The first two problems we’ve already addressed are pretty big hang-ups for we Westerners. But I have to say, I think this final problem- the problem of imposing our morality - is probably the most difficult for us to overcome. I believe this is because we tend to find our biggest sense of validation in our perceived morality as it compares to others. God is holy and it is my sin that separates me from God, therefore if I am holier (which is equated with being more moral), then God must love me more and I must be a better Christian. An imposition of our moral standards is done in large part for our own validation. But it is also done because it provides us with a sense of direction and control as we guide new believers and churches.
If we really believed that the moral demands which we make were of such a character that failure to fulfil them necessarily separated a man from Christ, we should be compelled to treat them as retrospective. But that we do not do. We do not deny the Christianity of Charlemagne because he had more than one wife; we do not deny that our fathers were Christians because they kept slaves; we do not deny that they were Christians because they believed in witchcraft and burnt witches. Then it is possible for a man to do these things without deliberately rejecting Christ, though if one of us did any of them to-day we should be worthy of excommunication. Thus we admit that our demands are local and temporary, and of our own age and place. Even in our own age we are not consistent. We exclude men who, before ever they heard the name of Christ, married more than one wife; but we do not openly and publicly excommunicate, and deny Christian burial to, the white fathers of illegitimate half-caste children. Yet the latter case is a far more grievous act of immorality than the former. In the one case there is no impurity of intention, or at any rate impurity of intention is uncertain; in the other it is certain, for no white man thinks that he is serving Christ when he begets these illegitimate children. How we can enforce a law against a man who has acted in ignorance, whilst we condone in act, if not in word, the far worse moral offence of our own fellow countrymen is simply astounding!
Take, for example, our law of monogamy. We commonly demand that before a man is received into the Church he must put away all his wives except one. Now this is certainly not understood by the great mass of the natives. I have heard a missionary from Central Africa say that when the people hear that a missionary is coming they say "Here comes the breaker up of families." I asked a native priest in Africa how he justified our law to his own people and he answered, "I cannot, I simply say that it is the law."
Take, for instance, the case of Big Hunter. Big Hunter was a chief among the Sioux who fled from the States into Canada and put themselves under the protection of the Canadian Government. Presbyterian missionaries visited them and taught them, and many of them embraced the Christian teaching, and amongst these Big Hunter. He wished to become a Christian, and was told that he must put away all his wives except one. After a long struggle he at last determined to obey, but not knowing how to obey because he did not know how to arrange for his wives, he hanged them. Then he came to the missionaries and told them that he had done what they demanded. Thereupon they drove him away as a murderer, and in despair the man abandoned all hope of ever becoming a Christian, returned to his heathen gods, married two new brides, and lived as a heathen till the day of his death, in spite of the fact that his children became Christians. Those missionaries had maintained the Christian law as they supposed. They had maintained our marriage law: but had they maintained the law of Christ? I have not met a Christian who heard that story without a qualm, or who answered the question whether those missionaries had done right without hesitation.
We want our morality black and white, we want the morality that our society has passed down to us, and we want that morality to be conformed to now. But as Allen shows, such a wish for immediacy and such a condemnation of those who are outside of our moral system today are unfounded. We put the stamp of Christian on men and women who did terrible things in the past, yet say that the same actions done by those who are morally ignorant today bar them from being a Christian. Washington the slaveholder was a Christian, but the modern day polygamist cannot be unless he throws his wife to the curb.
It seems that the Bible is in far more accordance with Allen than it is with the way many of us impose our morality today. Paul lived in a society which held slaves. In the very churches he visited there were slave owners and slaves. Yet Paul didn’t expect that the system should be overthrown in a night. He never commanded for the slave owners to release their slaves. But he did command the owners to love their slaves like brothers. It is this Christian emphasis on the core of love, and its patience with those who are being made new that likely helped lead slavery to disappear in the Roman Empire. As we saw in the U.S., it is easy to overturn slavery and hate your brothers and sisters and keep them in social chains. But if you teach that you love your slaves like brothers and sisters, how can you continue to hold them captive in either physical or social bonds?
