on the site on such a grand scale — merely to entertain.

In A.D. 64, almost two decades before the spectacles in the Colosseum, the butchery of defenseless Christians began a few miles away in the Circus Maximus on orders of Emperor Nero. These peaceful followers of Jesus were torn apart by wild animals in the arena and used as human torches in the royal gardens at night.

Just a few years earlier, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1).

The apostle Peter similarly wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him.” He also promised that God will grant grace to the person who, “for the sake of conscience toward God … bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:13,14, 17-19).  

Both Peter and Paul were martyred during Nero’s tyrannical reign. Paul was beheaded, Peter crucified. The first Christians didn’t expect justice in the Roman Empire. Neither were they social revolutionaries. But they did change their world.

According to Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, gladiators ceased their combats because of the courageous sacrifice of one Christian, Telemachus. After intervening in a gladiator fight in the Colosseum, he was stoned to death by the crowd. Emperor Honorius was so impressed by how Telemachus died he issued an edict banning gladiator fights. The last known combat was in Rome in 404, the year usually cited for Telemachus’ martyrdom.

Roman rule dominated the civilized Western world for almost 1,000 years, yet it crumbled on its own foundations. Political, economic, and military might are no match for the power of truth.

How can Christians best influence nations?

Jesus taught His followers were to be the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” Throughout history the gospel’s power has transformed cultures and nations as redeemed men and women influenced the societies in which they live. The gospel of Christ in the power of the Spirit changes people … and people change the destiny of nations.

During the 18th century, England deteriorated into moral decadence. Crime had reached its highest level, as had the birthrate of illegitimate children. Violence and drunkenness were rampant.

But God raised up bold, passionate messengers of the gospel. Men such as John Wesley and George Whitefield preached in marketplaces and open fields. The established church did not willingly receive them, but their churches could not have contained the crowds anyway.

The greatest spiritual awakening in its history swept England and had a powerful influence on the culture. Crime, violence, and illegitimate births declined drastically. For the most part, the nation was radically transformed.

Historians have rightly credited Queen Victoria for her positive influence on England. But some expert historians of the era credit this positive surge in morality even more to the Wesleyan revival. This positive impact on England lasted many decades.

While Christians are not “of the world,” we are to be active in the world by making a difference in the lives of those around us.

Why should Pentecostal missions be nonpolitical?

Followers of Christ should be involved in the political process of their own nations. But the missionary has a sacred calling to take the gospel — the power of God for the eternal salvation of all who believe — to a spiritually lost world.

Both politics and Pentecost are about power — but very different kinds. The power Jesus promised His disciples when the Spirit came to them was to bear witness to Him “both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The mission of our Fellowship is the mission of Christ himself. Standing bound before Pilate, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting” (John 18:36).

Wherever the gospel of Christ is proclaimed, humanity has been lifted and cultures changed. But improving physical and social conditions is not our primary cause. Our task is to fulfill Jesus’ promise that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Human governments rise and fall, but the Church’s mission to proclaim Christ’s eternal kingdom endures.

In 1927, Noel Perkin became the first missionary to serve as executive director of Assemblies of God World Missions. Under his leadership, two significant policies were instituted that shaped the future of the Fellowship’s mission throughout the world.

The first was the commitment to establish indigenous churches, to not transplant the American church abroad. The first Assemblies of God missionary manual, published in 1931 under Perkin’s leadership, stated: “The winning of souls to Christ and establishing of assemblies in all places where converts are won should be regarded as the primary objective of all missions.” It further stipulated that missionaries were to establish churches that were self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.

Additionally, all missionary activity was to be nonpolitical. The manual stated, “Missionaries should carefully abstain from all interference with the political affairs and institutions of the people among whom they labor.” That nonpolitical stance was more specifically reaffirmed by the Executive Presbytery in 1976: “We cannot permit our testimony among the nations to be compromised or the presence of our missionaries in other nations to be subject to suspicion. … We affirm further our policy to remain nonpolitical in character in all our missionary outreach.”

