Last Thursday I had to say goodbye to a good friend. It was weird, really. He's been living in China for the last several years, and needed a place to stay back here in the US since last June, and we gladly offered our guest room. Even though he's been doing quite a bit of traveling in the US, we've had quite a bit of time with him, and have really enjoyed it. What's weird about it is that it wasn't a very emotional time at all, even though we won't see him again for several years. We keep in touch pretty well what with the Intertubes and Skype, so I guess that's part of it.
Anyway, this friend has been working for the last several years, and will continue to do so, with the underground house churches in China. He has a fairly extensive theological education and was a gifted pastor here in the USA. Working with the house churches in China is, of course, illegal, because the churches themselves are illegal. I know - not well, but I have met - several people who have been jailed in China because of their proselytizing. I know several others, including the aforementioned friend, of course, who live and work in China in regular jobs, but who then teach house church leaders and engage in other subtle proselytizing. One interesting thing that I have learned is that the average person living in Nowhere, Wyoming, is way more influenced by what the US Government does than the average Chinese citizen is by what Beijing does.
Such activities are not limited to China, of course. There is a Christian movement that targets Muslim countries, with people not only going to live in one but who actually go through an entire conversion process to Islam. Supposedly some Imams have converted to Christianity and even taken their whole congregations with them. Some Eastern European countries have laws regulating Western Christian groups; these are flouted when possible. Mexico still, I understand, does not allow "missionaries" within the country, yet there are certainly Protestant missionaries active there.
These stories and historical accounts of persecution against Christians - the massacre in Japan in the 19th century, the problems in Korea, the flight from Mao's forces, etc. - are the bread-and-butter of missionary services. It's interesting, and it also serves to show how committed people can be to their faith. It's intended to be humbling and inspiring.
But I've long wondered just how far we can stretch our ethics in the name of "spreading the Gospel." Some of the things that happen in China, while illegal according to Beijing's wishes, are endorsed by local officials, which just makes it more complicated. But when Muslims catch a Christian-in-Muslim-clothing, they're prettty upset about it, and I can't really blame them.
This is no new problem. The Donatist controversy centered upon those who had recanted their faith during the Diocletian persecution against the Church. The Donatists did not accept as valid sacraments performed by priests who gave into the persecution. Interestingly enough, the persecution and those who gave in was just the surface issue. The real problem facing the Church was the nature of grace and sacraments. The decision, which St. Augustine heavily influenced, was that those who had recanted under pressure from Diocletian's forces could be accepted back into the Church. Further, the sacraments did not require a priest's purity in order to be efficacious. Thus we have the doctrine of ex opere operato
, "by the work performed," which says that the act of the sacrament itself is all that is required for God to be present in it and for it - to put it crudely - to work.
In a sense, I've been talking about two different things. One's actions under persecution are different than intentionally breaking the law or deceiving the members of another religion to spread Christianity. Leaving aside any consideration of the validity of other religions, just how far can a Christian go? Is it ever ok to break laws? How many can a Christian break before it goes too far? And I'm assuming that it's only ok to break those laws that get in the way of preaching the Gospel - which makes for incredibly relativistic ethics.
So, what do you think?