Missionaries—Who Should Set the Pattern?
BEFORE Jesus Christ commanded his followers to make disciples, other religions had already been carrying on a missionary activity of sorts. Some did this more than others, since not all religions have a universal approach, that is, not all teach a message felt to apply equally to all peoples.
For example, according to The Encyclopedia of Religion, such a universal vision is less pronounced “in the beliefs of the tribal religions and Shintō, and less overt in many strands of Confucianism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.” These religions are spread “more by the migrations of peoples or by the gradual incorporation of immediate neighbors than by organized missionary activities.”
“Hinduism represents a special and exceedingly complex case,” the encyclopedia adds. “While it is similar to nonmissionizing traditions in many respects,” having spread by gradual adoption by non-Hindus, it has, on the other hand, “had periods of vigorous missionary activity.”
“Those living religions claiming the most universalistic visions and evidencing the most extensive missionary zeal beyond the place of origin,” says Max L. Stackhouse of the Andover Newton Theological School, include Islam and Buddhism. Islam’s missionaries could not have served as patterns for Christian missionaries, however, because the Islamic era did not begin until some 590 years after Christ’s command to make disciples. Buddhism, on the other hand, preceded the establishment of Christianity by almost the same amount of time that Islam followed it.
A Pattern of Liberality
Tradition claims that the Buddha instigated a missionary movement by telling his disciples: “Go, monks, preach the noble Doctrine, . . . let not two of you go into the same direction!” Large-scale missionary movements have nevertheless been few, even though Buddhist missionaries were in Europe as early as the fourth century B.C.E. In most cases the religion was spread on an individual level by traveling traders, pilgrims, or students. It reached China and the various parts of Southeast Asia, for example, through trade routes by sea and by land.
Erik Zürcher of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands attributes the spread of Buddhism mainly to three factors. One is Buddhism’s “liberal attitude toward all religions.” This allowed easy acceptance of “non-Buddhist creeds as preliminary and partial revelations of truth” and even the incorporation of “non-Buddhist deities into its pantheon.”
A second factor is that Buddhist missionaries entered into a so-called “homeless state,” which means they renounced all worldly distinctions. Free from the limitations of the caste system, whose religious significance the Buddha rejected, they could mingle with foreigners without fear of ritual pollution.
A third factor is that Buddhism’s holy writings were not associated with any one particular sacred language. They could easily be translated into any language. “Especially in China,” Zürcher notes, “the most prominent foreign missionaries were all active as translators.” In fact, they translated to such an extent that Chinese became a third major language for Buddhist literature, joining Pali and Sanskrit.
In the middle of the third century B.C.E., the ruler of the Indian empire, King Aśoka, did much to popularize Buddhism, also strengthening its missionary aspects. During this pre-Christian era, though, Buddhism remained chiefly centered in India and what is today Sri Lanka. To all intents and purposes, it was only after the beginning of the Christian era that Buddhism spread into China, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
Buddhism’s missionaries to China evidently saw nothing wrong with modifying their religion to make it more acceptable. The Encyclopedia of Religion notes that “key Buddhist texts were given fresh interpretation; apologetic literature, new poems, and new laws and regulations were promulgated that modified and, indeed, transformed aspects of the Buddhist message so that it could graft onto, and in some ways revitalize, dimensions of the indigenous folk religions and of the Confucianism and Taoism of that land.”
At times, as future articles in this series will show, Christendom’s missionaries have followed the pattern of their Buddhist missionary predecessors. While they have translated their sacred writings into other languages, they have often allowed, or even promoted, as historian Will Durant states it, “the absorption of pagan faith and ritual” into their religious practices.
Following “The Master Missionary”
Judaism and Christian Beginnings explains that Judaism did not promote missionary activity in the same sense that Christianity did but was “relatively non-proselytizing.” Yet, the book’s author, Samuel Sandmel, notes that “there was at least a recurrent, at least sporadic, thrust toward it.”
Sandmel explains that “in the Rabbinic literature Father Abraham is often depicted as the master missionary.” He reasons that this “view of Abraham as the missionary could scarcely have arisen had there not existed some disposition in at least some segments of Jewry that looked favorably either on an active quest for proselytes or, at least on the reception into the faith of those who on their own sought conversion.”*
Evidently, during the two centuries immediately preceding the Common Era, Jewish missionary activity was intensified, particularly in Greek-speaking countries, as pagan religions began to lose their appeal. This activity continued well into the Common Era, but was outlawed in the fourth century C.E., when the Roman Empire adopted a watered-down form of Christianity as its official religion.
Setting the Pattern
The pattern set by Jewish missionaries, however, was not what Christian missionaries were told to follow. In fact, of the Jewish Pharisees of his day, Jesus said: “You scour sea and land to make a single convert, and then you make him twice as ripe for destruction as you are yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15, Phillips) So even though they viewed Abraham as “the master missionary,” Jewish missionaries obviously did not make converts to the kind of faith Abraham had in Jehovah God.
For Christian missionaries the pattern to be followed is the perfect example given by the foremost master missionary, Jesus Christ. Well before issuing his disciple-making command, he began training his early disciples to perform the international missionary activity that this would involve. Since it was to be a centuries-long project, the question was appropriate, Would Christ’s followers stick to the pattern he had given?
As the first century of the Common Era drew to a close, the answer was not yet evident. Not so today, as the 20th century draws to a close. Some 1,900 years of past missionary activity on the part of professed followers of Christ lie before us as an open book.
From its birthplace in Palestine, Christianity expanded into the entire world. Moving west into Macedonia was one step. Read about this in our next issue.
For an example of what Christendom’s missionaries have done, note what happened for several centuries in Mexico. In reading the following account, ask yourself, ‘Have they been agents of light or agents of darkness?’
A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice says: “Abraham is considered to be the father of all proselytes . . . It is customary for proselytes to be called the son, or daughter, of our father Abraham.”
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Jesus initiated Christian missionary work, training his followers and setting the pattern they were to follow