Should Christians try to reach uncontacted tribes with the Gospel?

Group of Andaman men and women catching turtles. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives; 1903 or earlier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Group of Andaman men and women catching turtles. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives; 1903 or earlier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the recent news story about the Christian missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed while taking the Gospel to the hitherto-unreached Sentinelese tribe in India, Chris Flux gives his view on whether it’s appropriate for missionaries to try to reach uncontacted tribes.

American Christian John Allen Chau was recently killed by Sentinelese tribesmen on Andaman Islands, who he was trying to reach with the Gospel.

https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/American-adventurer-killed-by-tribe-was-Christian-missionary

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-46293221

These tribespeople, who number around a hundred people, are known for having very little contact with the outside world. People who have previously tried to contact them have been killed and they even threw spears at overflying helicopters. Presumably they have no knowledge of the rest of the world and no knowledge of Christianity.

“There was a huge response on social media to this story and a lot of anger towards John Chau’s actions. Some of the comments were cruel, as people called his death ‘good’ or ‘deserved’. But the general consensus was that he was 1) irresponsible for risking the tribespeople’s lives; and 2) guilty of cultural imperialism for trying to ‘force’ his Western religious beliefs on another culture.”

The tribespeople’s (perhaps understandably) aggressive response to outsiders and their probable lack of immunity to modern diseases that outsiders might accidentally pass on, has led to the Indian Government (whose jurisdiction the Andaman islands come under) making it illegal for outsiders to go near them.

Despite this, John Allen Chau sneaked onto the island because he wanted to share the Gospel with them. That is obviously a noble and biblical aim, but given the circumstances was this the right thing to do?

There was a huge response on social media to this story and a lot of anger towards his actions. Some of the comments were cruel, as people called his death ‘good’ or ‘deserved’. But the general consensus was that he was 1) irresponsible for risking the tribespeople’s lives; and 2) guilty of cultural imperialism for trying to ‘force’ his Western religious beliefs on another culture.

This article is my response to this story and examining whether we as Christians should try to reach uncontacted people like the Sentinelese and if so, how should we do this?

Cultural Imperialism?

A lot of comments online in response to Mr Chau’s death accused him of ‘cultural imperialism’ and even ‘racism’. This article by Janet Street-Porter echoes these concerns. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/john-allen-chau-death-tribe-missionary-christian-north-sentinel-island-uncontacted-a8648691.html

In the modern secular West there is a lot of antagonism towards missionary work because of Christian history. Whether it’s the Catholic Inquisition of tribes in South America, or British missionaries in Africa, there are sadly examples of forced and coerced conversions or sometimes missionary work as a front for colonialism. They offer a strategy of converting the locals so it’s easier to take over their land and resources. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/missionaries.shtml https://www.catholic.com/qa/does-the-catholic-church-approve-of-forced-conversions

“Historically, people have twisted the Gospel as a way to rule other people and this probably still happens. The New Testament records that some people were using the Gospel as a way to get rich, so it’s no surprise that countries do it.”

Sadly, to a large extent this is true. People have twisted the Gospel as a way to rule other people and this probably still happens. Abusing the Gospel for such ends is taking God’s name in vain. The New Testament records that some people were using the Gospel as a way to get rich (2 Peter 2:3), so it’s no surprise that countries do it.

Whilst it’s right to acknowledge this, as Christians we cannot keep our faith to ourselves (as one commenter on Facebook suggested) because Jesus command us to “Go out into all the world” and preach the Gospel to everyone. (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16). Jesus gave the Great Commission at a time Europe was completely Pagan. If the early Hebrew Christians had decided not to share their faith with European Gentiles because of ‘cultural sensitivities’ then Christianity would not have spread in Europe. We have the boldness of Hebrew Christians to thank for the Christian faith coming to Europe, when they would have been under both political and cultural pressure to keep quiet.

So how do we complete the Great Commission without being forceful or imperialistic? The answer is simple; we follow the Bible’s teaching about evangelism.

“St. Paul, himself a Hebrew, openly challenged Jewish Christians who demanded that Gentile converts adopt Jewish customs as part of their conversion to Christianity. Paul saw faith in Jesus Christ as far more important than his own nation’s culture. Paul even used Greek culture as a way to present the Gospel to Greek people. Paul wanted to meet people where they were at, rather than demand the adoption of Jewish culture as starting point before accepting Christ.”

