Why Do Christian Missionaries “Push Their Religion” on the Poor?

As I’ve had the opportunity to work and interact closely with those from other countries (and other faith systems), there is one objection / comment that I’ve repeatedly heard when the topic of Christianity comes up.  They readily admit that Christian missionaries (primarily from either the Anglican or Catholic church) have done a lot of good, feeding a lot of hungry people, clothing and housing a lot of homeless and downtrodden people.  However, they complain that these missionaries don’t just help people, but they have to “push their religion on them”.  These churches, they say, ought to just come in and do the good deeds without making it a requirement that they hear about their religion in the process.  This seems like a very difficult objection to respond to.

God’s word tells us in 1 Peter 3

15 But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; 16 having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” (NKJV).

It seems like something similar to verse 16 is in play here.  They are trying to make Christians out to be “evildoers” because in the process of helping the poor, we want to share the Gospel with them.  As verse 15 says, we need to be ready to make a defense.  I must admit, I’ve not done too well on making a defense against this particular accusation.  But after hearing it recently again, I feel that it is time to take this on as a serious objection that must be answered.

It seems like those in other countries feel like Christians are coming in shoving our religion down their throats and using the food and shelter almost like a bribe so that these captive audiences will be forced to listen to the message if they want the food and shelter.  I’ve heard accompanying comments like, “They already have their own religion, so you shouldn’t try to force your religion on them”.  There are a few things I think we can respond with here.

First off, our Lord Jesus, who we follow, has commanded us clearly to do exactly this.  It is at the core of “practicing our religion”, even more than feeding and housing the poor.  Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples, which we call “the great commission”, were

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20a NIV).

In one of the other gospels, it adds

Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15 NIV).

Notice, that He didn’t tell us to feed all nations in these final instructions.  Yes, He did tell us in other places to feed, clothe and otherwise help the poor and needy (e.g. Matt. 25:31-46), but those admonitions were not included in His final instructions to His disciples.  In fact, Jesus acknowledged at another point that we would always have the poor with us (Matt. 26:11).  However, Jesus communicated a strong warning that

Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18 NIV).

Jesus is here warning, that the primary issue is not food, clothing or shelter, but the eternal state of these souls, outside of a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Secondly, what really strikes me about this objection is the presupposition implicit in it. On the face of it, this objection presupposes that Christianity is not true!  If Christianity, as presented in the Bible, is in fact true, then there really is no more important issue than making sure people hear the good news about how to have their sins forgiven and escape the sentence of quarantine, being cast away from the presence of the Lord (in hell).  This quote from C.S. Lewis summarizes the point well:

“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

When the objector says, “They already have their own religion, so you shouldn’t try to force your religion on them”, they are implicitly saying that Christianity is not true and that the words of Jesus are not true.  For example, Jesus says:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 NIV)

“There is a judge for the one who rejects Me and does not accept My words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day” (John 12:48 NIV)

“I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved” (John 10:9a NIV)

“The Son of Man [Jesus] has authority on earth to forgive sins…” (Mark 2:10 NIV)

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matt. 28:18 NIV)

“Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son [Jesus], that your Son may glorify You. For You granted Him authority over all people that He might give eternal life to all those You have given Him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” (John 17:1b-3 NIV)

Jesus is claiming to be the ultimately important thing in this life.  This is a central teaching of Christianity.  Anyone who wants to make the feeding and housing of poor the central issue, rather than the outrageous claims of Jesus, is actually pushing a religious view on you.  They are making an interpretation regarding what the most important thing is that a Christian can do.  They are attempting to give you a lesson on Christian living.  They are picking and choosing the parts of the Bible that they find most attractive and acceptable and avoiding the parts that they don’t like.

So, I think we need to gently push back on people who make this objection.  We need to get them to consider whether Christianity is true and as Lewis says, if it is true, it is of infinite importance, but if it is false, it is of no importance at all.  I doubt that most people who make this objection have ever earnestly and honestly evaluated the evidence to see whether Christianity really is true (beyond a reasonable doubt).  If we make a defense, as Peter says, maybe they’ll go on this journey with us and find out that it really is true beyond a reasonable doubt and worth seriously considering….

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