Missions and the Local Church

In their Church Polity generally and with respect to Mission work in particular the Protestant Reformed Churches from their beginning have always attempted to steer a course between two dangerous errors. These errors are: independentism and hierarchy with its “synodical boardism.” Concerning mission work the question is, who must do the work? According to those who favor independentism the local congregations do missions quite independently of each other. Each congregation has its own mission program. Those who favor hierarchy insist that the Synod must strictly regulate and operate the mission program of the churches. Synodical committees or boards select the fields, supervise the missionaries, assign the missionaries, and administer the finances involved. Under this arrangement there is strong central control and often efficient management of the mission work of the churches, but the local churches have very little if any direct contact with the mission work. Although the pendulum may have swung toward the one or the other of these through the years (some of our leaders feel that the churches are going in the direction of independentism today) it is fair to say that the Protestant Reformed Churches have consistently avoided both of these. No one really wants independentism and certainly no one wants hierarchy. There has always been close cooperation among the local congregations. After 1924 the churches organized a denomination along Biblical and Reformed lines just as soon as that became possible in order that a Seminary could be maintained and mission work done, etc. That the churches want no part of hierarchy is evident in their very name. We are not the Protestant Reformed Church in America but the Protestant Reformed Churches (plural) in America. 

The question remains, however, who must do the mission work, synod or each local church? The answer is, both. Scripture teaches, and we believe, that missions is the work of the local church in cooperation with its sister churches of the denomination. To put it concretely, God calls First Grand Rapids to do mission work and He also calls Hope of Redlands, California to do mission work. But neither First nor Redlands may do that work independently of the other churches of the denomination. By the same token, missions may not be done by a Synodical committee (board) apart from the local churches. Mission work according to Scripture and our Church Order (including the Questions for Church Visitation) must be done by the local congregation in cooperation with its sister churches in the denomination. 

There are at least two grounds upon which this truth rests. The first is that it is only the local church which is authorized to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline. Only the local church may call a minister or a missionary. The local church with its threefold office of Christ (minister, elder, deacon) is a complete manifestation of the Body of Christ in a particular locale. To each such manifestation of Christ’s Body comes the word, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). No classis and no synod may preach the Word and administer the sacraments. Synods may not call and ordain missionaries. Only the local church may do that. The task of missions, which is essentially the preaching of the gospel, belongs to the institute of the church of Jesus Christ. 

This ground is in harmony with the principle of the “autonomy of the local church.” This principle, affirmed by the General Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken of Middleburg (1896), has always been jealously guarded by the Protestant Reformed Churches. This is Biblical and, therefore, Reformed. The Apostle Paul and Barnabas were not called by a synod to go on that first missionary journey. The Holy Spirit worked through the Church at Antioch: “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed . . .” (Mark 13:1-4). 

There are practical considerations in this respect. When the local church is involved in the mission work, it brings the work much closer to the hearts of the people of God. They know the field and the missionaries. They are aware of the problems and difficulties encountered by the missionaries. They share firsthand in the joy of the missionaries when, as a fruit of the preaching, the elect are gathered and a church is established. In this way they are enabled to pray the more fervently and knowledgeably for the missionary and the field. In this way too they are able to encourage and assist the missionary more readily in his need. Synodically run missions tend to remove the fields and missionaries from the people of God, and all these things become rather vague and nebulous. Besides, it is much easier to mobilize a smaller group behind the cause than a larger group. In addition, there is much which the local church can do and ought to do in its own area. Radio broadcasts of differing formats (one of the worship services, preaching like the Reformed Witness Hour, Question and Answer, etc.) can be sponsored. Rallies at the time of Reformation Day and lectures can be held. These ought to be advertised well in advance. Tracts and pamphlets can be published and distributed in public places, in libraries, or mailed. Personal contacts with area residents can be made. Even the smaller churches of the denomination can do these things. But, whatever the method, the Word must be preached, and that may only be done by the institute of the church of Christ. 

This mission work done by the local church must be done in cooperation with the sister churches of the denomination. Sister churches of the denomination have the sacred obligation to seek one another’s fellowship in the truth, to help and assist one another in the calling to preach the gospel, and to work in concert to accomplish those tasks which each by itself is unable to do. A Theological School must be maintained so that the churches are supplied with ministers and missionaries, contacts must be nurtured with foreign churches of like faith, churches must be assisted in the work of missions. This is the Biblical way. The churches of the early New Testament lived and worked this way. When Jerusalem’s poor church was in need, the Apostle Paul collected money from all the churches to help in that need. There was constant contact and communication among the churches. When a problem arose concerning the circumcision of the Gentile converts (a problem which strikingly enough arose out of mission work!), a conference of church leaders was called in Jerusalem to resolve the difficulty. (Cf. Acts 15

Practical considerations of various sorts make cooperation among the churches advisable but even necessary. Some fields, many perhaps, are too large and complicated for any one church to handle by itself. If there were no cooperation, smaller congregations would be limited in their ability to carry out the mission mandate. Still more, the churches in common have a responsibility to use their mutual gifts, talents, resources, and manpower in the work of preaching the gospel at home and abroad. 

We conclude then that the local church, in cooperation with the sister churches of the denomination, has the calling to do the work of missions. Where there is cooperation among the congregations, needless and harmful duplication of efforts can be avoided. The Synod through its mission committees must search for fields where God has opened a door for the churches. It must coordinate the work, and it must serve the churches with advice and counsel. In this way the work will be done by the institute of the church and the entire denomination will be involved in a meaningful way. The Gospel will go forth wherever God out of His goodpleasure sends it. And, the evils of independentism and hierarchy will be avoided. 

This is clearly delineated in the Constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee of the Protestant Reformed Churches. (Cf. Acts of Synod, 1977, pp. 32ff.) Article Four of this constitution reads: “The duties of the Mission Committee are: 1. To carry out all mandates of Synod that pertain to mission activity of the churches in common. 2. To find possible fields and recommend them to the churches. 3. As part of its regulation of the mission work of the churches in common, to advise a calling church with regard to all matters concerning the labor and field of activity connected with the appointment and maintenance of a missionary. In case of disagreements which cannot be resolved the final disposition shall be left to Synod . . . I. 6. To advise the calling church with regard to the organization of a new congregation. . . .” Article seven reads: “Although the local church has the calling to perform the work of missions, Synod regulates the mission work of the churches in common through its mission committee, working closely with the local consistory. The relationship between the local church and the Mission Committee will mean: 1. That the local church and the mission committee will work closely together to determine a field of labor, the time of labor, and the method of labor to be employed. 2. That the decision of the local calling church regarding the field of labor, the time of labor, and the method of labor, is to receive the approval of the mission committee. In no case shall the field of labor, the time of labor, and the method of labor be determined without the advice of the Mission Committee. . . . 4. The missionary shall send a copy of his bi-monthly report to the calling church.”