WIERWILLE’S ATTACK ON CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES
Victor Paul Wierwille wrote an article titled The Dilemma of Foreign Missions in India after a trip there in 1955. He considered it to be a wise reflection on mission work in India, and criticized those in his church body who objected to it.
Today Wierwille’s article is used to attack not only Christian missionaries and church bodies, but also all of Christianity. The publisher, Hindu Writer’s Forum of New Delhi, bookends the article with quotes calling the Bible “barbarous” and Christianity “extremely wicked” and perverse.
Why is Wierwille’s article considered an attack against Christianity?
The gist of Dilemma is that the mission groups in India in the 1950s were controlling and gained coverts because Indians benefitted financially rather than because they accepted the Gospel. It claims that mission work should instead be done by Indian churches which are self-governing and self-supporting.
Throughout the book Wierwille attacks Christian missionaries and church leaders in vicious, inflammatory ways. Several times Wierwille calls them slave masters who run a “slave system” which enslaves Indians and puts “shackles” on them. Twice he says missionaries keep Indians like ”birds in a cage.” He says that if Indians are not totally submissive, missionaries “harass…. Recapture… persecute… annihilate” them and use “litigations, persecutions and even starvation” to “eliminate” them (Dilemma, pp. 14, 15). He says that missionaries are “domineering,” have “inflated egos” and criticize all Indians in condescending ways. Wierwille calls mission agencies “hideous, worm eaten tottering power system(s).” To him, they are “apostate Protestantism” (p. 21).
Wierwille condemns mission work for offering a “spiritual starvation diet” leading to “spiritual sterility” (p. 25). Wierwille clearly condemns all missionaries and mission agencies for these crimes, not once saying that he observed this in only some.
Not satisfied with condemning only foreign missionaries, Wierwille also attacks all Indians who serve with them. He claims they do it only for economic gain. He calls them “slaves,” “native stooges” and “yes-men” who “sell their souls for a ‘mess of western control mission pottage’” (p. 14, 17). He also condemns Indian leaders of independent churches for habitually caving in to recommendations of foreign agencies who help fund them.
After roundly condemning every Christian missionary and mission society in India in such indiscreet, inflammatory terms, he seems surprised that “criticism (of him) from the organized mission system was very trying” (p. 18).
Overall, Dilemma is very imbalanced, reactionary and not carefully considered. Instead, it just parrots rhetoric of anti-colonials which were especially vocal when he was in India. Wierwille could have used this platform to aid the transition to indigenous churches, but instead used it like a machete to attack and bloody all missionaries, mission agencies and church leaders.
Caught up In Anti-Colonialism
Missionaries were not stopping Indians from doing their own evangelistic work. But Wierwille, like anti-colonialists, wanted the land and facilities of the western churches. They did not just want freedom to work on their own, but wanted the property Western churches had built up over decades. Wierwille betrayed the materialism of some of the Indians who influenced him. Ironically, he thinks Indian churches should be self-supporting, but that this does not include buying their own land and facilities.
Wierwille perhaps could have made a positive contribution had he been able to distinguish between aspects of church work that were colonialist, from aspects that were God-pleasing and beneficial, and helped the Indian and western church toward healthy partnership.
To this day, it is difficult to discern the best ways that missionaries and mission agencies can help spread the Gospel in foreign countries. Libraries full of insightful books have been written on the subject by people who are far more knowledgeable and experienced than Wierwille.
Dilemma makes some good points about mission work. Missions work best when they are, as Wierwille says, self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating. He even quotes a United Press article of the day which noted that 30 denominations were meeting to discuss specific plans for establishing independent, native-led churches to take the place of church bodies run by western countries. In other words, mission agencies were already beginning to reform missions at the time he said they were opposing change.
When missions were started or expanded in India and other countries in the first half of the 20th century, they were established as arms of the mother churches in western countries. This makes sense because every church needs some kind of organization and oversight to work effectively—things the fledging Indian churches were unable to do at the time. During the 1950s and 1960s most denominations spun off these arms into native-run churches because the number of converts had grown, leaders had been trained, and churches grew and ran better under completely native leadership.
But Wierwille was not informed and wise enough to observe or help this transition. Instead of helping and understanding mission work, he became a tool of anti-colonialists, who were political more than religious.
Wierwille also writes that Indian churches should use Indian forms of worship rather than western forms because they resonate better with the people. This is generally true, although there are things that ethnic churches can and do learn from western styles of worship.
Wierwille also says that missions should focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ, rather than just helping India develop better farming, medicine and education. This is also true. However, this reflects Wierwille’s own denomination, the Evangelical and Reformed Church (ERC), rather than true evangelical mission agencies. The ERC had indeed drifted away from the truth of the Bible and focus on Jesus Christ toward a social gospel. True evangelical mission work did, and does, indeed focus on making disciples. Wierwille is apparently unaware of this. In addition, he does not have the balance to see that part of mission work is indeed caring for the physical and emotional needs of people as well as making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Wierwille seems to have no understanding of the importance of some system of oversight. He condemns church bodies for cutting off support from Indian workers who “defy” their leadership (p.15). Does it make sense for any church- or business or organization of any kind- to continue to support workers who defy them? Regardless of the reasons, defiance is a sign for worker and supporter to go their separate ways.
Wierwille Became the Authoritarian He Deplored
Oversight can be done poorly. However, oversight is important in any church or organization in order to keep integrity, godliness and consistency. Wierwille himself seems to have hated authority, because within two years he resigned from his church body. Ironically, when Wierwille set up his organization, The Way International (TWI), it was more domineering and authoritarian than the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches which he singles out as oppressive. He made himself the Way’s President who was not elected by, and could not be removed by TWI supporters. He encouraged his followers to honor him as “the man of God for our day and time,” and had more control over the lives and doctrine of TWI than the Pope has over Roman Catholics. After publishing Dilemma, Wierwille spent the rest of his life making the same kinds of inflammatory attacks against Christianity in America and trying to convince people that he alone offered truth rather than corrupt tradition.
Wierwille became the very thing he condemned mission agencies for being. Over the years, Dilemma has turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help to Christian missions in India.
Note: This article quotes from the reprint of Dilemma made by Hindu Writer’s Forum in 1997. The prologue by Brahm Datt Bhrti criticizes Christian mission work and Wierwille’s claim that Jesus Christ is the way. He clearly reprints it because he considers it to be an attack on all Christian missions in India.
Wierwille calls Dilemma a “long study of my research,” (The Way, Living in Love, p. 217). However, it does not include much research, just his experience, and it is relatively brief (28 pages in this reprint). Born Again to Serve (BATS), by Wierwille’s wife Dorothea, says this about Dilemma: “In July 1956 Dr. Wierwille gave a verbal report on the dilemma of foreign missions in India and tape-recorded it. This he published in the late 1956 issues of The Way Magazine” (BATS p. 207). BATS reprints two pages from the November/ December issue.
Dr. John P. Juedes, 2012 www.abouttheway.org