This guest post was authored by Joel Wilcox, a member of the editorial team that has worked on the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology.
Reading Abraham Kuyper always makes me think of the adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Readers really can’t deny that Kuyper was a product of his time—deeply concerned about the world, but somewhat condescending toward foreigners; deeply concerned about his country, but aristocratic in his solutions to societal ills; and so on. Yet I’m always impressed by how on-target his words are for today.
In particular, he speaks to my views as a former long-term resident in Southeast Asia among Muslims. Islam is likely the most poorly understood and feared religion among Western Christians (it’s beyond the scope of this post to discuss the validity of that fear). One might expect the same attitude from Kuyper, who led an empire that had brutally lorded its authority over what is now Indonesia—a primarily Muslim country. Imperialist views aside, he saw a deep need to bring the gospel to Muslims not by changing their culture, but by adapting it to faith in Christ. Consider the following, from “Address on Missions,” part of the newly translated On the Church anthology from Lexham Press and the Acton Institute:
Missions among pagans and Muslims, when preaching law and gospel, must be attuned to the distinctive character of the people, particularly the special nature of their idol worship. Complete freedom should be allowed as to the manner in which faith in Christ is confessed, so that when these people are ready to form their own churches their distinctiveness will be preserved.
I’m a member of the missions committee at my church and often hear missionaries complain of other Christians behaving clean contrary to what Kuyper is arguing for here. These missionaries know they are called to bring the gospel to unbelievers, but they bring a distinctly Western flavor of Christianity: Western praise tunes, with the lyrics translated. Western whitewashed churches with steeples. In short, imperialist Christianity. On the contrary, Kuyper, though he certainly had imperialist attitudes, believed that missions absolutely have to be contextualized to be true to the cultures reached.
But how do we avoid going too far as missionaries? Was Kuyper intent on, as some missionaries do, allowing Muslims to worship Jesus as secondary to Allah, in mosques, simply praying Christian prayers?
Kuyper has a better answer. He expected missionaries not to be the mavericks I’ve seen on the field, independently “saving souls” and not aware of how to truly quench the thirst for Christ among the unsaved. Once again, he speaks from over a century ago:
Missions among the Jews, Muslims, and pagans has to be carried out through the churches, just as missionary work among the baptized is to be performed by the ministers of the Word.
Add to that the following:
Every notion of a missionary as a hunter who catches souls for Christ must be banned. The missionary is sent by Christ and follows him, seeking his elect. Let’s stop talking about “leading people to Christ” and “saving souls for Jesus.” We cannot save people, not even our own children. Only Christ is able to draw people to the faith.
Kuyper knew that missions would fail utterly without Christ as our guide. Here’s what I take away from his words:
- We cannot expect the work of the kingdom of heaven to succeed without Christ as its king (read Kuyper’s Pro Rege for more on this). As Kuyper says, it is God who saves souls, through his Son—and it is the Holy Spirit who gives the church courage to tell the nations about Christ.
- We cannot expect to see a church from every tribe, tongue, and nation without contextualizing Christianity. Our religion must be just as diverse in its cultural flavors as the foods each culture celebrates as its own. Would you bring Thanksgiving dinner to China and expect one of their Muslim minorities—say, Uyghurs—to enjoy it as their own? Then why do we think that our traditional hymns can deeply speak to Uyghurs?
- On the other hand, we cannot properly contextualize Christianity and still call it Christian unless the Holy Spirit leads us, through his church. Kuyper, as I do, would probably allow Muslim-background believers to call God “Allah” (a word that basically means “God.”) Yet like me, he would never tolerate translating “Son of God” as “servant of God” (I’ve heard missionaries approve of such things if it makes Muslims feel comfortable in the church).
Though I despise clichés, it’s true: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Missions faced the same challenges in the late 1800s as it does now. Abraham Kuyper makes that clear. Read “Address on Missions” and other timely essays on ecclesiology in On the Church, part of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. All twelve volumes of this series tackle tough issues still facing the church many years after Kuyper’s death, and I’m proud to be a part of the team bringing Kuyper’s writings back to light, for missionaries and for Christianity at large.