Know Where You Stand: Legal Considerations in Mission Work

by Graham Wallis
Posted on 1st February 2012

Scripture records that Paul was a Roman Citizen. The Pax Romania gave him special protections and privileges in law. The Bible notes that Paul made full use of these legal privileges when his evangelistic work landed him in trouble with the authorities.

It is fascinating to note the difference in treatment that the legal authorities of the day afforded to Jesus and to Paul. Jesus, who was not a Roman Citizen, was 'tried' (if you can possibly call it that) before a crooked judge, on false charges, with lying witnesses, all in one night, having already been flogged, without any lawyer to help him, and was sentenced to immediate execution without the possibility of appeal. Paul, a Roman Citizen, invoked his legal status to protect himself. Paul's birthright enabled him to appeal directly to the Roman Emperor in person. Paul employed his rights under the law to take the gospel all the way to Rome and used his time under house arrest to write many of his epistles.

This article is written to provide some general legal pointers to those engaged in mission work in countries where they are not themselves naturalised citizens. It is written from a legal perspective only, and should not be considered in isolation. I possess limited experience of mission work of this kind and am writing as a qualified lawyer. I am not a minister of religion.

Law is an enormous and complicated subject. Unlike medicine its application can vary widely from place to place. If you have a heart attack, it's likely that your body is going to follow the same symptoms whether you are in British Columbia, Belize, Bulgaria, Burkina-Faso or Bahrain. Try preaching the gospel in these various places and the legal consequences may be vastly different.

With so many jurisdictions across the globe it is impossible to provide anything like specific advice for a particular country. However, this article does seek to provide general pointers. Not all situations described will be suitable for every country. You should obtain professional legal advice for your own particular situation.

  1. Know your own legal status. What protections does your particular citizenship give to you? This information should be available from your government. Your government should be able to tell you what it will do for you if you find yourself in trouble abroad. Your country may have an embassy, high commission, consulate, or other mission in the country you are going to, or your country may have any agreement with a third country that has a presence there to provide such services. Your government may offer you legal assistance. Your government may arrange for a member of its embassy staff to meet with you. Your government may offer you advice on how to stay safe in a particular country. You should know where your government's embassy is, and carry its contact details with you. On a practical point, I would suggest writing the contact details into your passport. If appropriate, arrange to visit your country's embassy in the country you are in so that your embassy knows that you are there. If appropriate, communicate with your embassy and with your government regularly. If you do find yourself in trouble it may well save time and avoid confusion if the embassy is already aware of you.
  2. Research the local jurisdiction. You should know what is legal and illegal in that country. For example, what is legal in Western Europe well may be illegal in the Arabian peninsula, and vice-versa. Find out as much as you can about the country you are going to. As with most things in life, prevention is usually better than cure. If you can avoid getting into legal difficulties it may well save time, effort and expense. Try and clarify whether law and practice actually match. A country's law may ostensibly say that it is tolerant / secular / free etc, but is that the reality? On a practical point, it is all very well that a country's constitution promises you religious liberty, but that may not protect you from intimidation by individuals. Will your rights be protected? Will the state seek to prosecute individuals who seek to intimidate you? What is the situation in reality? If the state is likely to be biased against you, or proves unwilling to become involved, the more evidence you can gather in your favour (photos, video recordings, contemporaneous statements) the more difficult it may prove for that state to refuse to intervene on your behalf.
  3. Know the consequences. For example, in countries where Christian evangelism is prohibited you need to know the potential consequences of breaking those laws before you decide whether or not to do so. If the likely consequence is a fine then you may decide in your particular circumstances to risk flouting the law. If the consequences are imprisonment then (again in your particular circumstances) you may decide on an alternative course of action. Not all countries have the same rules relating to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or freedom to change your religion. You should know what the possible consequences could be both for you, and for anyone you are ministering to. On a practical point, and depending on your particular situation, you could perhaps ask the authorities what their response would be if you were to engage in a particular activity. For example, if you wanted to hold an outdoor prayer meeting, then obtaining prior written permission from a government official may carry some weight with any local police officers seeking to intervene. It would also then establish a precedent for future activity.
  4. Conduct some intelligence work. Who is likely to object to your activity? Are you likely to face problems from the regime itself, politicians, bureaucrats, the police, criminal gangs, individuals, groups or (sadly) other Christian denominations? What resources do they have to use against you? Why are they likely to object to you? Where and when and how will such persecution occur? How you respond may well depend on who is causing you difficulties and their particular resources. The more you know then the better prepared you will be to deal with the situation. The law may support you, or it may be used against you. Either way, the more prepared you are the greater your prospects of turning the law to your advantage.
  5. Be prepared. Paul knew that it was illegal to flog a Roman Citizen. Research the jurisdiction and your rights and obligations. Is the country you are in a signatory to any international treaties guaranteeing freedom of expression? Are corporal or capital punishments ever used? Is there any form of legal aid available (and would you want to make use of it in any event? As with most things in life, you generally get what you pay for). If you are arrested do you have the right to remain silent? How long can you be detained without charge? Are you entitled to an interpreter? An hour or so spent in some standard research could save a whole lot of trouble in an emergency.
  6. Make contacts. Scripture records that the apostles made friends and contacts who helped them. In a legal context it may well be helpful to know the names of several local lawyers you can call upon to help in an emergency. I say several, because law is a wide subject. If you get arrested you will need a criminal lawyer, if you are served with an injunction you may need a civil lawyer, if there is a property dispute you may need someone different again. As with the first point, why not try and meet up with a few lawyers shortly after you arrive? If appropriate, explain who you are and what you are doing, ask whether you can call upon them for help if required. If your lawyer is a Christian (yes, they do exist!) it may be that they are particularly sympathetic to your aims, something that may be reflected in any fee.

