With some variation in detail the mission writers we have studied (John L. Nevius, Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson) agree that the missionary must strive to establish self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating indigenous churches. What has become known as the “three self formula” is helpful and has validity provided the terms be carefully defined along Biblical, Confessional lines. This has not always been done; neither have missionaries implemented this method along Biblical lines in many instances. (Roland Allen, an Anglican missionary around the turn of the century, points to some of the inconsistencies and weaknesses of this formula as it was being applied on foreign mission fields in his day. Cf. especially, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, but also, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s Or Ours? and The Ministry Of The Spirit, all published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.)
Certainly in all mission work the goal must be the gathering of the elect out of the nations into the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ as that Body of Christ comes to manifestation in the church institute. All would agree too that such churches must be indigenous. To cite examples from our own work as Protestant Reformed Churches, the churches in Jamaica must be just that, Reformed churches in Jamaica. The church, and we hope soon to be able to say, churches, in Singapore must be in Singapore. Neither of these can be or ought to be part of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. They must be manifestations of Christ’s Body in their native lands.
But what is meant by the term “church” in the “three self formula”? The reference here is to the church institute as that comes to manifestation in local congregations of believers and their children. According to Scripture this means that “church” means believers and their children under the threefold office of Christ. A church in that sense is organized on the basis of the Three Forms of Unity. The church has regular preaching of the Word from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. It makes use of the sacraments as instituted by Christ and it exercises Christian discipline in the name of Christ. In sum a church is a gathering of believers and their children under the care of Christ through the pastor, elders, and deacons; manifesting the marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. This, by Scriptural and Confessional definition, is the meaning of the term church. Such churches were organized by the Apostles (especially Paul) at Thessalonica, Colosse, Ephesus, Corinth, and elsewhere throughout Asia Minor and the Mediterranean world. As the record in the Book of Acts clearly indicates, the Apostles preached the Word, baptized, ordained elders and deacons, and then moved on. They did not remain as pastors in a given church for long periods of time. They established indigenous churches each under its own officebearers.
But this definition of churches is quite different from the meaning given to the term especially by Nevius and Venn and to a certain extent also by Anderson. Churches are not merely groups of believers and their children under the care of an unpaid native “helper.” Groups scattered abroad under lay leadership, without elders and deacons, visited only rarely by the missionary and only occasionally by a native preacher, having baptism and the Lord’s Supper infrequently are not what the Bible and our Confessions call churches. In some instances (and this was not rare) a native pastor had anywhere from one to two hundred and fifty such “churches” under his care. Supervising a number of these native preachers were the missionaries of the sending churches or boards. And things remained this way for years and years. This we believe to be unscriptural. Mission work must not have as its goal the multiplication of mission stations under lay leadership. Missions according to Scripture and our Confessions has as its goal the establishment of churches.
What is meant by “self-supporting”? Nearly everyone thinks of but one thing when he hears the word, “self-supporting,” viz. money. The mission churches ought to be financially independent from the very outset. To build churches for the converts, to pay the salaries either in whole or in part of the native preachers, to assist the converts in ways other than benevolence is bad mission practice. Both Scripture and the history of missions, as well as contemporary missions, make this abundantly evident. To assist the converts in these ways fosters an attitude of paternalism on the part of the sending churches and an attitude of dependence on the part of the converts. This practice also breeds envy, jealousy, and strife among the converts. The growth and development of the new churches both spiritually and numerically are greatly impeded. The church at Antioch through whom the Holy Spirit sent the apostle Paul on his missionary journeys did not assist or subsidize the churches which the Apostle organized. In fact the church at Antioch did not even pay a salary to the Apostle and his assistants.
This is proper, we believe. Converts ought to build their own churches and support their own preachers. Churches need not be elaborate buildings costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Native preachers ought to be supported by the congregation which they serve. Where this is done things will be done “decently and in good order.”
We can accept the whole idea of native churches being “self-governing” provided this too be understood Biblically. In the Biblical and Confessional sense this means each congregation is under the care of Christ by means of properly called, qualified officebearers. These must be natives. This means that a large part of work on the foreign fields will have to consist of the training and instruction of qualified men for the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon. The training of native pastors can either be done by the missionaries themselves or by having natives who aspire to the ministry trained in the Seminary of the sending churches. The former method was and is being employed on our Jamaican field. Rev. G.C. Lubbers spent a great deal of time and energy instructing several young men who are now pastors in Jamaica. He was assisted in this work by emissaries from our churches. Some instruction was also done by correspondence. Revs. J.A. Heys and C. Hanko did much or perhaps all of the latter. The Rev. Lau Chin Kwee, currently an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore, received three years of instruction in our Seminary. Jaikaishin Mahtani, currently about half way through three years of training for the ministry, is studying at our Seminary. This brother hopes to return to Singapore after the 1985-’86 seminary term in order to be examined and ordained in the ministry of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore. There are advantages and disadvantages in both methods, but both have worked out rather well. As the mission churches grow and develop they will supply their own theological training for prospective ministers and missionaries. Concerning the training of elders and deacons, we believe this is an important part of the work of the missionaries. Promising men, men who possess the necessary gifts for church office, must be instructed in the fundamentals of Reformed doctrine, Bible History, and Church Polity. Instruction must also be given in the calling and duties of elders and deacons. In sum, these men must be trained to assume leadership in the congregation.
The new church must also be “self-propagating.” By this we mean that the newly organized congregation of believers and their children under the care of Christ through the officebearers has the mandate of Christ to “go into all the world” preaching and teaching the gospel. The mission calling applies with equal force to them as to the older, established, sending churches.
This, therefore, must be the goal of our mission labor. Wherever God out of His good pleasure sends us we must preach the gospel commanding all to repent and believe. We must do this with God’s appointed means: “the foolishness of preaching” (cf. I Corinthians 1). The whole counsel of God must be proclaimed publicly and from house to house (cf. Acts 20:17-35). Our goal must be to organize believers and their children into manifestations of the Body of Jesus Christ.
Doing this we may be confident that God will give the increase. God’s Word does not return void. He is pleased to save His elect by the foolishness of preaching. By that same foolishness God is pleased to make of no effect the wisdom and power of the world. In the way of faithfulness to this calling we may confess with the Apostle, “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many who corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (II Corinthians 2:14-17). We may be confident too that when the gospel has been preached to the nations for a witness, God will bring the end of all things (Matthew 24:14). In no less a work of God are we involved in the work of missions. May the Lord give us grace to persevere to His glory.