Several months ago we began a study of the book,The Planting And Development Of Missionary Churches, by Dr. John L. Nevius. Dissatisfied with the mission methods of his day (late 1800s) Nevius proposed a new method which has come to be known as the “Nevius method or plan.” The old plan depended largely on paid native preachers and evangelists and sought to foster and stimulate the growth and development of the native mission by pouring money into the work. It is the contention of Nevius that this is contrary to Scripture; and because it is that it hinders the growth and development of the mission churches. Nevius advocated that there be no paid native clergy. In addition the principles of self-reliance and independence ought to be applied from the very beginning.
The obvious question becomes, how ought the missionary to deal with the new converts? Nevius points to the importance of this question when he writes: “The reception of first converts in any mission is an epoch fruitful of consequences for good or evil. The course pursued at this time will establish precedents, and in a great measure fix policy and determine the character of the Church of the future. How then shall .these first converts be dealt with? To this weighty question the Scriptures furnish us some ready answers” (p. 19). To support his contention that there ought to be no paid native preachers but that the converts ought to remain in their occupations Nevius calls attention to I Corinthians 7:20, 24: “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. . .Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.” This Apostolic injunction was ordained for all the churches (I Cor. 7:17). These verses teach “most emphatically that Christianity should not disturb the social relations of its adherents, but requires them to be content with their lot, and to illustrate the Gospel in the spheres of life in which they are called” (p. 19). In making evangelists and preachers out of new converts, missionaries are literally, though unconsciously, opposing a divine purpose, Nevius charges. Furthermore he writes: “Such a course directly tends to unsettle the minds of new converts and excites the very feelings of restlessness and discontent which this command seems specially designed to prevent” (p. 19).
It should be understood that Nevius is not objecting to the use of some paid native preachers and evangelists. What he advocates is that these be kept to a minimum. Still more, they must not be novices, i.e., very recently converted. These are untried. Scripture itself speaks with unmistakable clarity to this point: “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (I Timothy 3:6). The Apostle further instructed Timothy: “Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure” (I Timothy 5:22). We do well to listen to this experienced missionary at this point. “By one rash and unauthorized step we may inflict an irreparable injury on the person in whom we are so much interested, and destroy all hopes of his future usefulness.” How true this is! The proper way is to allow the new Christians to remain in their callings and witness to the faith by word of mouth and by the godly example of their lives. If in the course of time it becomes evident that the Lord calls some to the ministry they can be properly trained and called by the churches.
Turning to the subject of the importance of precedents, Nevius observes: “The Chinese are remarkable for their tendency to follow a fixed routine, and to be governed by precedents. If the first convert is soon employed, those who follow will expect to be also. If the first station is supplied with a chapel, succeeding ones will require the same, and so on indefinitely. As a matter of precedent, the question as to whether the Gospel shall be first introduced by the instrumentality of paid or unpaid agents is of such importance as to deserve very careful attention.” In our opinion the Chinese are not unique in this tendency to “follow a fixed routine, and to be governed by precedents” (p. 21). This would be true in any mission situation. People are pretty much the same in this respect. What was true of the Chinese on the mainland around the turn of the century is true of mission work in any part of the world today. In support of his position that the hiring of new converts to be paid preachers would be to set a bad precedent, Nevius points to the striking example of the Apostle Paul who purposed to preach the Gospel “without charge.” The Apostle writes to the Thessalonians: “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you; Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (II Thess. 