You may be familiar with the old paternalism. A white European or American missionary evangelizing and church planting in a “heathen” nation, with the help of “native assistants.” These native Christians, who often go unnamed in missionary reports, will someday lead the churches in their homelands but somehow they are never quite ready to do so… according to their missionary patrons. The missionaries hang on to leadership and control of local ministries for longer than they should, either in an official capacity or unofficially as their foreign money continues to hold veto power over local initiatives even after the reins of leadership have been formally turned over. The missionaries may give lip service to putting local Christians in charge, but in reality they doubt whether the locals will really get it right. So they hang on to control just a bit longer. In Western missionary circles today, that kind of overt paternalism is frowned upon, even if it continues to exist in various, more subtle ways, than it did the 19th and 20th centuries.
But as the world has moved on from the era of European colonialism and the “white man’s burden,” new forms of paternalism are emerging. Issues of trust, power, and control are as relevant as ever in a globalized church where denominations and networks stretch across international boundaries and missionaries travel from everywhere to everyone, not just from the West to the rest. Paternalism, in all its forms, hurts relationships, hinders healthy church growth, and dishonors God. Here are a few examples of the new paternalism in world Christianity.
It seems that every time you look at the news these days, there is another story of a fallen Christian leader. Leaders suffer moral failure for different reasons, and sometimes there are specific cultural dimensions that have contributed to that failure. In a number of cultures around the world, false beliefs about gaining and retaining honor compromise Christian leaders. Those leaders may or may not ever experience a crisis-level failure of personal leadership in the way we see in the media, but the influence of worldly models of leadership is serious all the same, and requires biblical correction.
On the motorway heading to the airport in Bangkok, there are some very large billboards informing you in multiple languages that Buddha statues are not to be used for decoration, and that such a conclusion is just “common sense.” Here’s looking at you, foreign visitor, who has a Buddha statue in your luggage heading to the airport. Consider yourself informed that if you think it will be cool to take an exotic Thai Buddha home to Europe or America and place it in your living room for decoration, you are committing a grave sacrilege that is highly offensive to Thai Buddhist people.
I’m not sure how many foreigners try to take Buddhas home with them or how many have been persuaded by the billboards. But apparently NOT using Buddha images for decoration is distinctly NOT common sense for foreigners, otherwise there would be no need for such billboards.