Mission work is done in foreign lands with the goal of gathering the elect of God out of the nations of the earth. This is accomplished through faithful preaching of the gospel. The Spirit of Christ works mightily through this to bring the elect to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
But that in itself is not enough. In addition to the salvation of the elect, the goal of missions is also to gather God’s people together into congregations, for outside the instituted church there is no salvation (Belgic Confession of Faith, Art. 28). Churches must be organized. Congregations must be established. And believers must become and remain faithful members of such churches. Only then will they (and their generations) be nourished in the Word, strengthened in the faith, and preserved unto life eternal.
However, there is also a closely related and no less important point, and that is that foreign mission work must be done with a view to establishing indigenous churches. It is not wise to do our work in such a way that the churches are dependent on the missionaries and/or the sending churches. We do not want churches that cannot exist without us, so that our presence needs to be permanent. From the very outset, we should strive to lay the groundwork for churches that can be independent and are able to stand alone. In a word, our goal is churches that are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.1In this and a few following articles, we plan to take a closer look at those three terms. In doing so, we are not merely interested in what they mean from a theoretical point of view, but also as regards the actual practice of doing foreign missions. The question will be, What bearing does this have on our mission work? What should we do so that this goal might be attained?
We begin with “self-governing.” The basic idea of a self-governing church is that she is one in which the officebearers are local men. The ministers, elders, and deacons are not foreign missionaries or other men who may have moved to the field from the sending churches. Rather, the special offices are occupied by nationals. An indigenous church is one that has local men, chosen by local congregations, to be the local representatives of Christ in its midst.
This is the biblical pattern set forth in the mission work of the apostles. Officebearers were chosen and ordained in every church from among the members of that church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Even the qualifications for officebearers (I Tim. 3; Titus 1) clearly imply that this should be the case. For how can the congregation know if a man has these qualifications if he is not himself a member of that local church? In this way the autonomy of the local congregation and the office of believer in the church are both acknowledged and respected.
Having local men serve as officebearers and church leaders is necessary for the sake of the church members. Local men know the church members well. Local men are better able to communicate with their own people. Local men also have a better understanding of the life and needs of their fellow countrymen. All of this gives them the ability to bring the Word of God to the members of the church in a way that is most appropriate and thus, through God’s Spirit, powerful in its effect. The importance of having officebearers who are nationals is also seen when you consider the possibility that a missionary, in God’s providence, may leave the field. For this reason, the missionary needs to be careful not to create an unhealthy dependence on himself. His goal is to prepare and direct congregations to be able to function and exist on their own. When the time is right, he should be able to step back from a church or denomination without his absence having a detrimental effect on their continued existence, and even growth.
If this, therefore, must be our goal, we need to be busy in our mission work preparing men to be officebearers in the church of Christ, as well as better equipping those who already serve as such. With gratitude to God, we acknowledge the many opportunities He gives us to do this in our Philippines’ mission work. One significant way in which we are able to prepare local men to be church leaders is through the work our Protestant Reformed seminary and professors are doing in training a man (Mr. Vernon Ibe) to be a minister of the gospel here. The Lord willing, he will graduate in 2012. What a blessed and added gift from God to have a Filipino pastor to teach and preach the historic Reformed faith to his fellow countrymen. We eagerly look forward to the day when this man is able, through the call of the church, to take up his work here.
A second way is through the regular, weekly preaching of the Word of God. This, in fact, is the most important way to prepare church leaders. For the preaching of the truth (especially Heidelberg Catechism preaching) serves, under God’s blessing, to equip men with a good, all-around knowledge of the Scriptures and the Reformed faith. Such a firm foundation in the truth is indispensable for officebearers.
The preaching also bears that same fruit in those who are still young. For Christ also uses the preached Word to prepare young men to be future, godly leaders in His church. We pray that this may be realized for the sake of the continued existence of solid Reformed churches in the Philippines.
A third (and more direct) way in which we prepare men to be faithful church leaders is through the further training of existing ministers, as well as those who aspire to the gospel ministry. We are able to do this through regular meetings in which we lead the men who attend through a study of Reformed dogmatics. At this point, we have four men who regularly attend these meetings.
Our main purpose in doing this is to prepare the men for a future “classis” examination. The Lord has given us the opportunity to work toward the formation of a federation of churches here. This is an exciting prospect, and we currently labor with several consistories toward this good goal. Once this federation is in place, the Lord willing, we envision that the classis could examine these existing pastors so they could be declared ministers of the Word within the newly formed denomination.
In the eyes of men, this work would be considered insignificant and too small to count or matter. After all, what can a group of six men studying Reformed doctrine possibly accomplish? But in spite of what men might think, we despise not the day of small things. Although the men who participate in these classes already have a good grasp of Reformed doctrine, it is good that they can now study the truth from a distinctively Protestant Reformed perspective, and thus have their understanding of the truth sharpened. This is indeed a necessary requirement in order for them to be fellow pastors in a future denomination, the Lord willing.
A fourth way to equip men to be faithful officebearers is through specific instruction in Reformed church government. Officebearers need to be well versed in how to direct things in the church in a proper, biblical way, so that all things are done decently and in good order (I Cor. 14:40), and for the edification of the people of God (I Cor. 14:26).
One way in which we are able to provide this instruction is by means of a study of the Church Order of Dordt. Another way is through our involvement in, and even chairing of, consistory meetings. This is often where we concretely face questions regarding how properly to apply the principles and practices that are set forth in the Church Order. It is also the setting where we are able to devote a set amount of time to study the Church Order itself, as well as other related minor creeds (for example, Questions for Church Visitation, Formula of Subscription). We are grateful for the interest that the men have in doing things in a biblical and orderly manner, and we are encouraged to see fruit upon this work.
May the Lord keep us faithful and diligent in this important work, and be pleased to use it to strengthen and encourage the current officebearers, as well as to raise up other men who will be able faithfully to serve in Christ’s church and kingdom here. The church needs such men. May God continue to supply them.
1 John L. Nevius, a Presbyterian missionary to China in the late 1800s, first set forth the idea of establishing churches that are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. His ideas were initially published in the “Chinese Recorder” in 1885, but soon thereafter in his book, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches.