ArticleMissionary Life

Do ‘Real’ Missionaries Evacuate?

There is no simple answer when a missionary is contemplating whether to leave the field in the wake of impending danger.
I grew up reading missionary biographies and listening to stories of missionaries who lived and died on their fields of service.

Eric Liddell didn’t leave China when the Japanese invaded, and he died in a concentration camp. The five martyrs in Ecuador—Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully—didn’t leave when warned of danger. David Livingstone stayed and died in Africa, suffering from malaria.

In light of these examples, we may find ourselves asking this question: “Should modern missionaries leave the field because of war, persecution, disease, or other dangers?”

First of all, I think we tend to only remember missionary deaths that happen on the field. I don’t know if this sort of statistic exists, but I’d be willing to bet that the majority people who have served as missionaries ultimately die from standard causes—such as old age—on regular deathbeds. Even missionaries whom we remember as having died “in action” did not always stay on the field during dangerous or unhealthy situations.

Consider, for example:

  • Adoniram Judson perished on board a ship rather than in Burma because his doctors said that a sea voyage may improve his health.

  • Hudson Taylor passed away in China, but it was during a short visit to China after his retirement to Switzerland.

  • After 30 years of service among cannibal tribes in the New Hebrides Islands, John Paton retired to Melbourne, Australia.

My point is not to tarnish the legacies of Judson, Taylor, and Paton but to argue: if “famous” missionaries can leave the field due to dangers or health reasons, then may not modern missionaries do the same?

These are just some of the examples we have in the modern missionary movement. But we also have illustrations from the most famous missionary of all: the apostle Paul.

Surveying Acts

Should missionaries at risk stand firm or evacuate? As we take a brief tour the book of Acts and consider Paul’s example, we will find that the biblical answer is: it depends.

  • When people conspired to kill Paul in Damascus, he escaped at night in a basket though a window (ch. 9). Apparently, Paul wasn’t too proud to run away from a fight, and he didn’t consider it shameful to escape through the ancient equivalent of a dumbwaiter.

  • When confronted by a sorcerer in Cyprus, Paul did not back down or leave (ch. 13). Paul and Barnabas stood their ground, and the Lord struck the sorcerer blind.

  • When the Jewish leaders in Antioch of Pisidia stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, they “shook the dust off their feet” and continued on their way (13:51).

  • When Paul and Barnabas heard that the leaders in Iconium where planning to stone them, they fled to Lystra, Derbe, and the countryside (14:5-7). When the instigators from Antioch and Iconium finally caught up to Paul and stoned him in Lystra (v. 19), the text clearly implies that Paul had sought to avoid this outcome rather than invite it.

  • When Paul and Silas were miraculously freed from their chains in Philippi, they did not try to escape, but stayed to give the gospel to the jailer and his family (ch. 16).

  • When Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica incited a riot, the brothers sent him away to Athens by ship (ch. 17). The text doesn’t say if Paul left willingly or not; either way, the local brothers made him evacuate for all their safety.

  • Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half after receiving encouragement from the Lord to not be afraid (18:9-11). When the Jewish leaders eventually took him to court, the local proconsul protected him. Paul stood firm on the field in the face of legal challenges—yet after the crowd turned violent against Sosthenes (who was allowing Paul to teach in the synagogue), he later voluntarily left the city (vv. 17-18).

  • During a riot in Ephesus, Paul wanted to confront and speak to the crowd, but the other disciples would not let him (19:30). The text is unclear as to whether Paul simply took their advice or if they physically restrained him.

  • Paul was warned that he would be arrested if he went to Jerusalem; both his traveling companions and the local believers in Caesarea begged him not to go (ch. 21). Despite the warning, Paul went to Jerusalem, where he was beaten in a riot and eventually arrested.

  • When Paul was again in danger of being murdered, this time in Jerusalem, he accepted the protection of a military escort from a pagan nation (23:31). In modern terms, Paul was evacuated the mission field with government assistance.

Conclusion

We can see that Paul did not always intentionally seek out the horrible things that happened to him. But neither was he fearful. Instead, he maintained healthy habits, avoiding lethal danger while also standing firm when needed to preach the gospel, quell a crowd, or confront false teachers. He often took advice and assistance from government officials and local believers to escape danger, but not always.

So, do “real” missionaries evacuate? Sometimes, depending on the situation.

If you find this answer unsatisfying, you’re not alone. On a certain level, it would be easier if the Bible contained clear instructions to either always stay or always evacuate. But it doesn’t contain any such instruction or example. Instead, we are left in a massive gray area in which we must weigh both our risks and options.

But is this really a “gray area” or a gracious freedom? I would contend that God does indeed graciously give us the freedom to choose whether to stay or flee.

Missionaries must have open conversations with their family, sending church, teammates, missions agency, and local believers. We should be able to transparently discuss the risks of disease, war, terrorism, and other dangers among our Christian brothers and sisters without pride, shame, or fear of judgment.

We know that our Lord is in control of all things. He is building his church all over the earth among every tribe, language, people, and nation. We can trust that wars, disasters, and pandemics cannot stop or slow him in accomplishing his purposes. We should be faithful and wise in continuing to always serve him—whether we decide to stay or leave.

About the Author

Andrew Paul Ward is an ABWE missionary to Togo, West Africa, sent from Grace Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Andrew is the husband of Mary, father to Emmanuel, Cyrus, and Alethia. He holds a B.S. from Bob Jones University, an M.Div. from Temple Baptist Seminary, and an Ed.D. from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Support Andrew’s ministry.

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