What is a missionary?

William CareyWhat is a missionary? Silly question. We all know what a missionary is, don’t we? We have missionary prayer meetings. We get missionary newsletters. We read missionary biographies. A missionary is, well… a missionary. And yet, nobody seems to be able to tell me just what we mean when we call a person a missionary.

Once it was simple. People were sent from countries where there were churches to places where there were no churches. They went there to preach the gospel, to make disciples, to baptise, to plant churches. That’s what a missionary was. A person sent from one place to another place to plant a church.

But missionaries like that are a very small minority today. Most of the people who are labelled missionaries today work in places where there are already established gospel churches. They may attend those churches or they may not. In any case, very few of them are themselves involved in church planting. It seems that nowadays the term can be used for any Christian who leaves their home, moves elsewhere and does any kind of work! Providing that the work is motivated by Christian concern, that person can be viewed as a missionary. So an engineer goes out to work somewhere in Africa, helping villagers dig wells, install irrigation systems, build safer homes. He attaches himself to a church in the area where he’s working but he still keeps his membership in the church in the UK from which he came – and they talk of him as their missionary. A girl is sent from Liverpool to Sweden to work among students there. There are plenty of evangelical churches in Stockholm but she doesn’t attend any of them. She’s supported by her home church so she can spend all her time witnessing to students and that leaves no time for involvement in a local church. Her home church talks of her as a missionary. A nurse moves from London to Japan to work as a nurse in a secular hospital there. She gets along to a church in Tokyo when she can, witnesses to patients and staff in the hospital, writes prayer letters back to her home church about her work. And they talk about her as a missionary.

“Missionaries” in the modern sense may be pastors or evangelists working with established churches in the area to which they’ve moved. They may teach in Bible-colleges or be involved in radio work. They may run radio stations or dental clinics. They may be involved in translation work or run Christian schools. Or for that matter they may work in completely secular jobs. Providing they take opportunities to witness to unbelievers, they are still labelled missionaries. It’s all a bit confusing.

But does it really matter? If the work they are doing is honourable and useful; if it advances God’s kingdom, does it matter what we call the workers?

Well yes, I think it does. Why? Well because this loose use of the word “missionary” is bound to cause confusion.

Back in the days when missionaries were church-planters in places where there were no churches, it was necessary and right that missionaries should keep their membership in their home churches. There was no gospel church for them to join in the place where they were working, so they carried on belonging to the church back home. They were under the oversight of the home church and they looked to it not just for financial support but for pastoral care, advice, direction. It wasn’t ideal, but belonging to a church hundreds of miles away was better than belonging to no church at all. And it was always understood that once they had planted a church in the place where they were living, they would either move on, or they would become members of the new church. They would no longer be under the oversight of a church far away, but under the oversight of the church where they were actually living.

It was never envisaged that we might have “missionaries” working in places where there are established churches, perhaps even attending or leading those churches, but still under the oversight of a home church far away. But that’s the situation that’s now taken for granted for countless “missionaries”.

I’ve seen the confusion again and again. I’ve taken conferences in many places across the world – places where there are strong evangelical churches. I’ve met “missionaries” at those conferences – evangelists, literature workers, medics, all sorts. And I’ve asked them which of the churches in the town they belong to. And they look puzzled. And then they say, “Well none really. I drop in on this one or that one from time to time but I’m here as a missionary – my membership is back home in Southampton/Seattle/Sydney….” The fact that they carry the label “missionary” apparently exempts them from all the New Testament commands which say that they need to belong to a local church, love its members, attend its meetings, join it in prayer, be under its oversight, follow its guidance… They are there, supposedly with the authority of a church hundreds of miles away, but virtually ignoring the existence of the churches which God has actually established where they are.

It doesn’t have to be overseas. I know Christian “missionaries” here in Manchester, commissioned by churches elsewhere in the UK and sent here to “do the work of the kingdom”. They see no need to become members of any church here; they don’t feel they need to consult pastors here before starting work on our doorsteps; they simply pursue their own agenda, claiming the authority of their home church. Well, I’ll be honest – we view them as nothing but a distraction.

That, I suppose, is the worst scenario – the situation where “missionaries” work in areas where there are established, sound gospel churches but don’t attend any of them – because their “membership” is somewhere far away.

