. With the last article we concluded our study of the principles of missions. With this article we purpose to begin a series on the proper method or methods of performing missionary work among the nations of the world. In other words our purpose shall be to examine the question of how the principles of missions must be implemented by the church in the actual practice of mission work. Quite frankly, the undersigned embarks on this venture with a great deal of reticence and even some uneasiness. There was no course in missions offered in the seminary while he was a student. He has never pastored a calling church for a missionary, nor has he ever served on either of the mission committees of our churches. His only involvement has come in the form of serving as a delegate and as a professor-advisor to our synods. In the actual work of missions his experience is very scant. He organized preaching services and worked for the month of May 1973 among the group in Prospect Park, New Jersey which became the nucleus of our Covenant Protestant Reformed Church, and in the winter of 1980 he preached for the services sponsored by First, Grand Rapids in Bradenton, Florida. He has had no experience in foreign missions. But he shall try. The reader is cordially invited to respond with either questions or comments on this whole subject.
At the outset we wish to acknowledge our indebtedness to the late Roland Allen. Allen was an Anglican missionary in China from 1895 to 1903. For the next forty years he was busy writing on missionary principles and methods. Insights gleaned from three of his books; The Ministry of the Spirit, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, (All republished in paperback by Eerdman’s) have proved very valuable for the writing of these articles.
It is our firm conviction that just as Scripture teaches the principles of missions so we must discover the proper methods of missions from the Word of God. Scripture tells us not only what missions is but also how the church must go about doing the work. This does not mean, obviously, that the Bible or some parts of it make up some kind of “missionary manual.” Not at all. The Bible, as we all know, is not that kind of book. Nevertheless, what the church does through its missionaries must be and can be based on the Bible.
When all the talking is over and the last article and book on missions has been written, the fact will still remain that in its missionary work the New Testament church preached, baptized, and prayed! This work, carried on by the Apostles, Evangelists, and Pastors, was complemented by the witness of the godly living of the believers. This is missionary work according to Scripture. Therefore, if the church is determined to be faithful to Scripture in its missionary work it will follow the pattern of the Apostolic church set forth in the New Testament, especially in the book of Acts.
Before getting into our study it is necessary to face and answer a common objection to our thesis. There are those who say the church cannot follow the pattern or use the methods of the Apostolic church because the social and moral condition of the world of that day was such that it aided the spread of the gospel. The world of our time is much different, so much so that methods used by the Apostles will not work for contemporary mission work. It is true of course that God prepared the world for Christ and for the gathering of the elect out of the nations. That world, however, was not essentially different from the world today. The “success” of the Apostles was not due to the condition of the world of his day but strictly to the sovereign grace of God in Christ. The same is true today.
The converts in the early New Testament Church were part of the Roman Empire with its Graeco-Roman civilization. When we think of this civilization we are inclined to think of the Roman system of law, government, and justice. We think in terms of Greek culture, its philosophy and language, its literature and art, all of which persevered in the Roman world. This, however, is not the whole story. There were at least four evils which characterized the Roman world and made up the environment in which the Apostles preached. They were these: superstition, the immorality of the various heathen religions and life in general, the amphitheater, and slavery.
There was widespread belief in demons among people of all classes and stations of life. Not merely idolatry, but every phase of life was thought to be ruled by devils. Devils sat on thrones, hovered over cradles, and lurked in every corner. Along with this was the belief in magic and witchcraft. Human sacrifice was not unknown. Use was made of incantations. The devouring of raw flesh, mangling of bodies, fastings and beatings of the breast, obscene cries at the altars, ragings and ravings were all used to appease and keep away the devils. These superstitions no doubt were the content of the books which many of the new believers in Ephesus who used “curious arts” burned (Acts 19:19). These books were worth fifty thousand pieces of silver.
Everyone of God’s children who was brought to faith by the preaching of Paul was born and lived in this atmosphere of superstition. In this kind of environment the Apostles preached and out of this darkness many were saved. While in different forms perhaps, and while more “developed” perhaps, the same situation obtains for the missionary and the church today. The same gospel of sovereign grace in Jesus Christ must be preached. Only Christ crucified and raised and exalted has power over the devil and “the angels who left their first estate” (the demons, Jude 6).
The second characteristic of Roman life was the immorality which prevailed. This was most apparent in the various religions of that day. Some have argued that the mingling of the intellectual and religious elements of Hellenism and Orientalism helped to prepare the way for the Gospel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These ancient religions were from every point of view decidedly inimical to the Christian faith. The teachings of these religions were a contradiction of the Gospel. The rites and ritual of the temples were not only indecent, they were just plain wicked. Lewd dancing and prostitution were just two of the concomitants of worship. The temples in Ephesus and Corinth, two of the more prominent cities of the New Testament, no more prepared the way for the Gospel than do the temples in Singapore. Can there be any doubt but that this is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesians, “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Ephesians 4:17-19). From this point of view as well, the Apostles enjoyed no advantage in their mission work.
There is no need to go into detail concerning the brutal, horrifying shows which were presented in the amphitheater. Gladiators fought each other or wild beasts to the death before thousands of screaming, bloodthirsty spectators (“fans”?). The attitude of the “cultured” elite toward these shows is almost shocking. People like Pliny and Cicero, we are told, considered them as “affording splendid training for the eye, though perhaps not for the ear, in the endurance of pain and as inspiring disdain of death and love of honorable wounds.” Even Marcus Aurelius was simply bored by them and complained that they were “always the same.” (Quotations from Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, pp. 30, 31). Symmachus complained bitterly when some of the Saxons committed suicide in their cells rather than kill each other in public at the show he had prepared in honor of his son’s praetorship. No one could view these spectacles without being affected. The stage which had to compete with this powerful entertainment was given over to rough jokes and sensuous byplay. Nothing was too gross, too indecent to be displayed in the theater. Nudity, fornication, blasphemy of virtually everything sacred were common on the Roman stage.
Finally there was the evil of slavery about which the New Testament has something to say. Slaves were completely subject to the will of their masters. They were at the mercy of his every whim and fancy. Slaves had no rights and no protection against their masters. They were often well educated and even served as teachers and tutors of the children of the wealthy. Even at that, most if not all of them bore the scars of the masters’ lash. This was the accepted way of life. Even Scripture did not urge the abolishing of slavery. Scripture exhorts masters to clemency and slaves to faithfulness.
Finally, we are told that the moral atmosphere of Asia Minor was even worse than in Greece or Rome. Here people wanted nothing to do with marriage, which they viewed as an outrage on the free, unfettered life of nature.
While this is by no means an exhaustive study of the religious, social, and moral character of the world of Graeco-Roman civilization, it does indicate the condition of the world in which the early New Testament Church was gathered out of the nations of the Mediterranean world. It was precisely in this context that the Apostles preached Christ crucified. To these kinds of men, women, and children went the Gospel command to repent and believe. The situation is no different today. The world has not changed, not essentially. The gross forms of ignorance, superstition, immorality; the entertainment of the theater, the stadium, movie house, and television are with us today. They existed in less sophisticated form also when the New Testament was written. This means, once more, the Apostles enjoyed no special advantage over the missionary of today. In that world they preached sovereign grace to the glory of God. God gave them abundant fruit: “adding to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). The church today must do precisely the same. The church needs no gimmicks with which to try to “win souls.” The church must simply preach wherever God opens the door. This is proper missionary method. Upon this and only this faithful preaching of the Word will God’s blessing rest. By this means God’s church will be gathered, His Kingdom will come in Christ, and His glory will be revealed.