Monday, August 18, 2014

Ethics on the Mission Field

Being a missionary involves lots of little ethical choices that are not always easy to make.

I wanted to share with you our recent prayer letter in which we wrote down a recent scattershot "Top 10" ethical difficulties from the past year. This is actually our third "Ethical Dilemmas" prayer letter. These are always some of our most interesting and humorous prayer letters, because if people take the time to respond with their humble opinions, inevitably you'll get two people dogmatically on opposite sides of the coin regarding a certain ethical "dilemma"! This simply proves that these issues aren't as easy to decide as they might seem at the outset.

The point with these letters is not so much to ask advice, although we love to converse with people and get opinions! The point is to communicate that on the mission field, you may often find yourself in surprisingly sticky situations, trying to figure out what is expedient, what this or that communicates, and...what would Jesus do in this situation? We do have our own opinions on these situations, so some of them aren't exactly "dilemmas"; but some of them are tough!

Please feel free to leave your thoughts on our ethical "dilemmas" in the comments. Please also share if you have come across your own difficult ethical choices on your mission field! I'll try to unearth the first two letters with their ethical issues for future Missionary Mondays. By the way, I'd encourage you to share some of your own "ethical dilemmas" in a prayer letter to your supporters. It makes you seem more real and opens up some good conversations between you and your friends and supporters.


In July 2011, I sent out a list of difficult ethical situations our team has experienced. Another list came along in July 2012, but last year I took a break while we were in the US. The world has not gotten easier in the last two years so here are another ten conundrums that commonly confront us.

1.     Should I show frustration with incompetence?
If I’m purchasing at a shop and the employee is amazingly slow to help, is it justified to express that we are busy and would appreciate prompt service in exchange for our money? Would that communicate a Christian work ethic and personal responsibility or would it be one more example of American impatience?

2.     Should I sit with my wife and children in church even though many churches separate the men and women?
Traditionally, Africans do not mix the sexes at church and maybe at other public gatherings too. Should we be like them to win them, or is there some distinctly Christian virtue in a man sitting with his family? And this goes for dinner too. Most Africans do not eat their meals as a family: Must we teach them to do so?

3.     Should I spank village children?
On an average afternoon in the sunshine about 5-15 village children can be found playing in our yard. Once a 9-year old went home and brought a knife back because he and another boy had been fighting. He does not have a father living at home and probably will not get any discipline from the adults in his life. Should I discipline him so that he learns not to brandish weapons? What about the other little boy who stole our children’s toys (no dad there either)?

4.     Should I allow children to return to our yard if they have not been punished?
And when the children come to play on our grass, we have to decide whom to admit. Should we allow kids to return if they have done wrong but have not yet been punished? What about the younger brothers of our teenager neighbor who has repeatedly stolen from us? When he broke in he used some small boys to fit through our window. Was it them?

5.     Should I use loud speakers if that is what the culture wants?
Large speakers are used to amplify both speaking voices and music as a call to the village to signal that a social event is opened to the public. But they also are commonly found in parties where the purpose is entertainment or at churches where the purpose is to put on a show. Should we buy a set of 6-foot woofers to attract people to the church?

6.     Should I ever encourage someone to pay a bribe?
If a police officer pulls me over and asks, “Now what can we do because of your speed?” Is it always wrong to give him money so that you can go on your way? What about customs officials? And the situation is more complicated when we think of some of our Zimbabwean friends who have slender bank accounts. Could they pay an official to get through?

7.     Should I use a literal translation that is difficult to understand or a thought-for-thought translation that sometimes oversimplifies theological discourses?
Tsonga has two translations. The first from 1907, revised in 1929, is more literal than the recent 1989 Good News Bible. The modern is generally easier to understand, but is also looser than the earlier translation. The earlier translation has many words that no one knows; and just remember, the education level is low, and very few people have dictionaries. Both translation employ the same Greek text. Which one should I use? Or both?

8.     Should I rebuke unconverted people for sinful behavior?
I am returning from preaching at an evening Bible study as I walk on the road by my house. Two young people in the dark are preparing for sin near the corner as I near home. Should I rebuke them to have a moralizing effect on the community? Or should I ignore them because they are only doing what sinners do? After all, if they stopped that particular sin, it wouldn’t save them. Yet how can we be indifferent to blatant violations of God’s law?

9.     Should I open civil functions in prayer if the society is nominally Christian?
They don’t care about my gospel, but they are as one writer says, “incurably religious.” So they ask me to open their children’s graduation from kindergarten with prayer. Does that open a door for the gospel, or does it sanction their own baseless claims to being Christian?

10.  Should I feel obligated to stay in a place because of the investment of time and money?
Many villages need the gospel and ours has not been overwhelming in its response to our ministry. Should we stay here because we’ve put so much money into our house? Or because seeds take time to grow into trees with fruit? Or are we nearing the time to shake the dust off of our feet? It is difficult to know when we should endure all things for the elect’s sake and when we should preach the gospel where Christ has not yet been named.

Hopefully, these scenarios will inspire godly conversation and fervent prayer. Remember us with the words of Paul to the Philippians: “I pray that you would overflow with discerning love so that you will know what is right in any situation.” We would enjoy hearing from you if the mood betakes you to hit “reply.”

With Mind and Heart,

Seth and Amy Meyers


Lou Ann Keiser said...

In Europe, we have a totally different culture and customs and different dilemmas, but every missionary can identify with these. The big question is: was it right to break the speed limit in the first place? :o)

Jen Bauer said...

Thanks for sharing!

Carie said...

Umm...yeah...I can almost guarantee the speed limit was not broken, as evident by the three national cars that just passed us before being pulled over.