With this article we shall conclude our study of the views of Dr. John L. Nevius. The “Nevius Method or Plan” to which the growth of the Presbyterian Mission in Korea has been attributed may be summed as follows:
1) Missionary personal evangelism through wide itineration. This means missionaries should not remain in one group or congregation. They should preach the gospel from place to place and in as many places as possible. They should not become, in effect, pastors of the mission churches.
2) Self-propagation, with every believer a teacher of someone and a learner from someone else better equipped than himself.
3) Self-government, with every group under its own chosen but unpaid leaders; circuits (several groups in a given region) under their own paid helpers who will later give place to pastors; circuit meetings training the people for later district, provincial, and national leadership.
4) Self-support, with all places of worship (often private homes) provided by the believers, each group as soon as founded beginning to pay towards the circuit-helper’s salary; even schools to receive only partial subsidy, and no pastors of single congregations to be provided for by foreign funds.
5) Systematic Bible-study for every believer under his group leader and circuit-helper; and for every leader and helper in the Bible classes conducted by the missionaries.
6) Strict discipline, enforced by biblical sanctions.
7) Co-operation and union with other bodies, or at least territorial division.
8) Non-interference in private lawsuits or any such matter.
9) General helpfulness on the part of the missionaries, where possible, in the economic problems of the people.
(cf. Peter Beyerhaus, Henry Lefever,; The Responsible Church And The Foreign Mission; pp. 91, 92).
Of these Nevius and his followers would consider points 2, and more especially 4 and 5, to, be the most important. Point 4 is usually regarded as the most characteristic of his method. Nevius himself was firmly convinced that financial support from the foreign .or home church of the missionary would endanger and inhibit the growth and development of the mission church. The development of the native churches into autonomous congregations and an autonomous denomination with a sense of responsibility toward its own calling to engage in mission work would be hindered, not fostered, by foreign subsidy. In other words, Nevius would have considered it very wrong for the Protestant Reformed Churches to train and pay the salaries of native pastors on some foreign mission field.
It would be incorrect to imagine, however, that Nevius’ concern was chiefly an economic one. He saw the economic factor as an element of the spiritual life of the native church. The wrong kind of support, in his opinion, is bound to lead to spiritual laxity and to what he called “rice Christians,” people who come to the church and who seek the ministry only for financial reasons. For this reason, over against the old policy of providing everything (church buildings, salaries of full-time native pastors), Nevius outlined his own method which, from an economic point of view, provided for self-supporting churches from the moment of their inception.
Apart from the support of the missionaries, the sending church was to provide funding for nothing. The first Christians were not to be provided a church building or a paid, native pastor. They were to meet in the home of one of their number. When they grew and became too numerous for meeting in homes they were to construct their own building at their own expense. At this point the missionaries would select certain capable and more advanced members. These would exercise a certain amount of oversight on a voluntary basis. These would be trained, especially in the conduct of worship, by the missionaries. If sufficient progress ensued, the groups would be organized into congregations, and paid assistants would be appointed until such time as native pastors could be trained. The latter would then replace the missionaries. The final fruit would be the establishment of an autonomous, self-supporting church.