Thankfully, most “reformed” churches recognise that that is not acceptable. If they send out “missionaries” they encourage them to be involved in churches in the places where they are going to live. But even then, there may still be confusion. Why? Because having sent out missionaries to work with a church in another place, they still expect the missionary to retain membership with themselves, and be under their oversight. So the missionary has to live with a constant dilemma. “Am I under the oversight of the leaders of the church here? Am I to be like all the other folk in the church, committed to this church, answerable to it, or does my commitment to this church always come second to a church many miles away?” Again the “missionary” isn’t allowed just to be a church-member like any other church member, obeying the commands of Scripture and devoting himself to the church he attends.

You can even have the baffling situation where a man is pastor of a church in Africa or Indonesia and yet say that he’s a member of a church in England! He may have a team of strong elders around him and yet the leaders of the church in England expect him to submit to their own direction and be answerable to them!

Where this happens, it creates intolerable tensions. What is the point of this “missionary pastor” holding an office-bearers’ meeting in the church he leads, if at the end of the meeting he has to say, “Of course, whatever we’ve decided, I won’t be able to follow it through, unless my elders back in X, Y or Z approve…”? What has happened to the doctrine of the independence of the local church?

Sadly we have seen promising situations torn apart by such folly. I think of one church in the Middle East, led by three gifted “missionary” workers and a local pastor. The four were recognised as elders. But at least one of the missionaries soon found that his home church thought that they should still have direct oversight of “their” missionary. From thousands of miles away they wanted to tell him how he must order his family; how he should go about his evangelistic work, how he should use his time. Any decisions he made in concert with his three fellow-elders were subject to the approval of the leaders of his “home church” in a different continent. It is not surprising that the whole situation broke up in disarray.

Part of the problem of course is money. Many Christian workers, sent out from the Western world, are dependent on financial support from the churches that sent them. And because of that, the churches that send them think that these workers should continue to be answerable to them, even if they are settled in stable, well-taught, gospel churches in the places where they are working. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”! (It may be proverbial, but hardly biblical thinking).

We need to think clearly about all these issues. I’ve been forced to think about them a lot recently. Various folk from different churches have come to me asking for advice about different situations. And who knows, one day, we may send one or more of our members overseas to serve the Lord. And then we’ll need to understand clearly what our responsibilities are.

Maybe we’ll send members to a place where there’s no gospel church. Well then, we’ll be commissioning them to go, make disciples, baptise them, teach them to observe everything the Lord Jesus has commanded – including the duties of church life. We’ll send them out as our missionaries. And while they are in that situation, we will take full responsibility before God for them. It will be our duty not just to support them financially but spiritually, emotionally, and in every other way. We will have to work out just how practically we can pastor them and oversee their work from across the world. Then, as they gather disciples, we will have to give them guidance on how to bring those folk together as a church and train up leaders. But once the church has been established and leaders have been put in place, we will then have to say, “you are no longer our missionaries”. You are our beloved brothers and sisters but you are now members of that church under the oversight of your fellow-leaders.” We may continue to support them financially, but they will no longer be answerable to us.

Or on the other hand, we may send workers to places where there are existing gospel churches – churches which we recognise as true churches with which we can have fellowship. Perhaps a young man in our congregation is an experienced mechanic. He knows that a church in Uganda needs mechanics to service the motorbikes on which their evangelists go out to the villages around. He’s willing to go – and of course if he does, he’ll be involved in all the evangelistic work of that church as well. We contact the church there and ask if they would welcome his service. When they say yes, then we say farewell to him. We commend him to that situation. But he does not go as our “missionary”. He simply goes as someone transferring his membership from one church to another. We will pray for him, we will be thrilled to think that he is playing his part in the growth of God’s kingdom, we will continue to treasure him as a far away brother, maybe we will help him financially. But he is not “ours” now. He belongs to the church in Kampala, or wherever it may be.

To send workers anywhere in the world on any terms is an exciting thing for any church. To be part of the work of planting churches where there are none is thrilling. To be asked to give away beloved members to strengthen existing churches is a wonderful privilege too. Let’s pray that we’ll have both joys as the years go by. And let’s be sure that we’re ready to handle our responsibilities in a way that’s Biblical and God-honouring. The apostle John commended one church for the way that it handled its responsibilities to missionaries – even those they had not sent out themselves. “You are faithful in what you doing for the brothers… You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth…” (3 John 1:5-8). When brothers go out for the sake of the Name, how vital it is that everything should be done in a manner worthy of God!

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