Sometimes evangelical faith missions compares to the Wild West of early America. Many mission fields are as untamed frontiers and the missionaries are like the American cowboys. The cowboys had to make quick, difficult decisions and live with the consequences or rewards. They were far from family and friends, alone and dependent on their self-reliance and ability to make individual choices and decisions, but I don’t think that is the biblical model for the 21st century.
I believe each local church is an autonomous body of believers who is accountable to Christ, whether part of a larger denomination or independent of any denominational hierarchy. I also believe Christ has authorized his church to carry out the work of God in the world in this age and this authority resides primarily in each local church as an autonomous body.
I use the term missions to refer to the ministries of the church that involve cross cultural and geographic boundaries and often linguistic boundaries to make disciples and strengthen the disciples of Christ to the end that churches are planted, enlarged or strengthened in the culture and region of ministry. I am particularly focused on faith missions, in which the missionaries must raise their own support for living and ministry trusting God to provide the necessary resources through like-minded, compassionate donors.
I have had evangelical faith missionaries tell me that they do not work for a church or for a mission agency, proudly proclaiming that the Holy Spirit is their boss and they answer only to God. They say they were called by God, sent by God and are directed by God. I have known a good number of missionaries who said that God had called them to a particular ministry. When church leadership communicated disagreement with the missionaries’ claims, the response was to look for a church that would sponsor or commission them based, sometimes, solely on their testimony that God had called them to the specified work. The new church often had little knowledge of the missionaries’ spiritual maturity, spiritual qualifications, or their aptitudes, gifts and abilities.
In one particular case, a church commissioned a missionary for service and after several years, he adopted a doctrinal position that was in disagreement with his commissioning church and his mission agency. To complicate matters, he publically announced his change in beliefs, without first communicating with either his church or his mission agency. Afterward, he refused to seek an agreeable position with his church or mission. Ultimately, the church withdrew its commission of the missionary and the mission agency dismissed him. However, the main reason for the withdrawal of the missionary’s commission was not the doctrinal difference. It was his proud attitude, claiming that the Holy Spirit was directing him and therefore, overriding the need to submit to the church that had authorized him to go forth and preach the gospel.
Within a month or so, one of his supporting churches decided that they would commission him to represent them without inquiring of the church or the mission agency that had dismissed the missionary to learn the reasons for the church’s withdrawal of the missionary’s commission. They made their decision based only on the claim of the missionary that he was following the guidance of the Holy Spirit and his claim that the only reason for the separation was his view of a particular doctrine.
This scenario occurs many times over in evangelical faith missions and raises several questions. Is this how God intended missions to work? Is a missionary only accountable to God and not to any man or group? How does God call people to serve as missionaries? Are there biblical qualifications for missionaries? If a man claims that the Holy Spirit has called him to serve in a particular way in a particular place, does anyone have the responsibility or authority to challenge or confirm that call? Is missionary service a spiritual call of God or simply a professional occupation? What is the role of the church in missions? In an effort to answer these questions I will attempt to describe what I believe to be a biblical example of a call to missions, the biblical qualifications of a missionary and the roles of the Holy Spirit and the church in the missionary call. We examine Acts 13:1-4 for answers next time.
Please feel free to leave your comments.