Up until a few months ago, our church had the unusual opportunity to hold our weekly services at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Our church, King’s Church, is a new Washington-based Baptist church “plant”—an agricultural analogy Christians use to describe a start-up or new church that is usually without a typical church building. The museum, which recently just moved down the road, is dedicated to the tradecraft, history, and contemporary role of espionage. It features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts currently on display to the public. Due to our atypical arrangement with the museum, many local friends and acquaintances humorously refer to us as “the spy church.”
While we’re not a church of spies, the configuration conjured up in the mind is a silly juxtaposition between two seemingly polar opposites: ministry and espionage, truth and deception, James Bond and Billy Graham. In the minds of many, the church and her clergy are public, contemplative, and morally upright. In contrast, in the minds of many, intelligence services and their spies are typically covert, pragmatic, and morally ambiguous. Said another way, spies kill and sleep around; pastors pray and preach the gospel. The institutions contrast sharply and, when seen matched together, may make us laugh or turn our heads in a similar way as when we see a grossly mismatched romantic couple.
But not so fast—love works in mysterious ways. The apparent eternal incompatibility between intelligence services and the church is, of course, in our complex and surprising world not an accurate picture. These two highly unique institutions, we might say, already have a checkered past relationship. As students of history may know, the relationship between the two is extensive, and according to public media, it appears the relationship exists even in the modern era.
How should we think about this relationship? Should US missionaries collaborate with US intelligence services?
From the perspective of both institutions, this ought to be perceived as a moral question. American missionaries who are governed by the Bible and Christian tradition may find missionary moral guidelines and examples from the Apostle Paul’s early mission endeavors that are morally binding upon them. Moreover, if the American missionary is sponsored by a nongovernmental organization or formal mission agency, such as the International Mission Board (IMB) or Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), policies usually require him or her to refrain from collaborating with any home or foreign government intelligence agency representatives as that may result in providing intelligence information to those agencies. This is wise, as a US missionary collaborating with a foreign intelligence service may be treasonous. Yet, how does the missionary respond if his or her home country’s national security is at grave risk and the missionary is in a unique position to provide actionable intelligence? Or, even more hypothetical, what if one’s home government invited the missionary to use lethal authorized force against a known terrorist target?
On the intelligence side of this moral question, there has certainly been controversy in the past. In the 1970s, it was revealed that beginning after World War II, the US intelligence community (IC) engaged in extraordinary illegal activity and abused Americans’ rights. This eventually led to evolving guidelines and regulations that organized and limited the conduct of the IC. For instance, Executive Order 12333 and its implementing procedures governing the conduct of intelligence activities of the CIA, prohibit the agency, our premier civilian intelligence service, from entering into any covert intelligence relationship with US missionaries:
No relationship will be established with any U.S. clergy or missionary, whether or not ordained, who is sent out by a mission or church organization to preach, teach, heal, or proselytize, except as otherwise provided in this regulation. Any CIA use of a U.S. clergy or missionary who is not made aware of CIA sponsorship of the activity, or any use of a person’s status as a member of the clergy or a missionary to provide cover for any CIA activity or assignment, is prohibited.
Open relationships with clergy (for example, contracts to perform translating services or to lecture at training courses) are permitted. Open relationships are characterized by a willingness on both sides to acknowledge the fact and nature of the relationship to senior management officials of the organizations involved.
American church groups will not be funded or used as funding cutouts for intelligence purposes.
Unsurprisingly, it seems the agency does not hold an absolutist position regarding this regulation. For instance, decades ago, testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, CIA Director John Deutch reasonably stated that in extreme and highly uncommon cases of grave national security risk, waivers may be granted to permit CIA officers to employ and collaborate with missionaries for clandestine work. In layman’s terms, he said that in Jack Bauer national crisis situations, if a US missionary is among a foreign native group teaching the Bible and building wells and also happens to know the nuclear silo location that will prevent an imminent attack, there seems to be no doubt they may get recruited for assistance.
