Gutzlaff and Tomlin’s Greatest Contribution to Missions in Thailand

In the few Thai church history books that exist, Jacob Tomlin and Karl Gutzlaff are credited with being the first resident Protestant missionaries in Thailand. Arriving on August 23, 1828, the two men only stayed for a few years before moving on to other parts of East Asia. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, they didn’t have a lot to show for their efforts in Thailand before leaving for good in 1831 (Gutzlaff) and 1832 (Tomlin).

When they arrived, they already spoke Chinese and set to work distributing Christian books in Chinese, which attracted considerable interest from locals, especially the many Chinese residents of Bangkok, as well as opposition from Catholic priests. But they were not only concerned to share the Gospel with Chinese speakers and they set to work learning Thai. With a massive amount of help from some unsung local assistants, Gützlaff and Tomlin produced a translation of the New Testament in Thai, though the quality of their work was of dubious value and the king of Thailand said he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. They also started work on an English-Thai dictionary, and got up to the letter R. Aside from these modest literary accomplishments, Gützlaff and Tomlin’s efforts resulted in several inquirers but only one baptized convert, a Chinese man named Boon Tee (Koë Bun Tai).

If they had stayed, they might have accomplished much more. And if we look at only what they accomplished during their short stint in-country, it is questionable whether they deserve the high praise they receive in the annals of Protestant history in Thailand. But what they did do was get the ball rolling for Protestant missions in Thailand. How did they do that?

4 Rarely Mentioned (but Essential!) Missionary Qualities

If you read missionary literature or listen to talks on the missionary call, there are lots of qualities that come up as essential to being a missionary:  a commitment to God and the Great Commission, a love for the lost, flexibility, ability to learn language and work as a team, and so forth. Together with a good grasp of doctrine and the fruit of the Spirit, these are all really important for both becoming a missionary and remaining a missionary. I specifically say “remaining” a missionary because the qualities that lead a person and their church to think they are ready to become a missionary are not all that’s needed to survive and thrive in cross-cultural ministry over the long-haul. 

In that vein, I’d like to “fill out” the above list of missionary qualities with some rarely mentioned but equally essential qualities that all cross-cultural missionary should have.  Or if they don’t have them, they need to develop them. Otherwise their overseas ministry will be a short one. 

Do Christianity and Patriotism Mix?

In response to the title question of this article, I imagine that many people would give one of two basic answers. The first is, “Absolutely! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”  The second is, “Never! What does the house of the Lord have to do with the house of idols?!”  There are certainly other possible answers along the spectrum between those two extremes, but if you resonate strongly with either of those two answers, you may not like this article.

If we look at the Bible, we discover that neither unqualified patriotism nor denunciation of devotion to one’s homeland fit within the will of God. 

Does the Prosperity Gospel Promote Secularization?

Does Pentecostalism promote secularization?  As crazy as it sounds, that is the thesis of Stefan Paas's article "Notoriously Religious' or Secularising? Revival and Secularisation in Sub-Saharan Africa"...and I think author could be on to something.  At first glance, it would seem that Pentecostalism should be a major force against secularization of societies, given its strong emphasis on the supernatural and the miraculous.  And at one level, it that is certainly true. 
 
 
But we need to remember that large sections of the Pentecostal world also promote the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’, the mistaken belief that God’s will is that all believers be financially prosperous and have good health… if they have enough faith to receive those blessings. This instrumental view of religion, namely a this-worldly focus on using religion as a tool to achieve physical and material success, is nothing new, nor is it necessarily unique to Pentecostalism. However, as Paas has pointed out, when believers with this view of religion obtain the material success that they desire, their need for religious means of obtaining those goals decreases.  An increase in an ability to provide for your own needs often follows on from the achievement of material security.  If the primary attraction of the Christian faith was the possibility of worldly success, and if ‘conversion’ resulted in new habits and lifestyle habits that led to hard work and business success, then the very thing that led a person to the church has become the very thing that leads them away from the church.  God has served his transitionary purpose in achieving success.  If you can achieve success on your own now, who needs God?

The New Paternalism in World Christianity

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.

Missionary in Northern Thailand, 1925
Missionary in Northern Thailand, 1925

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.

Three Ways the Bible Re-Defines Leadership

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.

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