Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Condemning sin without condemning the sinner (2)

When I arrived in Swaziland in 1985, I was confronted with a variety of situations which I found were totally unacceptable to the Swazi Christians. I can’t remember all the issues, but they included things like smoking, using (not abusing) of alcohol, women using makeup, wearing trousers and a number of other things. (Being a non-smoker myself I was often tempted to support them in their viewpoint on smoking). We started enquiring about the background to this rather fundamentalist viewpoint on these matters and found out that most non-Christians tend to smoke and more or less all of them abuse alcohol. The clothing and makeup issue for the women came because of prostitutes standing next to the road trying to pick up customers, dressed in trousers and usually wearing a lot of makeup. When we understood the background to this, it became easier to respect their viewpoint. They really needed to break with this lifestyle.
The problem came with the way in which they tried to justify their viewpoint. They used an obscure Bible verse (I stand to be corrected, but it may have been Jeremiah 44:3 which says: They provoked me to anger by burning incense and by worshipping other gods and which, in some translations, speak of smoke rather than incense. In any case, I then tried to explain to them that this is an irresponsible way of working with the Bible. Although I could understand and agree with (at least to a great extent) their viewpoint, I had to help them to understand that it is perfectly acceptable within their culture to expect of Christians to break with the normal lifestyle of the non-Christians. It isn’t necessary to defend everything with a Bible verse. It is almost as in the days of the Israelites where God made many laws which may sound very strange to us today, but which was often made to set the Israelites apart from the heathen nations. I have seen the same situation in Russia, due to the extremely high incidence of alcoholism (I have heard figures of around 80% of males who are alcoholists). Somehow Christians in these countries need to make a stand for what they believe in and through their lifestyle prove that God has truly changed them.
But now the real problems comes: What about Christians who do not follow this new way of living? This was a great struggle to make them understand that, the mere fact that someone may smoke or use alcohol or any of the other things which they had a problem with, cannot be used to determine whether someone is a Christian or not. In fact, coming from a Western culture, the exact opposite has often been true, that people are considered to be Christians, merely based on the observation that they are living fairly respectable lives.
I think I can say that we have made a lot of progress. I still respect the viewpoint of the Swazi Christians. As family we will not do things which may cause an embarrassment to the Christians. But we have also seen how the Swazi Christians reach out in love to people who have fallen along the way and try to help them up again, without condemning them. It has often been said that the worst thing about AIDS is not the sickness itself, but is rather the stigmatisation which comes with the sickness. I can honestly say that in this time that we have been actively involved with home-based caring amongst people with HIV and AIDS, that the caregivers accept them, regardless of the events that led up to them getting the virus. And having seen this, I really believe that it is possible to condemn sin without condemning the sinner.


Monday, July 23, 2007 - Posted by | Mission, Swaziland


  1. Love your blog! Will come back to visit!

    Comment by Michelle | Wednesday, July 25, 2007 | Reply

  2. Please do so!

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, July 25, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] church, rather than fearing condemnation when they see the image of the church. I have mentioned it before that, when I arrived in Swaziland, the church had a number of sins which they regarded as very, […]

    Pingback by Sin and redemption « Mission Issues | Monday, December 17, 2007 | Reply

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