Most missionaries, both career and short-term volunteers, must deal with ethical dilemmas as they strive to share God’s love.
In making tough ethical decisions, Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board leaders stress the importance of understanding culture and applying biblical principles.
The IMB helps missionaries understand and apply two concepts—to strip away Western culture and go to the Bible and to avoid anything that might cause a brother to stumble, spokesperson Wendy Norvelle explained.
“Sometimes applying biblical principles is hard to do because we encase our understanding of the Bible in our Western culture,” she said.
Understand the culture
Missionaries must understand the culture where they work to avoid causing problems for those to whom they minister, even when understanding may
require them to adopt patterns from that culture.
For example, women in some societies are required to cover their heads when they go out in public.
"It’s not our custom or belief, but it is in some cultures; or in some places, it’s the law … . We teach missionaries to look at the culture and determine how to bridge the two,” Norvelle said.
Strategies for dealing with ethical issues is woven into the presentations and classes new appointees take during stateside orientation.
“We teach them how to live cross-culturally. … We teach them to seek answers, not give them answers. We give them the tools … to teach them how to live and adapt.”
The IMB also works hard during the candidate-screening process to make sure an appointee serves where his or her gifts are best suited.
An individual gifted in street evangelism likely would be sent to an area that allows religious activity, rather than to a closed country.
Do the right thing
Honesty and integrity are the bedrocks upon which ethical decisions—both at home and abroad—must be made, a longtime missionary, mission administrator and top mission leader believes.
“The best course is to maintain integrity and honesty, to recognize that anything we do or say can become public knowledge,” Keith Parks said. “The best defense is to say, ‘I did what I thought was right.’”
Parks speaks from years of mission experience, including 42 years as a missions professional. He served 38 years with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board, as a missionary and a field administrator, with his final 13 years as president.
He also served Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as president of its Global Missions effort six years.
Missionaries—whether career workers or short-term volunteers—face ethical dilemmas, he acknowledged. Even a simple choice can present an ethical issue. For example, should a worker going into a country that does not allow mission volunteers declare he or she is on vacation?
“I recognize that there are gray areas and that it is necessary to fudge a little at times,” Parks said. “I have had to struggle with (the visa issue). I would put down administrator or teacher rather than missionary or preacher.”
Lying not an option
But outright lying never has been an option, he stressed. Sometimes staying within a country’s legal system requires telling the truth without volunteering additional information, he added.
Parks believes missions-sending agencies and volunteer groups do not need to use clandestine methods for reaching people with the gospel. Should government employees discover such deception, those mission efforts usually must end. Uncovered deception also can lead to even tighter religious restrictions.
“The truth is that anything anybody can find is an excuse to get rid of you,” Parks said.
During Parks’ stint in Indonesia, workers learned certain individuals could triple their return when converting currency.
“But it would have been too expensive to triple our money but lose our integrity,” he said.
Learning the culture and following the laws of the land can help minimize the ethical conflict, he added.
“I think the way we are able to function is to play by the rules of the country. I think (officials) know or at least know most of what we’re doing” in their country, he said. “If we try to flaunt their rules, they are going to do something about it. We’re not 007. We’re not super-secret.”
Deliver on promises
Working within a country’s laws often can lead to encounters to develop relationships or share the gospel. Parks believes sending workers as professionals into closed countries is ethically appropriate as long as the sending agency delivers what it promised.
“I think we had a problem early on of sending people in as a professional but who were not fully qualified,” he said. “But I think we’ve transitioned from pretending to be proficient in business to actually being proficient and using that proficiency as an opportunity.”
Leaders of a restricted country hesitated when approached by CBF administrators, including Parks, about starting a kindergarten program and relief efforts, because they tend to believe most not-for-profit organizations have either political or religious motives, Parks said.
Sending professional people into closed countries has been a longstanding IMB strategy. Medical professionals, teachers, agricultural specialists, business executives and others have been able to connect one-to-one while fulfilling their secular roles.
Is that a clandestine approach? Norvelle acknowledged some individuals believe it is. But the IMB believes workers uphold the law and have opportunities to build personal relationships—“the best way to mission effectiveness.”
“Governments grant visas and welcome U.S. citizens to come for teaching, agriculture, medicine and others …,” she said.
“As they go, they seek ways to build relationship and to share what they believe. They do what the Bible says: Build relationships where you are. … Paul was a tentmaker. He ran a business.”
Programs and workers tend to be accepted best when they deliver on the promises administrators make. And following the rules sets an example.
“There is such an expectation and a common reality of lying and cheating in many cultures. When people encounter those who don’t (lie or cheat), it is more of a witness,” Parks said.
“There is the sense of ‘this guy is different’… and it gives the worker a chance to witness.”
Technological advances have made access to information more available, even in remote areas. Articles, books, e-mails and blogs by individuals leaving a post and by short-termers also can create a security risk for workers and nationals in high-security areas. Most mission-sending agencies use pseudonyms for individuals in those areas and do not disclose actual locations.
“It’s a very uncomfortable situation when people are working incognito but then come home and write about their experiences,” Parks said. “It’s a real problem, because it casts suspicion on others working in those countries.”
“Play by the rules” and “do what’s right” are the two maxims Parks tries to follow in any mission endeavor. And sometimes doing “what’s right” may mean breaking a country’s law.
“The distinction is to do what’s right. When the law says we can’t witness, we break that law” when workers respond to opportunities to share as they develop relationships.