3:7-12). Apparently there .were some in the Church who, because of their mistaken notions of the immediate return of Christ, refused to work. These were busybodies interfering with the affairs of others and spreading false rumors concerning the coming of the Day of the Lord. These people appealed to the Church for their material needs. The Apostle admonished them to get to work. They must eat their own bread, the fruit of their own work. In this respect the Apostle left them the example. He himself worked with his own hands while he preached the gospel lest he be a burden to the Church. The Apostle did that not because he lacked the right to support, but to be an example to the saints (cf. vs. 9; “power” is better translated “right”). William Hendricksen, in his Commentary on I Thessalonians 2:9, offers a good summary of the Apostle’s position on this whole matter: “( 1) Titus 1:11: He definitely does not want to give any occasion for being placed in a class with ‘vain talkers’ who are interested in ‘filthy lucre.’ (2) I Cor. 9:6-15: He nevertheless emphatically asserts the right to receive remuneration from the church for performing spiritual work, and to receive it even from the converts themselves (see especially verse 11). Nevertheless, as far as the latter group is concerned (the converts), he has decided not to make use of that right (see verse 15). (3) Acts 20:33: He will now be able to say, ‘I coveted no man’s silver, gold, or apparel.’ (4) II Cor. 11:8: He does at times take ‘wages’ from already established churches, while he is working in a new field. (5) Phil. 4:10-20: He accepts gifts from an already established church (Philippi). (6) Acts 20:34, 35; I Thess. 2:9 and II Thess. 3:8: Most of all, he provides for his own needs (and even for the needs of others) by laboring with his own hands. (7) Acts 18:3: He is a tent-maker by trade. (8) I Cor. 6:12, 8:9, 13, 9:12, 10:23: The principle on which he insists again and again (applying it to various questions) is this: All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful: there are a good many things which I have a right to do, but that does not mean that I should therefore do them! The real question is always: ‘What course of action will be most useful in promoting the work of the kingdom and glory of God?’ (9) II Cor. 11:7: Even so, in spite of this carefully worked out plan with respect to work and wages, he does not escape criticism. If he takes money, or if his enemies suspect that he does, they are ready to charge him with selfishness, greed; if he does not, they accuse him of making a show of his humility. (10) I Cor. 4:12; Eph. 4:28; I Thess. 2:9; II Thess. 3:8, 10: He (and the Holy Spirit through him!) dignifies labor, and proclaims the great principle: ‘If any man will not work neither let him eat.” (emphasis, Hendricksen’s)
Precisely for these reasons Nevius believes “it best, at least in the first stages of mission work, for the native evangelist to follow Paul’s example. Take a man laboring on the plane of his ordinary life as an earnest Christian and make him a paid agent, and you deprive him of half his influence” (p. 22). Let the missionary do the preaching, let the new converts abide in their callings at least in the initial stages of the work. “What we want,” Nevius continues “are examples of men illustrating Christianity during six days of secular work, as well as by one day of Sabbath observance. Such men and women present Christianity in the concrete. They are ‘cities set on a hill’ ‘epistles known and read of all men.’ When stations multiply after this type they strike root into the soil. There is life and aggressiveness in them.” This, no one can deny, is sound, Biblical mission methodology. Because it is patterned after the methods of the Apostles this method is applicable to any field of mission labor.
This leaves one question: “Why do not missionaries themselves work with their own hands and set the same example that Paul did?” (p. 23). Nevius argues that if the circumstances were the same, most missionaries would do so gladly. Paul was a Roman citizen in the Roman Empire. He labored in his native land. He was a master of both Hebrew and Greek, the languages in which he preached and taught. Missionaries today often must undertake the difficult task of learning a foreign language before they can even begin to work. Besides, for a foreigner (and such is the missionary) to be in competition with natives in the work force is not only impractical but also harmful to the cause of the Gospel.
To the objection that to depend on so much voluntary, unpaid labor of native Christians is to require a much greater amount of zeal and devotion than is found among members of the sending church Nevius replies: “If this is true, so much the worse for Christians at home” (p. 25). This is not true. There is a whole host of voluntary, unpaid workers in God’s Church. Think of the countless hours elders and deacons spend in the work of the Church. There are Sunday School teachers, organists and choir directors, and committee members. There are godly widows and mothers in Israel who visit the sick and care for the elderly. This is as it should be. This is as it should be in the mission churches as well.