The lasting impact of prioritizing the proclamation of the gospel to establish the Church has proven its effectiveness over time, especially after transitions of political authorities and governments.

More than 40 years ago, American missionaries were forced to leave Burma (now known as Myanmar) and Cuba when new governments came to power. The national churches the missionaries had helped establish did not just survive, they flourished. Pentecostal believers have been exemplary citizens — not counterrevolutionaries.

When AG missionaries left Burma in 1966 there were 12,668 Assemblies of God adherents there. Today, there are more than 262,000. Similarly, the Assemblies of God in Cuba has proclaimed the message of Christ with great effectiveness and has experienced growth from less than 4,000 members in 1959 to more than 500,000 today. These national churches focus on the redemptive proclamation of the gospel and establishing churches, not on social justice issues and reform.

The AG’s primary concern is not with temporary human governments that rise and fall. Like Abraham, who “lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land,” we too are “looking for the city … whose architect and builder is God,” (Hebrews 11:9,10).

How can peace be achieved?

Our world is filled with suffering. Desperate human needs produced by poverty and disease are often outweighed by crises resulting from human hatred and conflict. Since Cain and Abel, the greatest problems in the world are between people, yet none of the root causes of human conflict can be remedied by politics or war.

Wherever religion is politicized, human conflict becomes the most irreconcilable. I’ve been to Bosnia, where centuries of ethnic hatred erupted in 1992 and 200,000 died in four years. I’ve been to Rwanda, where tribal genocide killed almost 1 million people in just 100 days. Compared to Bosnia and Rwanda, the more than 3,000 people who died in the Northern Ireland conflict during recent decades are relatively few. But with the possible exception of the Middle East, Northern Ireland’s fractured society appears one of the most impossible to heal. Life in Belfast reveals how persistent and enduring conflict can be. Peace, so debated and pursued, remains fleeting, fragile — and elusive.

Peace seems impossible between people trapped in the snares of age-old conflict. Humankind seems less capable of building short bridges than long ones. Peace is needed, not only on a global scale, but also within nations and even families.

Peace begins with one person and one act of forgiveness at a time. Only people can change circumstances. Only God can change people’s hearts.

The antidote to the disease of human hatred is the love of God manifested on the Cross. Our only message for a strife-filled, war-torn world is Jesus. He gave His life to bring reconciliation — first with our Creator, then with our fellow members of His creation. The only force that can heal this broken world is the heart-transforming power of the gospel. As believers, we must have a vision of souls and an eternal perspective. We must make sure we do not designate as the enemy what God calls the harvest.

What does the world need most?

Any studied contemplation of the poverty, hunger, and disease that pervade so much of the world — and the suffering endured by so many — assaults the mind with perplexity and the heart with despair. Compassionate identification with humanity evokes an urge to do anything possible to make things better … even in just a small way. But how? The results of even the best human efforts are temporary. Nonbelievers who can’t discern the saving power of Christ think the hope of His followers is misplaced or futile. They don’t understand the gospel’s transforming power.

In exile after conquering much of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte reflected on the difference between Christ’s kingdom and empires founded by conquerors like Alexander, Caesar, and himself. He concluded that “Jesus Christ makes a demand which is beyond all others difficult to satisfy; He asks for the human heart; He will have it entirely to himself. He demands it unconditionally; and forthwith His demand is granted. … In defiance of time and space, the soul of man, with all its powers and faculties, becomes an annexation to the empire of Christ.”

The kingdom of heaven both is and is to come. When He was questioned by the Pharisees about when the Kingdom was coming, Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”11 Ironically, it was the outcast Samaritans in the obscure village of Sychar who first declared Him to be “the Savior of the world.”

The reign of Jesus Christ can begin today — in the heart of anyone who will surrender to His lordship. What every person in the world needs most is a personal introduction to the King.

All Scriptures are from New American Standard Bible.

Randy Hurst

Randy Hurst serves as Special Consultant to the AG World Missions Executive Director.