Moral questions like this one, and the subsequent debate around them, should, in my opinion, reinforce the truth that in order for the American Christian missionary enterprise and IC to thrive in a complicated world, they both ought to be “open for moral examination” of questions of right and wrong. While the IC is much less “open” to the public in a traditional sense (and ought to remain as such), the American people and our leaders should continue to have a voice in how US intelligence operates and, as such, its moral limits. Not doing so, ironically, has always damaged the mission of the IC. Said another way, if we and our allies are to win the war on terrorism and protect our security and interests, the American public must continue to work through conflicts regarding ethical issues, such as the use of missionaries, that could constrict and paralyze intelligence activity. If not, we will only see more repeats of the kind of national moral outrage that ensued from leaks regarding the NSA’s domestic surveillance program and the CIA’s enhanced interrogation programs.
Furthermore, missionaries and organizations who sponsor them ought to be open to deeper thinking and self-critique. Ethical and moral issues such as citizenship, patriotism, and moral responsibility are not at odds with Christian mission and identity. Smart policies rooted in theological reflection and good knowledge of international relations are needed to provide nuanced answers to issues workers may face on the field. Without a robust ethic, missionaries may lack some guidance to complex decisions, such as this hypothetical collaboration question.
Nevertheless, like all significant moral questions, where one lands on this issue carries real-world implications. As such, armchair philosophers and dismissive fundamentalists have the luxury, if they choose, of treating this question and others like it with triviality or insincerity. But for policymakers, ethicists, and actual practitioners, there is no such luxury. They must make choices, rooted in thoughtful moral reflection, in which every scenario may lead to confusion and heartbreak.
A Historical Relationship
Surprisingly, real-world examples and public fallout are legion. There are countless open public admissions and media reports of both military and civilian intelligence services from hosts of nations who have used clergy and religious institutions for intelligence advantage over adversaries. For instance, President Gerald Ford once admitted that the CIA had used active missionaries overseas as American operatives in the past and “may do so in the future.” Previously, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report that declared the CIA had used 21 missionaries and religious persons for intelligence work abroad. And a forthcoming book by Washington State Professor Matthew Avery Sutton titled Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War claims to tell an untold story of the Christian missionaries who played a crucial role in the Allied victory in World War II through espionage.
The US is not unique in having explored this collaboration on the world stage. During the Cold War, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, infiltrated churches and developed a highly successful “church department” that recruited pastors, professors, and seminary students to spy. In another case, the South Korean Unification Church, which operated in the US in the 1970s, had significant links to South Korean intelligence, secured lobbying in the US Congress, and conducted other collection and influence operations. And recently, close to home, Russian intelligence services, in an effort to sway the 2016 US presidential election, entered American social media networks posing as evangelicals. Pretending to have the same religious convictions, they used tactics such as posting to social media platforms biblical memes to demonize Hillary Clinton and drum up Christian support for Donald Trump.
It is important to note that not all of the cases referenced above or others alleged by the media or historians fit the narrow description of the active missionary collaboration question this article has in view. Some are alleged cases where intelligence services or government staff impersonate missionaries, clergy, or religious activists. Still others involve genuine missionaries sharing information with their home governments when they return home and are not in any sense instances of collaboration while on the mission field. These are important distinctions to make as this reflection attempts to answer whether or not it is right for active US missionaries to collaborate with US spy services.
Answering the Question
For the reasons listed below, I generally do not think it is a good idea for active US missionaries to collaborate with US intelligence services. While I think it is both right and good for Christians of all types to serve as intelligence professionals overseas, there are conflicts of interest theologically, practically, and ethically when we consider missionaries taking on dual roles in the foreign country in which they serve.
For missionaries, collaborating with intelligence services and having a dual role as a missionary can muddy the biblical distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. According to Christian tradition, these two metaphysical “domains” have historically been in tension with one another. When the Messiah came, he said to the disciples that the “kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:11). The Bible later seems to suggest routinely that Jesus brought a spiritual kingdom or reality into the world where individuals are invited to participate under his rule. This “kingdom” is not of this world (John 18:36), and its adherents live out a different value system—“power under” rather than “power over”—foregoing earthly pleasures to be dedicated to the truths of God. In both domains, there are fundamentally different mindsets and belief systems, different ethics. This is important to note because all missionaries have an understanding that genuine mission work is to showcase this different kingdom. For a genuine missionary, they understand themselves to be on the frontlines showcasing that kingdom to a foreign population. For them, it is absolutely vital that in the eyes of a foreign population, they are understood (in so much as possible) as having pure commitments to God and his kingdom. Actively collaborating and taking on a dual role as a spy service case officer or informant could muddy the waters between that distinction as they would now be bound to two differing commitments that, although possible to be internalized in the mind of the missionary, could muddy the distinction of the kingdoms in the eyes of the foreign population.