Paul seems to do the same sort of thing with polygamy. Much of the language Paul uses when referencing marriage seems to assume a two-unit marriage. But most importantly, when Paul institutes a leader as an elder, one of the elder’s qualifications is that they are to be husband to only one wife. That obviously implies that there are frequently those inside the church who have more than one wife. Paul does not exclude the polygamous from communion with the church, but simply says that they’re not going to participate in the highest level of leadership. Once again, the desired morality isn’t shoved down anyone’s throat. It’s not expected that the societal landscape is going to change overnight. Change takes time, and thank God that he is gracious enough to be patient with us. Allen describes what such patience might look like in a polygamous society today.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that great numbers of natives, both converts and heathen, should look upon the imposition of our rules as the imposition of a yoke of western civilization rather than as a law of Christ. The result is that they are driven into opposition, not only to western civilization, not only to missionaries, but to the truer and higher conception of morality. For instance, in Africa they are driven by our insistence upon monogamy as a formal universal Christian law either into a defence of polygamy or into a rejection of Christianity, or into both. As polygamists they must oppose the teaching of the Christian missionaries. They are driven to fight for polygamy: they must maintain that it is the better way of life for Africans. They must take their place on the wrong side. The choice is a most unhappy one: they must either submit to a yoke and practise a law of which they understand as yet neither the justice nor the expediency, at the command of foreign teachers, or they must adopt an attitude antagonistic to true progress. That this unhappy choice is set before them is due to the imposition of law. Polygamists might have been on the right side rather than on the wrong. If their wives had not been made the objects of the missionary attack; if when they learned to believe in Christ, they had been accepted as Christians; the ideal would have been before them not as something inimical, to be hated and dreaded, and resisted, not as a monstrous and tyranical imposition, but as an ideal at which they might safely and wisely look. Many would have shaken their heads at it, but some would have desired it. They would have learned the teaching of Christ with its clear suggestion that monogamy is indeed after the mind of God; they would have heard the teaching of St. Paul concerning the relationship of Christ to the Church; they would have compared the homes of monogamists with the homes of polygamists. As surely as monogamy approved itself to the Christian mind and heart in the West, so surely, and for the same reasons, would it have approved itself to the Christian mind in Africa and the East. Year by year the best men and women, whether polygamists or monogamists themselves, would have been increasingly on its side, many polygamists regretting the contention and trouble in their own homes and warning others against failing into their misfortune, and the monogamists realizing their own higher state and calling others to share it. The battle would perhaps have been long, and its fortune often apparently doubtful, but it need not have been a battle of missionaries against natives, and natives against missionaries, nor need it have been bitter. But this quiet growth we have declined in order to obtain a present immediate victory.
There is only one alternative, and that is to set before men the example of Christ, and the law of Christ which is the only standard of Christian morality, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength, and thy neighbour as thyself." If Big Hunter had been taught that law, he would have accepted it gladly and would have tried to keep it by loving his wives, and as the people advanced in knowledge they would speedily have accepted the teaching that the best way to fulfil Christ's law in respect of wives is to have only one. When we teach a law which is less than Christ's law, when we set up a standard of morality which is lower than Christ's standard, we often fail to attain even that standard which we set up; and becausee we have put the letter in the place of the spirit we ourselves miss the spirit in enforcing the letter. We have laid down the law and passed over the love of God; we have set our hearers on the wrong path; we have raised up a most serious barrier to the spontaneous expansion of the Church.
