Start it Up, Then Ask Permission (5th of 5) John Buteyn Expresses A Regret.

“We should not have barred the way of smaller groups who wished to bring a witness of the gospel that the national church was unable to engage in.”

In 1989 Reformed Church of America convened a centennial celebration of Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine’s arrival in Arabia as missionaries. The centennial took place in New Brunswick Theological Seminary. I was present for the celebration. A hundred years earlier the RCA declined to send Zwemer and Cantine. We wrote about it here. But Zwemer was not easily dissuaded by bureaucracies. He said, “If God calls you, and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway.”

Samuel Zwemer

Zwemer and James Cantine established an independent agency, the American Arabian Mission. Zwemer would bury two of his children on the island of Bahrain. Their graves bear silent witness to the cost he bore to bring the hope of Jesus Christ to people living in “the regions beyond.” John Piper wrote up a fine biography of Samuel Zwemer; you can read it here.

The Reformed Church of America (RCA) was watching as churches began to support Zwemer and Cantine through the independent mission agency they had established. In 1904 the RCA changed its mind and accepted what Zwemer and Cantine had founded. The American Arabian Mission became the Reformed Church of America Mission in Arabia. It established the first modern hospitals in the Arab Gulf.

One of the speakers at the 1989 centennial celebration of Zwemer’s mission was John Buteyn. Buteyn was mission director of the Reformed Church of America (RCA) from 1962 to 1980. It was so interesting to hear him, in his retirement years, look back and express some regret. Buteyn said in his prepared address,

The RCA should have inclined itself more favorably to independent initiatives proposed by US churches and members. A smaller group of workers, with specialized focus, might have initiated new Christian ministries in some of those sensitive places, without burdening the national partner constituencies of the Reformed Church of America.

These “national partner constituencies” were the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Arab emirates. The RCA missionary doctors gained extraordinary favor with the royal families. That story is written up by Paul Armerding, in his superb book Doctors for the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, this close relationship with royalty meant that, according to Buteyn, the RCA routinely suppressed mission initiatives that evangelicals presented to his office. Evangelicals might stir up trouble for Arab Gulf monarchies, it was suggested, threatening the careful agreement under which the RCA hospitals maintained a presence there. After John Buteyn spoke, I asked him to restate what he had said, that I might be sure I had heard him. “Yes,” John said to me, “We should not have barred the way of smaller groups who wished to bring a witness of the gospel that the national church was unable to engage in.” Of course, Buteyn’s regret was not something he could do something about after his retirement.

At that 1989 centennial the Reformed Church in America celebrated a century administrating hospitals and schools in the Arab Gulf, and thereby doing what churches can do. Let’s call it “missional one.” But churches seem unable to do “missional two”—establishing “churches of the Gentiles” (Romans 16:3-4). Therefore, the total RCA mission effort in the Arab Gulf concentrated on hospitals and schools and no doubt a good word about Christianity when appropriate. But John Buteyn seemed to wish he could reconsider Reformed Church’s policy of suppressing the initiatives of smaller groups. This is a cautionary tale; one sees the extent to which church administrators will go to protect their interests. Many missionaries like Samuel Zwemer have had to “start it up” after the church has told them it cannot be done.

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