In the previous article we faced the question: Along what lines ought the native church be organized? Missionaries usually do not face that question very seriously. They simply assume that the mission church ought to be organized in the same fashion as the sending church. If the missionary is Presbyterian he organizes the mission church upon Presbyterian principles of church government. The Anglican missionary organizes the mission church according to the Episcopal form of church government. Dr. Nevius thinks this is wrong. It is his contention that the church ought to have the form of church government which is dictated by her needs and peculiar circumstances (cf.Planting And Development Of Missionary Churches, pp. 55ff.).
We can appreciate the fact that churches in other lands face different problems and exist in a different situation than does God’s church in North America. Buddhism, Hinduism, the Moslem religion are certainly not of immediate concern to the church in North America, but these religions in other parts of the world represent a real threat to the church. Levels of education and of spiritual maturity also affect the organization of and subsequent life of the mission church. While all this is true we cannot agree with Nevius’ contention that the form of government of the mission church should be determined by need and circumstance. The Reformed or Presbyterian form of government is based on sound biblical principles. Those principles belong to the eternal truth of God’s infallible Word. Because they do they apply in every age and to the church in every land. God knows much better than we what is good for His church as it exists in every nation under heaven. There may very well be, and in the nature of the case there must be, differences in nonessentials, customs, and practices, but never in the essential principles of the government of God’s church.
This means the three-fold office of Christ must be present. The church wherever it is needs preachers. Initially, of course, the preachers are the missionaries sent out by the established church. As the number of converts grows, and as the converts grow in the grace and knowledge of God under the preaching of the missionaries, the group or groups of converts must be prepared to be organized into the church of Jesus Christ. This must be the goal of mission work. Suitable men must be trained for the office of Christ. There must be qualified elders and deacons and there must be preachers. These must be sought out and instructed. This too is an essential part of mission work. Missionaries ought not remain in a field indefinitely. The native preachers must not be called and supported by the sending church. This is wrong and for that reason a grave mistake. The church in the foreign land must call its own ministers and must support them so that they may devote all their time and gifts in the service of the church. The foreign church must be indigenous, and this means free from the support and rule of the sending church. All of this does not happen overnight. In some lands it may develop over the space of a few years or even less. In other lands which are more primitive it may take many years before an indigenous church can be established. But in either event this must be the goal of mission work. The church must have preachers, for, “how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14).
Nevius continues by warning against appointing elders and deacons who do not meet the qualifications set forth in Scripture (pp. 59ff.). He cites two examples from his own work where unqualified elders were appointed who later had to be disciplined and even excommunicated. Again we certainly agree with this. A mission station which lacks men who possess the qualifications for office simply is not ready to be organized. But, and this is important, it belongs to the calling of the missionaries to work diligently toward that end. Classes ought to be provided in which instruction is given in the knowledge of Scripture, the Confessions, Church Polity. In this way men may be trained for the office. That training which is more than mere intellectual instruction must be done by means of the preaching of the Word. Surely the fruit will be that in the course of time men of God will emerge who meet the test of Scripture. In this way the church can be organized.
Nevius warns in this connection: “The appointment of elders should not interfere with the voluntary activities of church members. Rather than encourage such an idea I should postpone their (the elders’) appointment” (p. 62). What Nevius wants is that all the converts according to the measure of each one’s gifts be actively involved in the work of the church. All ought to be encouraging one another, teaching one another, witnessing to the unconverted, comforting one another, etc. He asserts, “It is not the function of the elder or overseer as such to assume and undertake wholly or mainly the work of the Church, but to encourage, direct, and assist all believers in the exercise and development of their special gifts as members of the one spiritual body of Christ; to set an example of working for all to imitate; to be leaders and captains in Christ’s army, ruling, instructing, and directing those who are under their authority and care.
“I am disposed to think that the tendency to make working for the Church the duty of officebearers alone, rather than of all Christians, is introduced by missionaries from the Church at home. There is a prevailing disposition in western lands (around the turn of the century, R.D.D.), noticeable in Protestant communions to an all-pervading spirit of ecclesiasticism. The Church is regarded as an organization under the direction and superintendence of its proper officer or officers, whose function it is, for and on behalf of its members. . .to undertake and administer all church matters. A Church member has a quieting sense of having discharged his duty if he has contributed generously towards building a suitable church edifice and the support of a preacher, is always found in his place as a worshipper, and attends to the prescribed rites and observances of the Church. This spirit, wherever it is found, tends to formalism both in the clergy and the laity. While it is far too prevalent, and it is to be feared growing so, we may well rejoice that it is by no means universal. There are not a few churches in which the main work of the pastor is to keep all under him at work. In such churches you will find individual growth and church growth, joy in God’s service and influences for good extending to the ends of the earth” (pp. 63, 64).
It is a bit difficult to react to this statement. Believers who are not officebearers certainly are to be more than mere financial contributors to the cause of Christ and passive worshippers on the Lords Day. Officebearers must not rule the church in such a way as to inhibit the calling of believers who are prophets, priests, and kings in Christ. But this is precisely the point! It is not the office of elder which is to be blamed nor does the fault lie in appointing qualified men too hastily. The troubles must be the misuse and abuse of the office. On the other hand we take issue with the statement: “. . .the main work of the pastor is to keep all under him at work.” The main work of the pastor is to preach the Word. This is something long forgotten in our day in much of the church. Pastors have become professional counselors and ecclesiastical administrators rather than serious students of the Scriptures and preachers!
God knows what is best for His church as it exists and is called out of every nation. What the church needs is preaching. Missionaries must preach first of all! This must be the main burden of their task. Missionaries must seek to find and educate sincere converts for the ministry of the Word. The church in India needs an Indian preacher, the church in China needs a Chinese pastor. The church also needs discipline. Believers, whether born and reared in the faith or recent converts, have to fight the old nature daily. For this reason God in His mercy has given elders to His church. These must “shepherd the flock” and “take the oversight thereof” (I Peter 5:1-4). The elders must guard the flock from all false doctrine and ungodliness. They must exercise the keys of the kingdom. Missionaries must prepare qualified converts to serve the church in this office. Those who are poor need deacons who will dispense to them the mercies of Christ and speak to them “comfortable words from the Scriptures.”
In no way will all of this prevent the believers from being active in the church. In fact it will have exactly the opposite effect. Preachers, elders, and deacons faithfully serving the church by the grace of God will cause the church to flourish and grow. Believers will be living witnesses of the Gospel. Husbands and wives will know their callings with respect to one another. Their marriages will reflect the mystery of Christ and His Bride, the church. Parents will faithfully instruct their children according to the demands of the covenant. The believers will visit one another in their sicknesses and other trials, pray for one another, rejoice with those who rejoice and sorrow with those who sorrow. Thus bearing one another’s burdens they will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). None of this blessed fruit will be evident apart from the preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the Sacraments, the exercise of discipline, and the ministering of the mercies of Jesus Christ. Once more, to this end the missionary must labor. In this great work he will be following the example of the Apostle who confessed: “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, Testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20, 21).