It almost seems to be a rule of Christian progress that to ascend men must first apparently descend. To know the power of Christ, individual men must make that fearful descent which consists in forsaking the attempt to make themselves righteous, they must abandon the hope that they can attain to righteousness by their obedience to law whether written in their conscience or taught to them by authority. That is an appalling adventure. It seems like a contradiction, a very reversal, of our nature, a denial of ourselves. Yet how many generations of Christian men have proved it! So to know the power of Christ it seems that the Church must make a like adventure in its missionary work, and cast away its righteousness in order that it may appear again as the grace of Christ alone. How terrible that adventure seems is shown by our reluctance to face it. "We must," we say, "maintain the Christian standard of morality." We cannot. It does not lie with us. Morality for us as Christians should be truth in the inward parts. And that we cannot maintain. All that we can do is to enforce an external law; and that we must not do. But because we say we must, we do exactly that very thing which we condemn the judaizing Christians for doing; and we come near to committing that very fault which we applaud St. Paul for opposing.
In Islam there is a fixed standard of morals, there is a definite external code; yet Moslems can and do accept men before they have learnt that code or advanced to that standard, in the belief that they will learn. They do learn to grow up to the standard, but when once they have attained, they have attained. Herein lies the secret of the stagnation of Islam: it has a moral standard. It can raise men up to that standard, and after that--nothing. There is no infinite advance. If we set up and maintain a standard of Christian morals embodied in a code so far as in us lies, we invite a like disaster. In Christ there is no such standard, but the promise of infinite progress. Inspired by Christ's Spirit, strengthened by His grace, converts from heathenism will advance not to our present Western standard, but far beyond it. The imposition of our present standard may seem to us for the moment to give us and our converts some advantage, but it saps the spring of future progress. That is what I fear. We have begun by imposing a system of external rules, and we cannot easily go back. In the beginning it would have been comparatively easy to have avoided the difficulty. To have baptized men who confessed Christ without insisting that they must first accept our laws, to have established Churches in native villages under their own elders without breaking up their social order, would no more have been a lowering of our standard of morality than the establishment of a kindergarten class in a school is a lowering of the standard of education in the school…
And so He deals with us now. He comes to us in our degradation and offers us not a law, but His grace. How degraded our state is we do not know. We think of our morals as very high and noble, we compare them with the morals of other men, and we say,
"Ours are Christian morals, theirs are heathen morals; it is impossible for a man to be a Christian unless he accepts our moral code.["] If Christ dealt so with us, which of us could be saved? Spiritual pride is a far more deadly sin than concubinage; selfishness is a far more deadly sin than polygamy; hatred is a far more deadly sin than the destruction of twins. Our pride, and selfishness, and hatred, and impurity, express themselves in forms which appear to us less obnoxious than the vices of the heathen; and consequently it is easy for us to denounce their immorality. But if Christ treated us as we treat the heathen, and refused communion with us until we had reformed, what hope should we have?... Our hope now, and for the future, lies not in the attainment of a standard which shall make us fit for His grace; but in the assurance that acceptance of His grace will raise us. We often say that his name shall be called Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins, with the addition, not in their sin but from their sins. In so saying, whilst we express one truth, we suppress another; for if Christ does not save us in our sins we shall never be saved from our sins…
Suppose that Missionaries came to us from a higher sphere, and regarding our moral condition as we regard the moral condition of "raw heathen," began by insisting that, before we could be admitted into communion with them, we must abandon once and for all our heathen practices. Suppose, for instance, that they began by insisting that we should conduct all our businesses with a single eye to the salvation of all whom we employed and all with whom we dealt, or that in the education of our children we should think solely of the service of Christ and not at all of their social, or economic, advantage; suppose that they treated an impatient or hasty temper as sufficient cause for excommunication; suppose that they laid down rules for our direction in these matters and demanded the cancelling of any contracts or engagements into which we had previously entered, and declined to recognize us as Christians until we had done so. Such missionaries would be acting precisely as we act when we insist that a man must reform his social relations in accordance with our ideas of moral life before he can be admitted to Baptism. But should we not be amazed and confounded, and question whether it was possible for most of us whilst we lived on this earth to become Christians; and if we desire to propagate such teaching should we not be confronted with almost insuperable difficulties?