Christianity began as a faith amongst Jewish people and therefore the very early church was largely Jewish. Yet St. Paul, himself a Hebrew, openly challenged Jewish Christians who demanded that Gentile converts adopt Jewish customs as part of their conversion to Christianity (Galatians 2:14). Paul saw faith in Jesus Christ as far more important than his own nation’s culture. Paul even used Greek culture as a way to present the Gospel to Greek people (Acts 17:28). Paul wanted to meet people where they were at, rather than demand the adoption of Jewish culture as starting point before accepting Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

This didn’t however mean that Paul compromised when it came to sin. Paul rightly called out sin (Romans 6:1-4), false teaching (2 Timothy 4:3-4) and the worship of idols (1 Corinthians 10:20). But he didn’t try to make Romans and Greeks into Hebrews. He was happy for converts to remain Roman, Greek, Syrian, etc.

Similarly, missionaries today should not be aiming to impose British, American or European Christianity on people in Asia or Africa. Instead they should be encouraging people in those communities to develop their own culturally authentic expression of Christianity. This doesn’t mean compromising on truth or morals, but we shouldn’t demand or expect them to express their faith in Christ in exactly the same way we do. Perhaps they use different instruments in worship or use different methods to explain the Gospel. As long as they worship Christ and they preach Him crucified, then I have no problem with how they do that.

The church I attend in Lancashire is part of the Newfrontiers International network of churches. On this network’s website they state that they want to both build ‘a church on New Testament principles’ and that they want to change ‘the expression of Christianity around the world.’ Newfrontiers is a British movement that has been planting churches around the world for decades. Yet their heart is to empower the local church in different countries, not export British Christian culture. I have heard about how they thoughtfully and respectfully do this. I even remember a Newfrontiers conference which featured African worship music and a speaker explained how British church planters abroad partnered with local Christians as equals rather than try to dominate the relationship. The Bible commands us to ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God’, not ‘Seek first the United Kingdom’ (Matthew 6:33). For all believers, primarily we are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), so our sole focus should be on the Kingdom of God.

“It must be noted that forced conversion is completely unbiblical and counterintuitive to the Gospel. If someone converts for any reason other than their own free choice to follow Jesus, then that is a false conversion and a false conversion doesn’t lead to salvation. Romans 10:9 states that people must ‘believe’ in their ‘heart’ in order to be saved.”

Sadly the long history of forced conversion has made many people understandably suspicious of Christianity. However it must be noted that forced conversion is completely unbiblical and counterintuitive to the Gospel. If someone converts for any reason other than their own free choice to follow Jesus, then that is a false conversion and a false conversion doesn’t lead to salvation. Romans 10:9 states that people must ‘believe’ in their ‘heart’ in order to be saved. Forced conversions don’t meet this description and if anything, make true conversion less likely because people become hostile to the actual Gospel because of it.

One biblical model of evangelism given in Scripture is for Christians to travel to a town, try to tell people about Jesus but then leave and move on if the message is rejected (Matthew 10:11-14). It’s wrong and sad when the Gospel is rejected, but at that point it’s between that person and God. It’s not our job to hound people into becoming Christians. We are to respect their ‘no’ whether we are trying to reach British university students, Japanese businessmen or isolated island tribespeople.

Ignore The Risks?

Probably the main risk of trying to reach this isolated tribe is that they could catch modern diseases that they have no immunity to from missionaries like Mr Chau.

“Throughout history Christians have taken risks for the Gospel. One example is British missionary Wellesley Bailey who founded a mission to leprosy sufferers in India during the late 19th century.”

Now if things were the other way round, where the missionary was at risk of catching a disease from the tribespeople, then I think it would be a risk worth taking. Jesus took this risk when He met people with contagious leprosy (Matthew 8:1-3) before healing them. Throughout history Christians have taken similar risks for the Gospel. One example is British missionary Wellesley Bailey who founded a mission to leprosy sufferers in India during the late 19th century.

However, when Christian missionaries put tribespeople at risk like Mr Chau did, then it seems unfair for that risk to be taken when the tribespeople had no say in the decision. They probably don’t even know of the risk or have a clue as to why people want to reach them.

This could also cause huge damage our Christian witness. Firstly, if the tribespeople start to associate the missionaries with diseases that kill them, then they will associate the Gospel with death, not life. Secondly, if the Sentinelese tribe were wiped out because of the diseases caught from a missionary, then it is guaranteed to be an intentional news story which will reflect very badly on the church. Christian missionaries will be seen as responsible for the death of an entire tribe, which would hugely damage our witness to millions and millions of people around the world who also need to know Jesus.

Obey The Law?

“In this particular case the law (which bans all contact with the tribespeople for any reason, not just religious proselytising) is there for very good reasons. It’s not about limiting free speech or religious persecution, but for the health and safety of both the tribespeople and outsiders.”

