My first introduction to world mission came from my parents’ interest and advocacy for the Leprosy Mission. I have early memories of slide presentations vividly documenting treatment of people with leprosy. Many years later I found myself attending church in Central Thailand where a number of the elderly musicians bore the scars of untreated leprosy but were themselves the fruit of OMF’s early work in that part of Thailand.
Why has medical work been such an important part of Christian witness?
1. Following the pattern of service we see in Jesus
In Matthew 10:7-8 Jesus sends his disciples out with the instructions ‘preach this message… heal the sick.’ One of the ongoing areas of debate in mission is ‘what is mission?’ For some it becomes nothing more than social projects. For others it is exclusively evangelism. In Matthew, mission flows out of a community that proclaims the gospel in word and deed. Describing the shape of Jesus’ own ministry, the apostle Peter says ‘he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.’ (Acts 10:38).
Reflecting on Jesus’ life will encourage us towards integrated rather than divided ways of thinking about our life and witness. As Scott Sunquist puts it, ‘Since evangelism is about Jesus, and Jesus was an integrated whole human being, it makes no sense to give a dichotomous reading of Jesus’ love for humanity. Jesus’ love covers our deepest personal needs and the greatest social injustices. In fact, as we all know, they are of the same fabric.’1
Jesus’ love covers our deepest personal needs and the greatest social injustices.
2. Recognising the dignity of all human beings
The opening chapters of Genesis provide the basis for our understanding of human worth. ‘When we stand before another person, however destitute, disabled, diseased or degraded, we stand before something which is the vehicle of the divine’ and that respect for human worth leads us to care for human suffering.2
Since the earliest times the Church has pioneered care for those who suffer. Vinoth Ramachandra writes of how ‘some of the finest medical hospitals and training schools in India owe their existence to Christian missions…’3
In Don Cormack’s account of Christian witness in the context of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, he says ‘the scandal of 1979’ was the ‘cheapness’ of human life yet ‘in each camp a core of Christians stood out as a loving, caring people who eschewed evil… invariably, Christians were found in positions of responsibility in the camps: hospital orderlies, interpreters, handling relief aid etc.’4
The early Church put into practice Paul’s commands, for instance in Galatians 6:9-10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15, that they should show kindness, compassion and justice to all people, both inside and outside the Church. Powerful examples of this include Christians sacrificially caring for anyone who was sick in communities engulfed by epidemics. With the wealthy fleeing the city, the sick avoided at all costs, and the dead being discarded, Christians remained – acting with compassion and putting Christ’s teaching into action. Such witness, says Rodney Stark, became a major factor in the growth of the Church.5
3. Bringing expertise and compassion to specific issues affecting a particular community
Medical work can cover a huge range of fields and expertise, and today’s OMF community has a diversity of skills represented in its membership. These skills allow the good news of Jesus to connect in an integrated way with the particular challenges of a given place. In nineteenth century China the challenge was opium addiction. Hudson Taylor is credited with establishing the first missionary ‘opium asylum’ in Ningpo in 1859.
Charles Weber writes that ‘Through his editorship of both China’s Millions and National Righteousness, Benjamin Broomhall was effective in giving the Chinese a voice in the anti-opium crusade, presenting to the British public and political leadership the testimony of both ordinary Chinese and officials who uniformly blamed Christianity and Britain for opium’s deleterious effects on their people and government.’6
Whatever the context, there will be local communities facing challenges that require outside expertise or advocacy. Expertise must be brought with compassion, and advocacy be carried out with wisdom and boldness to local authorities or to international bodies. Such work is not a social gospel. Rather it serves to create ‘social space’ for the gospel in all its fullness to connect with the total context of people’s lives and their deepest needs.
Dr. Peter Rowan
OMF (UK) National Director
1 Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013) p.320.
2 Vinoth Ramachandra in Howard Peskett & Vinoth Ramachandra, The Message of Mission (Leicester: IVP, 2003) p.38.
3 Ramachandra, The Message of Mission, 2003 p.39-40.
4 Don Cormack, Killing Fields, Living Fields: An Unfinished Portrait of the Cambodian Church – the Church That Would Not Die (MARC, 1997) pp. 284-285.
5 See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), pp. 73-94.
6 Charles Webber, ‘Abolish this Great Evil’: Chinese Christians’ Opposition to Opium Trafficking’ in Shaping Christianity in Greater China: Indigenous Christians in Focus, ed. Paul Woods (Oxford: Regnum, 2017) p.218.