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Humble teaching in a hierarchy

CMS missionaries Dave and Leoni Painter have worked in Cambodia for nearly 20 years. Here Dave explains that the path of humility is not easy to navigate, but Christians have an example in Jesus. 

I teach at the Phnom Penh Bible school. Most students there are committed Christians from lower to middle class backgrounds in their early 20sThey wear official Bible school uniforms and are meticulously polite towards their teachers. It is a shame-honour culture, meaning that students don’t generally ask questions in classat least in part to avoid the teacher losing ‘face’ if he cannot answer. 

Hierarchy versus humility 

This hierarchical approach meant that when we first arrived (as non-hierarchically-minded Australians) Leoni and I both felt like fishes out of water. We looked for role models. Etched in my memory is an older missionary (not Australian) who would shout at and regularly belittle students, always sending them to run personal errands. Students, even older Cambodians, seemed to be in awe of this person, who broke all the missionary rules we had been carefully taught in our training at St. Andrew’s Hall. They never learned the language, they employed servants, and lived as a traditional colonising Westerner in the Orient. The temptation was to follow their example to gain respect. 

“Over the years, I have learned that opportunities to humbly serve appear in many ways.

At one school chapel service early on, there was a foot-washing ceremony. The students washed and dried the feet of the teachers, as we sat out the front in a row. To my shame, I did not leave, but went through with the charadeperhaps not wanting to cause loss of face for anyone.  

Over the years, I have learned that opportunities to humbly serve appear in many ways. It may be small, like picking up a student’s dropped pen for them. Mostly it is about how we communicate with them in class. I encourage questions and try to answer them carefully. Sometimes I have to answer the same question two or three times. Some days I am hot, tired and irritable. But this is when I must make extra effort. It is no good explaining gospel truths if my life does not match up. 

Two opposite language struggles.

Most missionaries struggle with humility in language 

When missionaries make their first attempts to teach Cambodian students in Khmer, it must be torturous for listeners. Certain mispronunciations result in quiet mirth, or even outright infectious laughter. This can wear a missionary down, as we are very aware of our own inability to twist our tongue around certain alien sounds (I still will do anything to avoid saying certain words). For many it is easier to use an interpreter. However, failing to grapple with language means that we soon reach the limits of our usefulness. We need to converse with the students in their own tongue, to help them become effective in ministering to others as they proclaim God’s Word in their own context 

There is an opposite trap. After decades of study and teaching, we can gain a specific technical theological vocabulary. We can pepper sentences with jargon that leaves listeners in aweyet bemused and baffled. Pride takes hold, and our gospel witness is undermined by the Evil One working in our hearts. 

It can be difficult to keep to the narrow path of humility in mission. Our fear and pride pushes us in different directions. So we need to trust and follow the One who humbled himself, served the weak and lowly, and proclaimed the Kingdom  though it resulted in ridicule, persecution and death on a cross. 


All of us, including CMS missionaries, struggle with pride. If you see or hear of a missionary making progress in humility, send them a message to let them know that you are thanking God for their example.