We talk of "Christian social conditions," "Christian civilization," as something which we know and can impart to others; but in truth we do not know what Christian civilization is. It is an ideal towards which Christians strive: it is something infinitely remote from us, and we do not know what it is in its beauty; only we know that it is in Christ and is to be attained in Him by learning of Him. That knowledge cannot be imparted to non-Christians; the only Christian civilization which we can impart directly to others is the civilization of Christian England, Western Civilization. But that is not Christian Civilization. To teach men this is indeed to mislead them. Very often the heathen see its iniquity more clearly than we do. If men learn to confound the teaching of Christ with western civilization they may well shrink from both. But when we use the terms "Christian civilization" and "our civilization," or "our customs," or "our social doctrines" as convertible terms, and teach our customs and our social doctrines as "Christian" to those to whom we go as missionaries, we are always on the verge of this danger, and when we attempt to uplift a whole people, Christian and non-Christian alike by introducing them, we are in fact falling into it... The Christian civilization which we hoped would prepare the way for Christ has proved itself a stumbling-block, and we must confess that we have gone astray, and have obscured the true foundation, the Cross of Christ which is itself a condemnation of our civilization. Our Western enlightenment, our Christian social doctrines, our Christian science, are no foundation upon which to build faith in Christ...
Putting intellectual, moral and social advance first in time, we inevitably tended to accept the position that reform of conditions was a necessary antecedent to the living of a Christian life. We had, as I have already pointed out, certain convictions as to the meaning of the term "Christian Life." A "Christian life" was a life separated from all heathen practices, it was a life of civilized Christian decency as we understood it. It was a life as nearly after our pattern as possible. We were then, and we are now, utterly incapable of conceiving, or recognizing, Christian life under barbarous conditions. Consequently, we naturally spoke often as if it were impossible to live a Christian life in bad surroundings. We heard men say that some reform was of pressing importance, because it was impossible for men to live a Christian life under such conditions. Or from another point of view, as a missionary from India expressed it to me the other day, it is impossible for those people in their ignorance and degradation to receive our message until they are freed from the bondage and degradation in which they are kept by their heathen overlords. That is a very serious position to adopt. It subordinates Christ to conditions...In the mission field we need to revise our ideas of the meaning of Christin life. A Christian life is a life lived in Christ: it does not depend upon conditions. I mean that the life of a slave-girl, the concubine of a savage heathen, amidst the most cruel and barbarous surroundings, herself the instrument of the most vicious and immoral practices, may be a truly Christian life. Christ transcends all conditions. And Christ transcends all ignorance…
The only alternative is to abandon altogether that position, and to admit that we cannot judge. We must begin with positive teaching, not with negative prohibitions, and be content to wait and to watch whilst the native Christians slowly recreate their own customs, as the Spirit of Christ gradually teaches them to transform what to-day is heathen, and to-morrow, purged of its vice, will appear as a Christian custom, just as the Saturnalia was transformed into the Christian feast of the Incarnation. But that involves the retracing of the path which to our fathers seemed essentially the right one. It means that Christian converts must be left at first in their heathen surroundings and must live as their people, and be still of their people, until they grow so strong in numbers and in knowledge that they will be able to correct what is false, and to amend what is evil, with that full understanding which is born of slow and quiet interior advance. It means that we cannot force them at a bound to adopt or reject at our command, even when the adoption or rejection seems to be an immense immediate step forward. If we are not prepared to do that, if we still accept the position of judges and prohibit customs, or restore them, to differ from the judgments of our predecessors and to build again the things which we destroyed, is simply to reveal our incapacity to judge truly, and to make ourselves transgressors.
It is vital that whatever ministry we do, we make relationship with God the focus of the ministry. Addressing moral concerns is secondary and should always revolve around relationship. If we love Christ, we will obey him and seek to do his will. The love for him must be first. At the same time, we must be patient. We must allow the Spirit to work in his way and in his time. This is not only true of his work in others, but his work in us as well. We must be reflective, knowing that our own hearts harbor immorality to which we are blind due to our biases and experiences.
PART 5: THE SPONTANEOUS EXPANSION OF THE CHURCH IN ROMANIA