Thursday, July 31, 2003

Missionaries: What I don't like about 'em

I have been thinking about missionaries recently. Not everything that I have been thinking is complimentary.

First, let me start by saying that I absolutely support the idea of missionaries, including the idea that they receive financial support.

My complaint with missionaries is that I suspect (not being able to actually read anyone's heart) that it is one of the most abused "professions". I am convinced that many who seek to become missionaries have their own glory in mind rather than God’s—even if they don’t recognize it. Not all, maybe not even most, but a sizable “some”.

It is well worth remembering that simple catechism lesson: Man's chief aim is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Regular readers know that I am strongly in the Calvinistic predestination camp. There may be suspicion that this view disinclines me as to the merits of missionary work and evangelism. If so, that reflects an inaccurate view of Calvinism. Proper Reformed teaching states that, at least in the normative sense, man must hear the gospel in order to be saved (Rom. 10:13-15).

After all, the Apostle Paul was both the world's greatest teacher of Calvinism and the world's greatest missionary. 1

Now it is true that as a Calvinist I view missionary work different from an Arminian. I think a missionary should have this point of view:

God, grant me the privilege of being used to preach your gospel.

Rather than

God, I want to reach the unsaved and help them to accept Christ as their "personal Lord and Savior".

The former approach is the one supported in scripture (e.g., Acts 8:25,40). The latter is not.

And this does touch upon some of the errors made by missionaries. Here are a few:
  • Over there syndrome This is the view that, somehow, souls are more valuable in far away places than in your backyard. If 25% of Americans are saved (a generous assumption) that still leaves about 200 million unsaved Americans, more than the population of most countries. Now a Calvinistic missionary, who understands that preaching the gospel, not collecting converts, is the role of the missionary, has a stronger argument for going to remote places. He could argue that most of these 200 million Americans have heard already. An Arminian missionary, to be consistent, should go for numbers, which he easily can find at home. In either case, one much watch for this mistake: It is far sexier to be a missionary in a remote and even dangerous place than at the shopping mall near home.

  • God Needs Me Syndrome This is a kind of missionary-guilt, very Arminian, that causes a missionary or potential missionary to worry that people will go to hell if he cannot do the missionary work he desires. There is no support for such a concern in scripture. Nowhere do we read that the Holy Spirit was disappointed because He wanted to regenerate someone, but Paul just didn't make to the right place and so the poor soul was lost. On the contrary, scripture teaches that the sheep are saved in spite of man's efforts, not because of them (John 10: 27-30).

  • I must be a professional Missionary Syndrome Here the missionary is overwhelmed with the notion that he is being called to be a missionary. Maybe he is, but maybe he just wants to be a missionary. Admittedly knowing the will of God is not easy. But I am convinced that many potential missionaries will ignore multitudinous signs that they should not go into the field. Signs such as a lack of support, or other opportunities and people that God is placing before you. If you find yourself saying that is a great opportunity, but right now I just want to concentrate on getting support for my missionary work, then I suggest that you may be ignoring God's will.

The financial support question is interesting and tricky. I do believe that pastors and missionaries deserve our support. However we do have Paul's teaching:
7For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. (2 Th. 3:7-9)
Now the "tentmaking" doctrine is often misused, but I think Paul is teaching that a good model 2 is a missionary who works and preaches the gospel. Paul could take his work with him. Some people can't. What type of missionary better fits the model: A high school teacher who, one evening a week and on Saturdays preaches the gospel to people on the streets of his hometown (while at the same time glorifying God in the manner he conducts himself at work and maintaining fellowship in a local church) or a high school teacher that quits is job and heads out to the missionary field, living on the financial support of others? It sure ain't obvious to me that the latter glorifies God more than the former.

1 Usually when you write "Paul was the greatest (whatever)" somebody will respond that no, Jesus was the greatest (whatever). Fair enough. Jesus did teach predestination effectively. In fact, on at least two occasions He summarized the entire doctrine in a single verse, namely: Matt 22:14 and John 6:44.

2 This is not unlike the issue of celibacy. Paul teaches, fairly clearly, that the model for a pastor/missionary is celibacy, while acknowledging that not everyone will be up to the task (1 Cor 7:32-34). The Roman Catholic church errs in turning a suggestion into a requirement. Protestants make a more insidious error in the other direction. We applaud extreme violations of Paul’s suggestion, looking with admiration upon pastors and missionaries who boast that they’ll have as many kids as God gives them. And to our shame, I suspect we would look upon with suspicion an unmarried pastoral candidate who said he never intended to wed.

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