On a note of caution however, remember that if you do find yourself if serious difficulty it is ultimately you, not your lawyer, who is in trouble. In some countries you may need to ask hard questions about the quality, and even the motives of legal representation. In many countries, thankfully, if a lawyer represents an unpopular client the most they may receive is a few unkind comments in the press. In other countries however lawyers who take on the government can themselves face persecution. Likewise, a lawyer agreeing to take on a case that is both prosecuted by, and also funded by, the state may be susceptible to financial pressure. Generally, publicly-funded cases pay far less than privately funded ones. The motive for a lawyer taking on a poorly-funded case may be altruistic, but it could also be that they are just not a very good lawyer and cannot get private cases.

In some countries it may be possible to bring in legal help from your home country. For example, as a solicitor practicing in the UK I am allowed to practise in British overseas territories. If you do decide to 'parachute in' legal help you will need to weigh up the likely costs of bringing in that help with the advantages of having someone that you genuinely trust to look after your best interests. As technology improves, I find that I increasingly speak with my clients over the computer screen than in person. This dramatically reduces legal costs.

Finally, a few general points not specifically restricted to legal matters. Internet access, post, and telephones can be censored in some countries. Getting things in writing is always better than verbal assurances, emails are useful because they can be traced and forwarded to third parties for safekeeping. Bribes and corruption come in many forms, so be alert to putting yourself in compromised positions. Dates, times, locations, names, diaries, receipts, and photographs can all be used to protect yourself. If possible, have one or more people that you trust with you whenever using cash, discussing business, etc. Having a witness with you can protect you from intimidation or false allegations.

In conclusion, prior research of the laws of your particular host country, coupled with the development of professional contacts within that country may well prove to be time well spent. To quote the motto of the Intelligence Corps: Manui dat cognitio vires (Knowledge gives strength to the arm).

Graham Wallis has been a solicitor for eight years and has extensive experience in Litigation and Business Law. He previously served as a soldier in the British Army (Intelligence Corps) and is a fifth-generation Salvationist, playing solo cornet in the Gloucester Band of The Salvation Army. He runs Wallis Solicitors Ltd and can be emailed at