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Reformation in Missions

September 2000 | by Brian Ellis

Some years ago my wife and I attended a church which had convictions about the Reformed faith. Just before Christmas we heard its children singing a well-known song in Sunday school — Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer! Clearly, a church may be reformed in doctrine but not in practice. This is especially true in the realm of missions.

God has given the local church the responsibility for preaching the gospel and planting new churches. The church at Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4). Paul and Barnabas reported back to their local church all that God had done through them (Acts 14:27-28).

Independent missions

The foundation of the Baptist Missionary Society, and the sending of William Carey to India, was the combined work of a group of local churches. The first missionary societies were agencies of local churches co-operating together in mission.

Many such societies were formed during the nineteenth century. But the nineteenth century was also a time of theological downgrade. In a reaction to this, Evangelical Christians increasingly administered their societies outside the governance of local churches and denominations.

Thus, in the last century, there emerged many large, independent and interdenominational missionary societies, sending missionaries to places like China, Africa, India and South America. Although, paradoxically, they looked to the churches for financial support, they were answerable only to their mission boards. Even denominational missionary societies seemed to operate outside the control of local churches.

A missionary once told me that, fifty years ago, he was warned by his society not to tell his church about his intention to become a missionary. The church were the last to know before he sailed to the field.

Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria
see image info

When God calls someone to missionary service the priority often seems to be (1) approach a missionary society, who (2) will send that person to the field and (3) leave the local church to ‘pick up the pieces’ in terms of prayer and finance.

The church has little or no say as to where the missionary is to go, and what he is to do on the field, let alone whether he is truly called to be a missionary.

Missionary societies

The banner over the Keswick tent seems so wonderful: All one in Christ Jesus. This is true, and we rejoice in the unity of those who love the Saviour. However, what seems wonderful as an idea, may not be so rosy in practice, especially on the mission field.

While a few interdenominational societies give freedom to the individual missionary to ‘do his own thing’, most do not. Problems then arise and important questions have to be faced. What type of churches are we planting on the mission field? What will they be taught on, say, the sovereignty of God, baptism, spiritual gifts, eschatology and church government?

When an interdenominational team are church planting, agreement between members of the team has to be reached over these areas. What often transpires is that the lowest common denominators are taught — the society may even forbid the teaching of certain vital matters, fundamental to the gospel of grace or to the nature of the church.

For someone who does not have strong doctrinal convictions, but is content to be broadly ‘evangelical’, that may not matter. But for a missionary holding to one of the historic reformed confessions (e.g. Westminster, Savoy, 1689 Baptist) this must create difficulties.

Prevailing climate

It is important that the older folk in our churches, especially those with memories of a different era, should realise that many missionary societies have changed their position over the years.

Any such society ultimately reflects the doctrines and practices of the churches. Today the prevailing climate in many churches claiming to be evangelical is charismatic, ecumenical and decisionist. This in turn has impacted on missionary societies.

Of course, there are fine Christians whom we number among our friends but whose theological orientation on secondary matters is very different to our own. We may have fellowship with them on a personal level — agreeing to disagree — yet find it difficult to do so on an ecclesiastical level.

Thus, however much we dislike the antics of the large ‘charismatic’ fellowship meeting in the old High Street cinema, some who attend may be sincere Christians. Yet we still would not co-operate as churches in charismatic errors. Nor would we march in a ‘Jesus parade’ with the local Roman Catholic priest.

Yet what we would not dream of doing in the UK may actually be the norm on the field for some missionary societies!

Consistency

When we support a mission we eagerly invite its representative to speak on the work. Yet that representative may come from a local church which is charismatic or inclusivist. This fact may not come out in their missionary talk at the mid-week meeting. Yet it could be their kind of church that is actually planted on the field by the mission.

Would we invite Rev. Gloria Smith to be the speaker at our anniversary service? Probably not, since many of us do not believe that Scripture sanctions women preaching. Yet, on the world’s mission fields, single women dominate by their sheer numbers.

Certainly, some work as secretaries and nurses, but others are training men in Bible schools and teaching churches in the Amazon basin or Asian villages.

‘Well, it is acceptable there because there are no men to do the work’, will be the reply. Yes, we know it is pragmatic — but is it scriptural?

New Testament pattern

We may pride ourselves on our correct theology, but what theology is being taught by the missionary supported by our women’s meeting, or our Sunday school offerings? Do we know and do we care?

You would never find a set of drums and four-foot-high banks of loudspeakers in front of our pulpits. But what would you find in the churches being planted in Third World cities by the missionary societies that we are supporting?

‘Well’, comes the reply, ‘that is the mission field: things are different there and they are doing a good job. The Word is going out and they are seeing conversions’. But we cannot answer like that. For we are responsible for what we support and pray for in our churches.

Let us make sure that the missions we are supporting are those that we really agree with, and that they, as far as possible, reflect our stance as local churches.

Let us support those missionaries who honour the doctrines we hold so dear. Surely we need to reform our ideas and practice on missions? Let us get back to the New Testament pattern!