What are the ethical implications of going into a closed country as a professional but with the ultimate goal of doing something that may be illegal, like preaching the gospel?

“Be salt and light as you do your job.”

A lot of people have asked me this question over the years and I have always answered, “I’m not lying to anybody, I REALLY am doing what I’m in the country to do (whether that be teach, business, etc.) and I’m doing it with integrity and with all of my heart.”

I think we often tend to compartmentalize our faith too much. This results in frustration when we serve in closed countries. If you asked the Apostle Peter what he did, he would have told you he was a fisherman. God has an ultimate goal for you to be salt and light, no matter where you are or what your visa says. If you are in prayer and keeping your heart and eyes open for opportunities, he will move heaven and earth to make sure people are drawn to him.

As for the ethical implications, also weigh the eternal implications of not going to these closed countries.

Answer from Kyle, who served four years in China.

“Actually do the job you’re supposed to do.”

I think this all boils down to one issue. Are you actually doing the “thing” you say you are in the country to do? If you go in as an English teacher, then teach English. I think we tend to blur the lines of integrity when we tell people we are on a particular platform and then rarely, or never, actually do the work related to that platform.

Don’t get me wrong, time spent on the platform is not the issue. The real issue is whether or not you actually are doing the work. Hope this helps clear up a generally muddy issue in restricted access missions. Then, you have to decide whether you will choose to obey Caesar or God, much as Daniel had to decide. Press on!

Answer from Kevin, who served as a missionary for three years in Middle East and North Africa.

“Serve your official business well.”

One important thing to keep in mind is that whatever official business or service you go in to provide, it ought to be done well (in other words, not substandard, lick-and-a-promise, or just a “guise” for another activity, however important). If you are going as a teacher, teach as best you can; if you are a builder, use good materials and conform to local building codes; if you are a tent-maker, make sure you put good material into your “tents” and sew them up well!

Otherwise you are living a lie, and I would expect that that fact would have a tendency to spread and contaminate your other work of sharing the gospel as well. 

It’s also true that you are very likely to meet people with whom you can share the gospel through your official work. If that work is done competently and ethically, you are likely to win a hearing for the gospel, too … especially if you are working in a field in which corruption is widespread.

If you go in with the kind of attitude described above, that might solve the other ethical problem for you (the one of dishonesty or at least lack of openness). You will then not be an undercover missionary masquerading as a teacher, builder or whatever; you will instead be an honest-to-goodness builder, teacher, etc. and a very good one!

The fact that you are a contagious Christian as well is an added, if less prominently mentioned, benefit to your adopted culture. It is not really necessary to choose between “secular work” and “missionary work.” Most normal Christian people do both, either at home or abroad, even though they habitually identify themselves by the name of their secular work (“What do you do?” “Oh, I’m an architect,” etc.) But they are not dishonest in identifying themselves so.

For more resources on the worker’s duty to God (through the work he performs), see Dorothy L. Sayers (one anthology is called “Creed or Chaos?” and is still in print now, I believe). She has some excellent ethics essays which bear on this point.

Answer from Kari, who has served as a missionary among refugees for twelve years.

“Be like Jesus and don’t share everything at once.”

Consider Jesus. He did not begin his ministry announcing outright that he was the Messiah. If he had, Jewish authorities would have stopped him immediately for blasphemy.

In contrast, his method of teaching shrouded the gospel, pushing people to think until illumination came. As he developed his key leaders, he began to speak more and more openly, until the inevitable occurred: he was killed. He had, however, completed his objective (John 17:3).

Entering certain contexts and immediately and publicly proclaiming the gospel would be suicide. This does not mean that one has to lie. If you go in as a teacher, you must genuinely teach, fulfill your contract, and have the training and capacity to do it well. May your light shine out in the midst of your work (Matthew 5:16). 

I was in Colombia in the early 1970’s, in the very hostile Marxist environment of the National University of Colombia. As a genuine professor of English I taught effectively, had the respect of colleagues and supervisors, and made many friends. I invited them to my home, shared with them over coffee in the cafes, and entered into their world honestly and genuinely. As I gained their confidence I was able to introduce them to Jesus.

I don’t see this as deception. There is no lying, just exercising discernment by not saying everything at once. I think this is what Jesus did. In some Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist contexts today it is the only viable option we have.

Answer from Jack Voelkel, missionary-in-residence with the Urbana Student Mission Convention; originally published on the Urbana website. Previously, Jack served thirty years with Latin America Mission in Peru and Colombia. Find other answers and articles from Jack and others on the Urbana blog.

Take The Next Step

Subscribe to My Newsletter

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter. I don’t send any spam email ever!