Agencies don’t send missionaries. This may sound strange for a missionary agency to say, but at Faith Global Missions, we truly believe this. Mission agencies like FGM should exist to help churches send missionaries. As a matter of fact, FGM is a local church ministry to local churches.
Luke never refers to the church as an institution that is sent, but shows us that it is the local church that sends out missionaries to various regions under the authority and direction of the Holy Spirit. (Schnabel 2004, 1580) The text clearly tells us that the church sent them out in Acts 13:3 and that the Holy Spirit sent them out in Acts 13:4. This is not a contradiction, but an explanation. The Holy Spirit calls missionaries and sends them out, but not apart from the local church. This biblical example seems to indicate that the local church confirms the call and commission of missionaries for service.
The local church is the entity by which God accomplishes His work in the world today. Clearly in Acts 13:3 we find the congregation of the local church in which the candidates were serving sending out the missionaries, literally, “releasing” them for the ministry to which the Holy Spirit had called them. The fact that the church released them for ministry indicates that the church had the authority to grant or deny permission for the two men to go forth to minister. The authority to preach the gospel, to conduct ministry in the name of God comes from Christ through the church.
Even though it was apparently up to the church to release or keep these gifted leaders, there is not even a hint in this text of any hesitation on the part of the church to release them for missionary service. God is sovereign and will accomplish all He wills, but imagine what the New Testament might be like if the church at Antioch would have jealously held onto these two key preachers and teachers and the apostle Paul had never gone on a missionary journey. Much of the New Testament is made up of letters to churches he planted and people with whom he developed relationships in his missionary ministry.
The Antioch example demonstrates the importance of the church’s role in the ministry of its missionaries. The fasting, prayer and laying on of hands demonstrate the seriousness of the process (Acts 13:3). Fasting and praying indicates fervent, focused prayer, a sincere and ardent seeking of the will of God, a process of worship. If the Holy Spirit was not calling Barnabas and Saul, the church did not want to make the mistake of sending them out. On the other hand they did not want to hold them back, if the Holy Spirit was indeed calling them to this special work.
After fasting and praying the congregation ultimately determined that God was willing that Barnabas and Saul were to go out as missionaries. The result was unity and agreement, not division. Tippett discusses other church group decisions in the book of Acts and the responsibilities of individuals in such group decisions (1970, 32).
The fasting and praying revealed that they were focused on seeking God’s face and the direction of the Holy Spirit. Once the church determined that it was God’s will for the men to go out, they laid hands on them. In other biblical instances of laying on of hands, there was a transfer of power or a filling of the Holy Spirit (Num. 8:10; 27:18; Deut. 34:9; Mark 5:23; Acts 8:17ff; 9:17; 13:3; 19:6; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; Heb. 6:2). “By the laying on of hands, the church and the individual missionary become bound in a bond of common purpose and mutual responsibility” (Peters 1972, 221). At the very least, this ceremony indicates a transfer or sharing of authority but likely indicates a transfer of power as well. The church has the authority and the power to do the work of God in the world and therefore, the authority to commission men for the gospel ministry which includes missionaries. Barnabas and Saul did not receive authority to serve as missionaries on their own, from a school, from a mission agency, from a parachurch organization or even from a church in which they were not ministering at the time of the call. They received their authority from the local church in which they had been ministering and serving. This includes the authority to baptize and serve communion. Peters (1972) says, “the local congregation of believers stands in a unique relationship to Christ and that the local assembly becomes the mediating and authoritative sending body of the New Testament missionary. This is a vital, biblical principle and we dare not weaken, minimize or disregard it” (219).
If the church has authority over its missionaries and is responsible for commissioning them it makes sense that there would be some level of responsibility to keep the missionaries accountable for their teaching and ministry. In spite of the church’s responsibility, Barnabas and Saul had a great deal of flexibility in their ministry. We do not find the church at Antioch directing the details of the missionaries’ ministry, but we do find Saul and Barnabas returning to report on what God did through them (Acts 14:26-28; 21:19). The missionary receives the authority to minister from their local church so he is in effect, working as an extension of that local church ministry and should be accountable to his commissioning church. Reports back to the commissioning church would be following this biblical example. Oversight is also provided by the commissioning church in the area of doctrine and practice.
If the missionary is given authority by the church and is considered as an extension of the staff or as a “delegate” (Bruce 1981, 261), in addition to holding the missionary accountable for his teaching and ministry, they would have a responsibility for that missionary’s material and physical needs. Few local churches can afford to supply 100% of the financial needs of a missionary on the field but that does not relieve the church of its responsibility to make sure that the missionary’s material and physical needs are fulfilled. In writing to the Philippians, Paul mentioned his appreciation for their monetary gifts that sustained him (Phil. 1:5; 4:10-19). In writing to the Corinthians, he made a defense for earning his living from the ministry of the gospel and challenged the Corinthians with their financial responsibility toward him (1 Corinthians 9:1-14). He also told Timothy that those in ministry are worthy of their wage (1 Tim. 5:17-18), thus indicating that churches have a financial responsibility toward those who are commissioned to preach the gospel. This includes missionaries as well as pastoral staff.
Next we will look at the responsibilities of the local church toward its missionaries.