Why missions can’t separate love and truth

While pagans and others observed the summer solstice, the Church of England announced that it would begin a special outreach those who identify with pre-Christian religions like druidism.

“I would be looking to formulate an exploration of the Christian faith that would be at home in their culture,” said Rev. Steve Hollinghurst in the London Telegraph, the only place I could find the story.

Assuming it’s real, let’s hope the effort demonstrates more spiritual discernment than Episcopal Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who preached the following in Curaçao, Venezuela, in May, riffing off a story in Acts 16:

Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves [Rom 1.1]. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does — maybe more so!

Making peace with demons

Paul “depriv[ed] her of her gift of spiritual awareness”? I’m going to hazard a guess here: This is the first time in the history of Christian exegesis in which the demon-possessed girl comes out the hero and Paul the villain.

One scholar, while admitting the novelty of Jefferts Schori’s interpretation, also suggested that there’s nothing in the story to indicate the spirit possessing the girl was evil. But that’s problematic.

The text says that the girl had a spirit of divination, something forbidden by God. And just three chapters following this episode, Christian converts who had previously practiced magic gathered to destroy their magic books. They came to see their prior practices as detrimental. They were not deprived of anything. Like the slave girl, these people were now set free.

How does this bear on the outreach to pagans? Maybe we should turn to the original outreach to pagans. Missionary bishops like Martin of Tours are remembered for casting out evil spirits and destroying idols. There was no making peace with the demons, allowing that those oppressed by Satan are somehow as spiritually sound as their deliverers.

But there is also another side of Martin we cannot forget.

An ancient example of love

Sulpicius Severus’ biography presents Martin on the road and confronted by a naked beggar in the midst of a terrible winter storm. Martin had nothing except his cloak. As people passed the man by, Martin took off his cloak, drew his sword, and divided the garment. Later that night as he slept under half a cloak he dreamed of Christ among the angels. “Martin . . . covered me with this cloak,” said Jesus, wearing the half Martin had given the beggar.

The gift not only takes us to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 25 (“what you did for the least of these. . .”), it also takes us back to Paul and his statement on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Love alone will last.

Outreach should not compromise on truth, but neither should it compromise on love and generosity. It seems our work can only be effective if we hold the two close, even if the proximity creates tension, as it surely will in our culture today.

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  • kevin kirkpatrick

    LOVED the story about Martin, a St I know nothing about. Thanks for sharing. A great reminder of what a true Christian acts like.

    • Joel J. Miller

      It’s the Penguin collection, Early Christian Lives. A great book.

      • kevin kirkpatrick

        It is noteworthy that he carried a sword on him. I wonder is this is true of more early saints. ..