What Does the New Christian Missionary Code of Conduct Mean?

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A coalition that claims to represent around 90% of the world’s Christians, the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), have released joint recommendations for the conduct of Christian missionaries. This document is the result of five years of consultations among the three bodies, and is being touted as “a major achievement” in building consensus on the issue among Christians.

“In the past five years we have been building a new bridge,” said Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe, chief executive officer and secretary general of the WEA. “The document is a major achievement,” he explained, in that it represents formal agreement on “the essence of Christian mission” while also demonstrating that diverse Christian bodies “are able to work together and to speak together.” In this sense, the release of the text “is a historic moment” in the quest for Christian unity.

In talking about the rationale for this initiative, Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the WEA, in what could be fairly described as understatement, admitted that “in some places dynamic public witness to Jesus Christ has been accompanied by misunderstanding and tension.” Reuters religion reporter Robert Evans put it somewhat more bluntly.

“Christian missionaries have long been accused of offering money, food, or other goods to win converts in poor countries, either from other faiths or from rival churches. Tensions have also risen in recent decades as evangelical Protestants have stepped up efforts to convert Muslims, which is a capital offence in some Islamic countries. This also prompts retaliation against local Christians who do not seek converts.”

So what  does this new document solve? What is it meant to do, and what does this mean for the world’s non-Christians? First, while this document may be a historic moment of consensus and agreement, it is toothless in regards to enforcement. As I reported back in 2007, no church or missionary group will be forced to accede to this new code of conduct. The document takes pains to stress that these are “recommendations,” that will “encourage” churches to “reflect” on their “current practices.” It certainly “does not intend to be a theological statement on mission.” In short, these are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. That said, for those Christian missionaries who do plan to take this new historical document seriously, and base their conduct on it, what will it change? The core shift in thinking seems to be in fighting “arrogance, condescension and disparagement” among Christian missionaries toward non-Christian faiths and building a new ethos of mutual respect and cooperation between Christians and non-Christians.

“Christians are called to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power in their witness. They also reject violence, unjust discrimination or repression by any religious or secular authority, including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts. […]  Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions. […]  Christians should avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different religions.

In addition, the document endorses providing “sufficient time for adequate reflection and preparation” in regards to conversions.  Frowning on quickie conversions and urging Christians to “refrain from offering all forms of allurements.” All of which is encouraging on its face, though the document also has a political purpose, to help missionaries lobby against anti-conversion laws in places like India.

“WEA Secretary General Geoff Tunnicliffe said the code, entitled “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World,” would be “a great resource” for Christians lobbying against anti-conversion laws passed in countries such as India.”

How a document that is merely a recommendation, not enforced policy or doctrine, will actually sway supporters of anti-conversion laws remains an open question. Is it simply a propaganda tool, or will there be actual “moral and peer pressure” as hinted by the coalition previously? With the revelations of coercive conversion tactics in Haiti, and serious accusations that missionaries have stirred up anti-Vodou violence, not to mention an emerging theory within evangelical circles that Christian missions may have helped trigger the witch-hunts in Africa, it may take far more than encouragements of better behavior to allay the fears of those scarred by this sort of abusive behavior.

With Catholic plans in the works to “re-evangelize” Europe and the United States, one has to wonder if this document will be respected when it comes to interactions with adherents of Pagan, indigenous, and syncretic faiths. If “Christians should avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different religions,” will anti-Pagan tracts and books be changed or will that escape the scope of this new initiative? While I applaud some of the sentiments encased in this document, I fear it raises too many questions to set the minds of those targeted by missions at rest.