In trying to contact the tribe, Mr Chau also knowingly broke Indian law. Christians are told to obey the law of the land and submit to authorities (Romans 13:1-7). So was he disobeying God by travelling to that island?

It should be noted that when it comes to evangelism we are not bound by the law of the land. Christians throughout history, including in the Bible, have been arrested and even killed for disobeying laws limiting evangelism. St. Peter was told by the authorities to stop preaching, yet he continued anyway, stating in his defence that he’d rather ‘obey God, not men’ (Acts 5:27-29).

However in this particular case the law (which bans all contact with the tribespeople for any reason, not just religious proselytising) is there for very good reasons. It’s not about limiting free speech or religious persecution, but for the health and safety of both the tribespeople and outsiders. So on this occasion I think it is right to obey this law.

Leave It To God?

The obvious major problem with not going to the tribespeople with the Gospel is, as Romans 10:14 puts it, ‘how can they believe if they have not heard’ and ‘how can they hear unless someone tells them’?

“Scripture clearly states that without faith in Christ people will face judgement. Romans 1:20 makes it very clear that God reveals his nature and character through creation and through conscience. This means that even unreached people, who have never heard of Christianity, are without excuse when they sin against God. However I don’t think that this necessarily means that without Christian outreach people are beyond redemption.”

I completely agree that Scripture clearly states that without faith in Christ people will face judgement (John 3:18). Romans 1:20 makes it very clear that God reveals his nature and character through creation and through conscience. This means that even unreached people, who have never heard of Christianity, are without excuse when they sin against God. However I don’t think that this necessarily means that without Christian outreach people are beyond redemption.

It should also be recognised that God is supernatural and in the Bible He sometimes spoke to people directly to people and also through His angels. Mary and Joseph first received the Gospel through angelic revelation (Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:20). Moses and Abraham heard from God Himself (Exodus 3; Genesis 12:1-3). In the modern day it is claimed that there are many people in Muslim countries that evangelists cannot reach, and so many Muslims are having visions of Christ and becoming believers through that. So whilst God commands us to spread the Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20) He doesn’t ‘need’ us to do this as He doesn’t ‘need’ us for anything at all (Acts 17:24-25).

Does/will God do the same with these unreached tribes? We know from Scripture that it’s God’s heart for all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). This however doesn’t mean that the Bible teaches a universalism where everyone is saved. The Bible is clear that many will not be saved (Matthew 7:13). So if it’s God’s desire that all will be saved, how can it be that many won’t be? The answer is because God has allowed one thing to get in the way of His will: human free will. God certainly wants all to be saved but He also wants all to come to ‘repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9). Repentance is essential for salvation, so that is the stumbling block. Lack of genuine repentance and faith in God is the only thing that can prevent God’s desire to save people. Simple belief in God (his existence, etc.) is not enough as even demons do that (James 2:19). And remorse (the simple recognition of guilt) isn’t enough as Judas expressed remorse for betraying Christ (Matthew 27:3-5), yet it’s strongly implied that Judas didn’t receive salvation (John 17:12; Matthew 26:24). It’s human stubbornness towards the Grace of God that can stop people from receiving that grace. I truly believe that God will do everything to save souls, except forcing people to believe. We were given free will for a reason and so God isn’t going to violate that principle, otherwise He wouldn’t have bothered with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.

I trust that God is Sovereign and that He knows what He’s doing. He can reach people without us. That’s not an excuse not to evangelise because Jesus commands us to, but we can trust God when it comes to circumstances that prevent us from contacting people.

Conclusion

“Because of this tribe’s expressed desire to be left alone and because of the huge risk of spreading disease, I think it was wrong for Mr Chau to try to reach this particular tribe. However I don’t think that means missionaries should stop trying to reach non-Christian cultures simply because liberals, humanists and people of other faiths disagree with it or find it offensive.”

Because of this tribe’s expressed desire to be left alone and because of the huge risk of spreading disease, I think it was wrong for Mr Chau to try to reach this particular tribe.

However I don’t think that means missionaries should stop trying to reach non-Christian cultures simply because liberals, humanists and people of other faiths disagree with it or find it offensive.

Missionaries should however be very careful regarding their conduct and their attitude when embarking on such missions. We must go with a humble attitude of servanthood and respect (Galatians 5:13). We should not go as colonisers or ‘saviours’ (Jesus is the only saviour people need), but as messengers of the Good News. We should conduct ourselves with honesty and continue to serve people even if they reject what we have to say. We must be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2), and be both as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of etimasthe.

 

 

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