I went to college with a guy I’ll call MJ. MJ felt the call to be a missionary while he was in college. After graduation he married Jenny and they accepted a job as pastor of a little church. I say “they” accepted the job because Jenny also felt called to be a missionary and they saw their marriage and their mission as a shared vocation.
After getting some experience as a pastor MJ and Jenny went to a special Bible school to train as missionaries. As missionaries they wanted to be sent to tribes that had not yet heard the Christian gospel. Most of indigenous people who remain live in very primitive conditions in isolated areas. At their training school MJ and Jenny learned how to survive in the jungle. That meant learning advanced health care, jungle survival skills, self defense and the necessary technology for survival–how to set up and use satellite phones, a generator, a simple electrical system and how to take apart and put back together a jeep and motorcycle. MJ explained how he had to learn to make a forge, melt down metal and make a new part for a jeep if necessary.
While they were learning all that they were also taking advanced courses in linguistics. This is a specialized form of linguistic training in which a person learns a new language–a language that is as yet unwritten–simply by speaking with the indigenous speakers.
MJ and Jenny soon had some kids and after their training they were sent to a tribe in the hill country of North Burma. They were hours from the nearest city living in the jungle when they began their work. Jenny and MJ worked together–sharing the mission, sharing the hardships, sharing their love of the people. This was going to be their life’s work. Before long they were blessed with six kids. Jenny home schooled the kids with curriculum from their friends in the states. The kids grew up in the jungle–playing and making friends with the indigenous kids. MJ and Jenny soon learned the language and adapted to the indigenous culture.
MJ not only learned the language he followed his training and soon developed an alphabet and began to compile a dictionary. In seminary he had become proficient in Hebrew and New Testament Greek so, once he had a written form of the language he began to translate St Mark’s gospel. Meanwhile he and Jenny had started a little prayer group with the people where they would pray and Jenny and MJ would tell the indigenous people Bible stories. Eventually some of the tribe members were asking to be baptized.
The kids grew up and most moved back to the States. MJ and Jenny stayed in Burma with their people who were now Christians. MJ and Jenny had also brought them basic health care so the simple diseases and injuries could be treated safely. Jenny had a couple of kids in the jungle so she knew how to help the women in childbirth. Once their language was in written form they needed a school so a simple school for the kids was set up. The modern world was on their doorstep, so gradually they got used to the benefits of modern life, but they had Jenny and MJ as trusted friends to help them negotiate the tricky transition from tribal life to modern life. They learned together what was best from their indigenous culture and what should be retained and the things that were destructive, superstitious and repulsive which they should abandon.
MJ and Jenny were, of course, Evangelical Christians. I have moved away from their Protestant theology and practice, but It seems to me, reflecting on MJ and Jenny’s experience that Catholics could learn a lot from their experience.
First of all, it give a model for the married minister. If a man is married to a woman like Jenny the “married priest doesn’t have enough time for ministry” problem is solved. Married ministers with a wife like Jenny have a constant companion and partner in ministry. This model also addresses the theological question of commitment. “How can a man be married to Jesus as the celibate is AND be married to a woman?” The problem is solved with a woman like Jenny. Instead of marriage being a distraction or a detraction from a man’s vocation, the marriage and the priestly vocation become one. In the Catholic model the man is married to both the Lord and his wife because the wife is also married to the Lord and her husband. Their marriage commitment and their commitment to ministry are merged and are mutually complementary.
This seems obvious to me as a married priest, and yet I have not heard anyone else speak in these terms or think in this way about the married priests problem at all. Instead they are making rather stupid and shallow egalitarian arguments…”indigenous people don’t understand celibacy.” What nonsense!
Note that I am not arguing for the abolition of celibacy. I think it is a marvelous ideal. I’m simply proposing that if the church does decide to widen the permissions for married men to be ordained, then they should look to examples like MJ and Jenny for what that looks like. If they want a Catholic example they might look to SS Louis and Zelie Martin–a married couple whose lives were completely devoted together to the Lord.
Jenny and MJ also give a marvelous example of true missionary work in the modern world. These were not ignorant colonialists imposing their culture and religion on innocent tribal people living an idyllic life in the jungle in Edenic innocence. Jenny and MJ spent their lives living with the people and sharing their culture. MJ and Jenny risked their marriage, their children and their own lives in primitive conditions to bring the light of Christ to people who had never heard of God’s saving grace. They did not impose their religion with bribes and offers of goodies from the Western world. They respected the tribal culture, but realized that the modern world was going to encroach eventually and it was better for the tribal people to be introduced to the modern world in a gradual way–a way that would retain the best of their own culture while improving their lot in life with modern achievements.
What of the “inculturation” problem? Jenny and MJ followed the classic missionary method of finding a hint of the Christian faith in the existing culture and using that as an anchor to introduce the gospel. The Christian faith was therefore introduced simply and gradually–complementing their existing culture and religion while also correcting what may be dangerous or false within it. By developing a written language MJ was also able to permanently record and save parts of the tribal culture which may have been lost forever if the tribe were either wiped out or assimilated into the modern world.
I am ignorant of the situation of the Catholic Church in the Amazon and I’m willing to learn more about it, but from what I have heard, this kind of missionary effort has been abandoned by the Catholics. The feeling I get from people like the Austrian missionary bishop is that the indigenous people are okay just as they are. They don’t need to be “converted”. With the emphasis against proselytism and in favor of evangelization the mood I get is that “evangelizing” simply means helping people to have a better life, better health care and to understand the riches of their own spirituality and way of life a bit better. Why would that be the case? It can only be because the modern Catholic “missionaries” believe everyone is already saved. They’re universalists. People don’t need to come to faith in Christ and be baptized because Jesus has already saved them.
The only thing left to be saved in that case, is the rainforest.
If I am correct in the conclusions I am drawing, then why is anyone surprised that most of Latin America is being swept away by Pentecostal Protestantism?
The modern Catholic approach to mission is patently self destructive. Think it through. If I’m correct that it is riddled through with universalism, and no one needs to come to faith in Christ and be baptized and converted, if their sins are already forgiven, then not only is traditional missionary work pointless–the whole Catholic church is pointless. If I’m already saved and forgiven and going to heaven one day because Jesus did that for me on the cross and it is sort of automatic–then not only should I not bother to be baptized, but I also don’t need to go to confession, be confirmed or go to Mass.
These are some of the issues I discuss in my podcast analysis of John Allen’s book Future Church. I encourage you to check it out. The abridged version of each episode is available at BreadBox Media here. The full length versions are here on the blog for Donor Subscribers.
It would be interesting to know whether the Amazon synod members are discussing this sort of thing at all or whether most of the conversation is about climate change.
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