As a further theological consideration, American missionaries serving in Muslim-majority countries who were to possess a hypothetical dual role may also directly hurt the US government. From the perspective of many Islamic countries, a missionary carrying a dual role as preacher and spy may give more credibility to the perception that the US is engaging in an endless war on Islam with neo-crusader forces intended to take Muslim lands.
More practically speaking, dual alignment seems to be a security risk. It is well known in US missionary communities across denominations that dozens of foreign populations across foreign countries are already suspicious of links between US missionaries and US intelligence services. I have heard firsthand accounts of missionaries across the globe who report being held in suspicion. If a formal dual arrangement were to ever happen or be found out, not only would the individual missionary be put at high risk, but other missionaries and colleagues would be at grave risk. Furthermore, it could damage the future missionary enterprise in that country due to a breach of trust. The mere public perception that a few US missionaries might be gathering information for their government undermines the trust all such missionaries need to develop with the communities they serve.
Finally, it would be fundamentally dishonest. Ask yourself this question: If you were a regular attendee at a church in the US and found out your beloved foreign reverend also worked as an intelligence collector for Mossad or MI6, would you not feel a great deal of distrust toward that reverend? Most would be very uneasy if their foreign clergy were not fully devoted to God’s purposes and were indiscriminately passing personal information to their foreign government.
Missionaries are agents of the kingdom of God, bringing the good news of the Gospel to people and working for their flourishing. Spy services serve their host country, working for the security of their citizens and their nations’ strategic and economic interests. Our US intelligence services’ stated policies, as well as most missionary services’ stated policies, are reflections of the respect each institution inherently possesses. Furthermore, these policies, in my estimation, should give good reassurances to our political foes and allies alike that we as a nation in general and Christians in particular do not consider dual alignment a positive or moral norm.
Nevertheless, we live in a complex and broken world. There may be exceptions, albeit in extreme circumstances, to an absolute ban on collaboration.As mentioned, the CIA seemed at least to think so 30 years ago, as per Director Deutch’s congressional testimony. And in my own discussions with retired missionaries about imagined scenarios, all agreed that, though personally unheard of, there could be hypothetically extreme national security situations when, if presented with the opportunity, a dual role may be permissible. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a World War II-era German Lutheran pastor who collaborated with the German resistance’s attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, was often held up as a closely related example.
While it is dubious that US intelligence services would seek to collaborate with active US missionaries and unlikely that a serious enough national security threat requiring missionary involvement could arise today—if this perfect storm situation were to occur, how should a missionary proceed?
First and foremost, the missionary should be convinced in his or her own mind that this collaboration is in fact moral. Often times people, especially clergy, are unable to operate in gray areas because their ethical operating system is not dynamic or nuanced. They may be absolutist, ignorant of historical church teaching, and rely on proof-texting short Bible verses for complete answers on complicated questions. Therefore, they should have a clear conscience, stemming from a coherent ethical framework, about the actions they would be asked to accomplish.
While there are several ethical frameworks by which one may operate, a coherent and intellectually satisfying tradition for Christians may be found in the just war tradition. The just war tradition originated millennia ago with classical Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato and Cicero, and Christian scholars like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas developed it further. Though heavily influenced by Christian thought, it is meant to be an ethical framework that people of all faiths or none can use. The tradition essentially provides criteria to understand if going to war is just or right and how that war should be fought.
A good conscience is important for Christian missionaries because, if asked to collaborate in these ways as they live their lives before the face of God, they ought to be convinced in their own mind that such actions are morally justifiable. The just war tradition may not only satisfy their consciences but also provide real moral support for the said hypothetical covert actions. While the just war tradition is designed for states to discern how to act morally toward other states, it is critically important here because spying is a tactic or component of war and security. The Christian tradition provides moral grounds for spying as a tactic of war, and it can help permit, forbid, or guide the bigger moral problems that emerge regarding what tactics spies may utilize. Readers may be surprised to learn here that there isgood consensus among thinkers in Christian faith and other faiths thatif just war conditions are met, many things warfighters (of faith or not) are morally permitted to do in times of war are also permissible in espionage. That is, there is good grounding for the moral allowance of lying, stealing, blackmailing, electronic eavesdropping, deceiving, interrogating, and assassinating in the just war tradition.
