There appears to be an increasing trend on both sides of the Atlantic for churches and individuals to take on the financial support of pastors in third world countries.
We frequently hear of national pastors ‘doing the circuit’ of reformed churches to raise support to go back to their homeland. At the same time, many small reformed churches in the homelands are struggling to stay alive — with some closing their doors.
Could it be that we are following a course similar to that of the Romans — who came to depend on slaves to fight their battles abroad and plough their fields at home?
What is the primary goal of the missionary? Surely it is to see God call out men from among the people he has gone to serve, and to lead them to establish self-supporting and self-propagating national churches.
Yet there is a trend to depart from that high goal. Perhaps our leaders are failing to take to heart Christ’s words: ‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’.
I suggest below several reasons for avoiding a policy of supporting national pastors. But first I must make it clear that I am not saying they have no material needs, nor that they are in any way less deserving than foreign missionaries.
Many have capabilities either equal or superior to many of our pastors at home. Certainly, many have more ability than the writer.
Yet there are biblical and practical reasons for avoiding a policy of supporting national pastors financially.
Standard of living
It is good to remember, firstly, that there is no New Testament precedent for the foreign support of national pastors. Gifts to churches to relieve famine and poverty, yes. But not the direct support of pastors by foreign churches.
Secondly, the moment a national pastor’s financial support comes from an American or British church, he becomes a missionary of that church.
As such, he is expected to report with regularity the progress of his ministry on the field, just like a foreign missionary. His allegiance is drawn from his own church to the financing body, and that is unscriptural.
Thirdly, having become familiar with the living-standards of the missionary on the field — and having visited the homes of members of supporting churches — the ‘national missionary’ is confronted with a problem.
Since he is a ‘missionary’ of the church, should he not be entitled to a standard of living comparable to the foreign missionaries who labour in his country? Yet he is expected to have a lower standard of living, comparable to his flock rather than the foreign missionary.
He will normally keep silent, not wishing to lose support or appear ungrateful. But he will tend to feel ‘used’ and discriminated against.
All these problems are avoided when the national pastor has learned to look to God to supply his basic needs from within his own country.
As soon as a national pastor becomes dependent on foreign support for his daily needs, his example encourages other pastors to seek similar support — rather than ‘seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness’.
We know this is true, having been approached by pastors on three continents seeking financial help.
In most third world countries wages are low and jobs are scarce. Numerous pastors are willing to serve for a fraction of the cost of keeping a foreign missionary on the field. The tragedy is that most only remain in the ministry as long as support is provided.
One is reminded of the mercenary who fights for pay. Hired pastors are not the kind of men who will, like the apostles of old, ‘turn the world upside down’.
It is mathematically impossible for our reformed churches to make even a dent in the total financial needs of national pastors now serving in foreign lands. By helping the few, we are in reality discouraging the others from looking to God for the supply of their needs.
Furthermore, the flocks of those being helped are deprived — they forfeit the blessing of providing for their pastor.
Many national pastors now living in the USA or Britain were initially supported to labour in their own homelands. But, having been introduced to life in the supporting country, they have remained. They only go back to their native land to visit.
The root problem of encouraging dependence can even be seen at home. I read an appeal sent out to reformed churches seeking $70,000 a year to enable a pastor to complete a doctorate and thus be ‘of greater service’ to the churches.
Should assistance be given for a pastor to obtain a doctor of theology degree — any more than for a godly young man to obtain a medical degree?
Would more reformed churches be springing up in our homelands — and fewer existing churches closing their doors — if more men had the spirit of John Bunyan? He laboured on, relying only on his God, in spite of threats, poverty, deprivations and imprisonment.
Hundreds of pastors in the Portuguese-speaking world are being challenged to sacrificial service through FIEL’s magazine, books and conferences.
I can only hope and pray that none of them will become dependent on foreign financial aid, but will rather serve as examples — by looking to God to meet their daily needs.