Sunday, July 25, 2010

Unbiblical Missionaries?

I had a conversation with a fellow believer not so long ago regarding Christian missionaries. I was startled when I heard him say that he thought the modern concept of missionaries was unbiblical. To clarify, what he meant was that missionaries who leave home (say the United States) and go to Hong Kong (for example) to preach the gospel should support themselves by their own industry rather than burdening a church. He felt that such missions trips were a recent creation (200 years old or so), and that it reflected a poor light on the gospel when someone was living off of the substance of others.

I can empathize in adding that a good many that go on missions trips are quite possibly not called to such activity and thus are squandering their time and assets. Yet I had to contend about the concept of “missions” as we understand them today as being unbiblical. Should the church support such people? Should missionaries supply their own need, like Paul did so many times? For a thorough enquiry a look back at Scripture is necessary; a simple look in the gospels reveals that this idea of missionary activity is by no means new.

When Jesus sent out His apostles to preach the gospel throughout Judea He told them, “…as you go, preach, saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’…provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food,” Matthew 10:7, 9-10.

Elsewhere we read, “Now it came to pass, afterward, that [Jesus] went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided from Him from their substance,” Luke 8:1-3. Some manuscripts insert the word “them” in place of “Him” in verse 3, indicating that all of the twelve were also supplied by these women.

Though Paul is an excellent example of a self-sufficient missionary, there were times when he needed churches to supply his need, and there were times when he defended the right to do this before those who would accuse him of “peddling the gospel.” Paul writes about the matter: “My defense to those who examine me is this: do we have no right to eat or drink? ...or is it Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its own fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? …If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ…even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel,” 1st Corinthians 9:3-4, 6-7, 11-12, 14. Though this argument is based on a minister’s right to preach the gospel and receive material support from those who benefit from his message, it applies with equal force and clarity to missionaries abroad spreading the gospel.

Later in Corinth, when Paul was admonishing the believers he wrote, “I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to minister to you. And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren from Macedonia supplied,” 2nd Corinthians 11:8-9. He received aid by the kindness of other churches so he would not burden Corinth and so set a stumbling stone in their path. The believers were carnal, and “eminent apostles” had snuck in, teaching their gospel for a fee, apparently. Paul refused material support from Corinth to show that the gospel is free of charge; one did not need to pay by installments to hear the word of life. Paul would in no way impugn his ministry and ability to reach the lost by being associated, even vaguely, with these hucksters.

More appropriately, Paul writes to commend the Philippians: “Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account,” Philippians 4:15-17.

What fruit is Paul speaking about? “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name’s sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth,” 3rd John 1:5-8. Paul was upheld in his missionary work by zealous house churches who felt spiritually indebted for receiving eternal life; in turn they supplied his material wants so he could press on and be a vessel God would further use to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. John says such men should be esteemed, and to cooperate with them. Joyfully giving to them from our substance is pleasing to God; by doing so, and laboring with them in prayers, we become co-workers with them.

I won’t go beyond what the Bible declares about missionary work. I pray that anyone who shares my friend’s somewhat hostile view of missionaries would read these passages of Scripture and meditate on what God is trying to relate about those He has called to such work. There are other verses I could extract, but I believe the point is clear enough. Let us prayerfully support our brethren, and when we can, support them with our substance and become fellow workers. With such a sacrifice God is well pleased, Philippians 4:18.

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