You might have heard the story of two young Moravian missionaries who sold themselves into slavery in order to reach the slave population of the island of St. Thomas (Virgin Islands) in the Caribbean.
The story goes that a native of the island, named Anton, who served at the court of the King of Denmark, was invited to Herrnhut where the Moravians were based by the Moravian leader, Count Zinzendorf. His purpose was to plead for volunteers to go to St.Thomas.
Two men responded. Their names were Johann Leonhard Dober and David Nitschmann. There is no hard evidence to verify the claim that they sold themselves into slavery. But they did go to St. Thomas. They eventually branched out from St. Thomas, establishing churches throughout the West Indies. The response in Antigua alone was such that by the end of the eighteenth century there were eleven thousand Moravian church members.
A major factor in Dober and Nitschmann’s success was the extent to which they embraced the culture they were trying to reach. They empowered the slaves they reached to lead and preach. Some European missionaries who later joined them even went so far as to marry wives who had grown up in slavery.
The gospel pushes us beyond all sorts of psychological, cultural and even geographical boundaries. However it does not do so without our cooperation.
In 1 Corinthians 9.19, Paul said that though he was free, he became a slave to everyone in order to win them. Of course that does not mean that he literally sold himself into slavery. But it does mean that he was prepared to sacrifice the comfort of his own cultural environment and step into the discomfort and unfamiliarity of the world of those he was trying to win for Christ.
Not everyone is called to exhibit the same kind of cultural flexibility that Paul felt called to embrace. Having said that, the underlying principle of dying to your own rights and preferences is still, surely, required if we are to win people for Christ.
How does this work? And how do we work it out?
Firstly, if we are going to win people for Christ we have to be intentional about it. Paul considered himself free He belonged to no-one. Yet he made himself a slave to everyone. It wasn’t an external obligation that caused Paul to make this choice. He made himself a slave. That is strong, intentional language. It wasn’t Paul’s default to be a slave to everyone. Neither, I would suggest, is it ours. It took a decision. He had to make a decision. We have to make a decision. It doesn’t just happen.
Secondly, this “making himself a slave” has an incarnational feel about it. Christ took upon Himself the form of a servant (Philippians 2.7). The Son of God chose to enter into our world as a servant (the Greek is literally slave). That was His choice. Paul, in choosing to become a slave to all was imitating His Lord and Saviour. The incarnation of Christ is not just a theological proposition, it is also the greatest ever demonstration of leadership by example.
Finally, when we are prepared to venture outside the familiarity of our own worlds, we carry the invasive power of the Spirit with us. When Jesus entered the world of first century Judaism, nothing was ever the same again. When He served the needs of the crowds and the needs of individuals in the power of the Spirit, those lives were never the same again. Paul’s strategy of self imposed restriction and actively entering into the worlds of others in order to win them was not just some sort of religious principle, it was a vehicle for the power of the Spirit.
When we step into the worlds of others, we can expect the power of the Spirit to be released, because the Spirit is the Spirit of mission.
You don’t need to sail to the Caribbean – though such a proposal is probably a little more appealing today than it was nearly three hundred years ago! You can start to serve people around you. And you start by deciding to dethrone your own preferences and freedoms. If every Christian in the country made a decision like that, we would turn the nation upside down.