Following Nevius’ advice (given in 1890) the Presbyterian missionaries in Korea placed a high priority on Bible study, not only for the leaders but for every member of the church. From the very beginning the missionaries, with the help of the Bible Societies of that day, devoted themselves to the translation of the Scriptures. They printed the Bible in the older Korean script, which was easier to read than the Chinese characters. These translations were distributed throughout the land. This, coupled with the fact that the Korean Christians were literate, made the “Bible Class” system work. Each believer received instruction from his leader. The leaders and circuit-helpers were instructed by the missionaries. We are told that “In 1890, the year in which Nevius visited Seoul, the Mission started its first Bible-class there with seven members. In the 1930’s each of the 3,000 local congregations held an annual Bible-Study Course for which the members left their every-day occupations completely, generally for a week. The missionaries created a system by which the whole Korean Church, from the tiniest village congregation to the largest city church, studied the Bible. For many, this system culminated in theological training for the ministry.” (Beyerhaus, Lefever; The Responsible Church And The Foreign Mission, p. 94)
A bit later the Mission expanded the work of the Bible classes by opening in all its stations self-supporting Bible Institutes in which “humble church workers, men and women, ‘exhorters’, deacons, group-leaders, elders, assistants and Bible-women, could study for one or two months each winter, the whole course taking from five to six years. In 1936 there were 4,509 men and women studying in these Bible Institutes . . . . In this way the Korean Church gained a whole army of lay assistants who shouldered the main burden of parish work and evangelism without over-burdening the Mission or the young church financially or forcing the Church to depend on the Government for subsidies. Only ordained ministers could administer the Sacraments, and after 1907 the number of these men grew rapidly. Their Bible-knowledge was thorough, and as a result they were gifted with spiritual insight and evangelistic zeal.” (Beyerhaus, Lefever; pp. 94, 95)
As we have pointed out in previous articles, there certainly are commendable features in the “Nevius method,” These ought to be incorporated into our own mission thinking and practice. If understood biblically the three main tenets of this method—self-government, self-support, and self-propagation—are correct. The mission church ought to be instructed and led to the point where it is possible to ordain native pastors, elders, and deacons. These ought to be independent of the church which sends the missionaries. The new church must be self-propagating in the sense that it sends out its own missionaries in obedience to the command of Christ. The mission church, we believe, ought to be from its very inception self-supporting. We ought to learn from the experience of the church of the past that it is wrong to build church buildings for the converts. It is wrong to pay native pastors. It is wrong to do these things, for the reasons Dr. Nevius and others have stated. We are not saying it is wrong to manifest the benevolence of Christ to those who are truly poor and in need. Obviously there is a place for this on the mission field. What we are saying, however, is that we must not do for mission converts what Scripture commands them to do for themselves. This we firmly believe applies to the church in every nation. Each church must be a manifestation of the Body of Jesus Christ in its own time and place. Each congregation must have its own officebearers. For its pastors each congregation must provide.
The emphasis which Nevius placed upon Bible study, as well as the Bible Study Classes which evolved from that in Korea, are commendable. Certainly the missionary, in addition to his regular preaching, will have to devote himself to teaching the converts from the Word of God. In fact, in the broader sense, we believe this to be a part of preaching. After the example of the apostle Paul the missionary must teach God’s people “publicly, and from house to house” (Acts 20:20-27). To this belongs the translating of Scripture into the native language so that the converts are able to read and study the Scriptures. Great stress ought to be placed on all of these matters.
Aside from differences in unimportant detail or emphasis there is a major weakness in the “Nevius method.” There is little, in fact almost no emphasis at all, on the preaching of the Word, at least in the initial stages of the work. The house groups are under an unordained, voluntary leader. The leaders are under an unordained, paid helper. Only after considerable development is the stage reached where an ordained, native pastor takes over the work. At this point, according to Nevius, the missionary must go elsewhere. The native church is able to stand on its own. In this direction the church ought not go in its mission work. Preaching must be the chief part of the work of the missionary. The New Testament is altogether clear on this point. (Cf. I Cor. 1, Rom. 10, et. al.) As the Lord gives positive fruit upon the preaching, the missionary must seek out gifted men to be trained for the office of preacher, as well as for the offices of elder and deacon. The church does not need leaders and helpers; it needs officebearers through whom Christ will cause His voice to be heard, through whom Christ will rule and minister His mercies. Out of that will flow Bible study, spiritual growth. By that means the church will be gathered out of the nations. When the last elect shall have been born and gathered into the Body of our Lord He will come again to make His church perfect in the new heaven and earth. God’s great and immeasurable glory will radiate from His church forever.