Does the Church Need a Missionary Code of Conduct?

By Julie Clawson 1-26-2011

I just recently became aware of a discussion that grew out of the Third Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelism in Cape Town this past October. It's been interesting to hear responses to this event from people who were there -- especially the response from indigenous people groups who saw the whole event as dominated by the ideas, plans, and agendas of the wealthy, white, Western church (a "business as usual" they desired to move beyond). Yet, I've been intrigued by the conversations I've heard regarding a push for an international code for Christian missionaries that seemed to gain momentum at Lausanne. As reported here:

Christianity wants to show that it totally rejects abuse and all physical or mental violence, said the director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom of the World Evangelical Alliance, Thomas Schirrmacher (Bonn), on Wednesday evening at the 3rd Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelism in Cape Town.

The coming code of ethics is in favor of mission, however it will condemn all immoral forms, such as psychological pressure or material incentives for people who want to change their religion, said Schirrmacher, who is a sociologist of religion and the Spokesman for Human Rights of the Evangelical Alliance as well as founder of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (2006).

According to statements from the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, and the World Evangelical Alliance, such a document will be jointly adopted. The World Evangelical Alliance claims to be a platform worldwide for more than 400 million theologically conservative Christians from more than 120 countries. The World Council of Churches, a coalition of Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches, represents more than 500 million Christians. The Vatican represents more than a billion people. The three organizations together represent 97 percent of all Christians.

I studied missiology in graduate school at Wheaton College, which is the epitome of the wealthy, white, Western church world. I know the missionary horror stories -- the manipulation, the psychological violence, and the utterly un-Christian tactics used to get people to convert. I've explored the statistics regarding the high percentages of people with mental disorders who go into mission work. Regardless of the number of great people doing missions, there are also a disturbingly high number of seriously messed up people out there serving as official representatives of Christianity and inflicting serious harm around the world. For a good number of them the harm is justified if the net result is a few more people saved. And for even more of them, the mental issues are overlooked because either "the workers are few (and the harvest plentiful)," or because of an evangelical belief that psychology is liberal/satanic.

Needless to say, even as a sympathetic insider who has worked within the Christian world much of her adult life and who nearly ended up on the mission field herself, I am well aware of a need for a code of conduct like this. But my real question is if establishing such a code would have any effect whatsoever.

The cynical side of me thinks that a code like this would be similar to codes created by most clothing manufacturers. They create these great documents about caring about human rights and high standards for how their workers are treated so that they can show concerned activists their policies, but then they never bother translating these codes into the languages spoken at their factories. The ideals of the boardroom never actually reach the very workers they claim to protect. I have to wonder if a code of conduct like this would be ratified by these umbrella organizations but never actually reach in-the-trenches folks who are expected to abide by it.

Similarly, I wonder what the response of many of the very old-school evangelical missions organizations who still operate out of a neo-colonial mindset will be to something that may impede their efforts. I've been at enough conferences and training classes on missions to know that something like this can easily be dismissed as a tool of Satan meant to silence the advancement of Christ. Persecution (i.e. people being offended by you) is seen as a badge of honor for many missionaries. There is little conception that the faith they present and how they present it can be toxic. Calling people to love actual people and not just see them as "projects" that must get saved is just not the way things are done.

At the same time, there can be power in the symbolic act of creating something like this. I think of how often people express the desire that they wish the Vatican would just take a strong stance against priests who molest children. While such a statement might not change what the priests do, it helps people outside the church see that the church doesn't support the evil done by its supposed representatives. Missionary work has a sordid history and was for too long the bedfellow of colonialism and racism. Symbolically standing against doing evil in the name of Christ (while perhaps not changing actual practice) will help send the message that the church doesn't monolithically support immoral manipulation and coercion.

I'm interested to see what becomes of this discussion for a code of conduct, and even more interested to see what impact (if any) it has on the world.

portrait-julie-clawsonJulie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at and

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