As the gospel advances in areas hostile to Christianity, missions requires secrecy like never before. Churches from East Asia to North Africa have gathered in secret for decades, and Western missionaries and their agencies are increasingly operating in such areas without full disclosure. They may even encourage local believers, for the sake of safety, to keep their new identity under wraps.
This secrecy is often motivated by simple self-preservation. If the community knew of the church, they might attack it or shut it down. If the government knew of the missionaries’ activity, they could imprison or deport them. If the families of new believers were privy to their conversion, they might resort to violence.
While we must hesitate to offer simple answers to complex and difficult realities, the Bible supplies both wisdom and warning on the subject of secrecy.
It doesn’t take long for a reader of the Gospels to encounter the subject of secrecy—and in an unlikely character. Children will often ask the question, “Why was Jesus hiding?” Biblical scholars have debated the “Messianic Secret” for centuries, trying to make sense of Jesus’s attempts to hush the healed, to hush his followers, and even to hush demons.
A few hypotheses prevail. First, it appears some of Jesus’s secrecy was owing to the fact that his hour had not yet come (John 2:4; 7:6). It’s also possible Jesus desired to limit his popularity because the growing crowds were restricting his free movement. Perhaps most likely is that Jesus sought to avoid the misunderstandings surrounding the provocative title of “Messiah.”
No matter the case, Jesus never outright denied either his deity or his identity as the Christ. Moreover, he wasn’t being secretive in order to avoid suffering; he was merely delaying until death’s appointed time (Mark 14:41). In other words, Jesus’s secrecy was never intended to dodge his Father’s will, but was a matter of direct submission to it.
While Jesus attempted to keep his identity under wraps for much of his ministry, he doesn’t extend the same option to his followers. In fact, the New Testament teaches that secret believers aren’t true believers.
Jesus said he would acknowledge before his Father those who acknowledged him before others. Those who denied him would ultimately be denied (Matt. 10:32–33). Paul, recalling these words, exhorted Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel but to share in suffering (2 Tim. 1:8, cf. 2 Tim. 2:12). Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews warned the church not to shrink back from persecution that results from “public exposure.” Such avoidance would lead to both God’s displeasure and also their destruction (Heb. 10:38–39).
In an interesting case study, John recorded many Jewish authorities who “believed” in Jesus. Yet their faith was not commendable since, out of fear, they refused to publicly confess Christ (John 12:42–43, cf. John 5:44). It seems they would have been counted among those whose faith was dubious (see John 2:23–24), although they may have come to saving faith later.
The Bible holds no promise for those who follow Jesus in private. Secret faith is no faith.
In short, the Bible holds no promise for those who follow Jesus in private. Secret faith is no faith. Those who distance themselves from Jesus in order to avoid public exposure or personal suffering are enjoined to come into the light and embrace the uncomfortable cross of Christian discipleship. There may be circumstances where genuine believers remain quiet for a time. They may be shrewd and careful in communicating with others. But they will not always be silent with everyone. They will also not lie about their fundamental identity or deny the Savior who bought them.
The Scriptures aren’t as clear on the subject of an ongoing secret church. Congregations in the New Testament no doubt met in homes. They didn’t have a building, much less a towering steeple, flashy signage, or a searchable website. So, in one sense, they were much like secret meetings throughout the world today.
Gathering in secret doesn’t necessarily imply running a covert operation, and it may be preferable for any number of reasons. Existing as a house church can be a way of avoiding undue exposure. Unnecessary buildings easily become targets for violence. Further, operating underground doesn’t imply worship in a bunker. Rather, it can be a means to circumvent government meddling when a church is not officially recognized or state-sanctioned.
While the Bible doesn’t directly address the issue, it never encourages suffering believers to go into hiding. Just the opposite. The church must be a light to its community. That doesn’t mean it has to publish its physical address on a Facebook page. But it is hard to conceive of a congregation that is an entirely secret society. The Scriptures simply don’t give us the option of a community whose candle is hidden.
Here are a few suggestions on the topic of secrecy, specifically as it relates to missions:
- If necessary, be secretive as a way to communicate more clearly. We can wisely withhold information when that information will likely be misunderstood or misconstrued. One simple example is avoiding the term “missionary” if it implies an imperialist crusader, or “evangelical” if it implies a cultish sect. But these are ways of communicating clearly, not of sidestepping the name of Christ.
- Be guarded for strategic reasons in order to accomplish God’s will. Never be secretive to hide the gospel. I believe it can be appropriate for missionaries to avoid full disclosure with individuals or government officials if, similar to Jesus’s situation, such information will limit their movement or mission. However, just because information could be used against us doesn’t mean we can operate in total secrecy. We must balance Jesus’s instruction to be wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16) with his injunction to shine as lights (Matt. 5:16) and the apostolic command to honor authorities (Rom. 13:1–7).
- Model boldness and set an example for believers. Sadly, more often than not, new converts in dangerous places will prefer to remain hidden. Missionaries must recognize many are overly secretive because we have inadvertently patterned such behavior. We’re always and inevitably making disciples. Our business practices, social identity, and personal transparency are often “caught” even if not explicitly taught.
- Take the warnings of Scripture seriously. That may mean, in some circumstances, withholding baptism if a new believer is committed to secrecy. In any case, challenge prospective believers in hostile settings to count the cost. In the beginning, a measure of concealment is understandable and potentially wise. But patiently and firmly push new converts to speak openly about their faith. Pray with them. Pursue witness together. Christ’s words to those who refuse to acknowledge him are not easy, but they are necessary. If someone would follow after Jesus, the only person he can rightly deny is himself.
The topic of secrecy is only sure to grow as global threats to Christianity increase and as our missionary force pushes into darkness. As dangers intensify, however, safety and strategy can’t be the only considerations when determining missionary practice. Instead, the words and example of our Savior on the subject of secrecy must ultimately guide us as we seek to be faithful to him and his mission.