Furthermore, if the hypothetical covert activity is illegal in the country where the missionary serves, as much covert activity is, the just war tradition may provide moral clarity to illuminate how an action can still be the moral and right thing to do. One may reach this conclusion because it conforms to the just war criteria. These criteria include the requirements of right authority, just cause, right intention, likelihood of success, alternatives, proportionality, and discrimination. If the missionary in a hypothetical dual role could see how the action may be moral, this may free his or her conscience from non-involvement.
Thus, in this hypothetical collaborative opportunity, it would be wise for the missionary to be steeped in the time-tested ethic of the just war tradition. While it may give allowance and moral clarity to practice espionage, just war criteria will no doubt cause one to limit his or her participation in certain tactics. After all, that is a dimension of what good moral guidelines are about—protecting one from tainting his or her soul.
Finally, a practical reason: I assume the missionary in this dual role scenario would want to remain a missionary. Accordingly, he or she would want to maintain integrity and the original purpose for being in the country in the first place.If not, it’s not so much a dual role anymore. However, if this is the case, he or she may be wise to ask, Does my participation in this action bring about good for the people I am serving? This is a crucial question because, in my opinion, certain actions—even if justifiable under just war principles for intelligence officers—will, if taken on by a missionary in a dual sense, undermine a missionary from his or her original purpose. For instance, there would be a major difference if a US missionary serving in China stole Chinese technology for the good of American military interests, versus if he or she helped dispose of a purely evil dictator who oppressed the people. In the first case, the missionary’s dual collaboration damages those whom he or she is called to serve in order to progress American military interests. He or she has been so compromised that the goal of helping people worship God and flourish as human beings is tainted by the elevation of the state. In the latter case, by helping dispose of a dictator the missionary may be doing a moral act, even despite it being illegal, but it may not disqualify him or her from the original ministry. In this example, the missionary may be doing justice for the people whom he or she is called to serve by freeing them from tyranny and oppression. In this sense, collaboration may be perceived as a good thing and may be consistent with the missionary’s identity and mission.
In sum, missionaries must ultimately remember they are working for the good of people spiritually, but that work also extends to the general welfare of humanity. Missionaries should, in most normal situations, decline collaboration with intelligence services. For trivial and even moderate threats, there is too much at stake for both the missionary enterprise andthe intelligence community. Nevertheless, in perfect storm situations when combatting an extreme threat to the nation may require assistance and collaboration, missionaries should proceed cautiously and in accordance with their own conscience—understanding that morality and espionage, as well as statesmanship and spiritual service, are not mutually exclusive.
Benjamin Palka graduated
from the State University College at Buffalo State with a bachelor of arts in
communication and earned a master of theology from Southeastern Baptist. He
works in the defense industry and also serves as a church planter at King’s
Church in Washington, DC.
 David S. Kris and J. Douglas Wilson. National Security Investigations & Prosecutions, 2nd ed. (Vols. 1 & 2) (Eagan, MN: Thomson Reuters, 2012).
 “AR 2-2 (U) Law and Policy Governing The Conduct of Intelligence Activities (Formerly HR-7-1),” Central Intelligence Agency, July 20, 2015, cia.gov.
 Intelligence Gathering by Civilians, 104th Cong. (July 17, 1996) (testimony of the Honorable John M. Deutch, Director of Central Intelligence).
 This is essentially the argument that James Olson makes in Fair Play: Moral Dilemma of Spying (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006).
 Bob Allen, “Campolo says U.S. missionaries too close to CIA, later ‘regrets’ comment,” Baptist News Global, March 18, 2014, baptistnews.com.
 See Elizabeth Braw, God’s Spies: The Stati’s Cold War and Espionage Campaign Inside the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).
 CIA’s Use of Journalists and Clergy in Intelligence Operations, 104th Cong. (July 17, 1996).
 “House Unit Discloses South Korea Plan to Manipulate U.S. Organizations,” New York Times, November 30, 1977.
 “The Social Media Ads Russia Wanted Americans to See,” Politico, November 1, 2017, politico.com.