Previous article in this series: May 1, 2006, p. 340.
In the two previous editorials I urged that the mission work of the Protestant Reformed Churches is worthy of heartiest support. First, it is worthy of support because of what it is—the diligent labor of churches and men eager to be faithful to the calling of Jesus Christ. Men of God and their families give their lives for the highest cause. In the hope that God’s people will be called and God’s name lifted up they go out. Second, it is worthy of support because of what it is not—an attempt to make the kingdom of Christ an earthly kingdom and the church of Christ merely a tool to serve this “kingdom.”
But gratitude for what God has given the churches is not the same as proud belief that the only wisdom regarding missions lies in the PRC, or naïve assumption that there cannot be growth and development of our understanding of Christ’s calling in missions. In fact, true gratitude always seeks to be more faithful, to grow in obedience, to increase capacity for living dutifully. The greater the gratitude the stronger the desires to improve. Faithful over a little, we may be given responsibility over more.
During the past two years, a large part of this editor’s task in preparing for teaching missions in the seminary has been to read and study the history of PRC denominational missions. This involved a careful reading of most of the missions decisions in the Acts of Synod of the PRC from 1940 to 2004—almost 65 years of missions history. The record of the PRC’s mission labors before 1940 is in the minutes first of the combined consistories, and then of the single classis—periodic meetings of representatives of all the PRC consistories. These minutes—mostly handwritten and in Dutch—have been translated by the late Rev. Cornelius Hanko. To read and study all of the material would have been impossible in the time available, except for the existence of a meticulously constructed index of the Acts of Synod and the minutes of the combined consistory meetings. Mr. Donald Doezema, stated clerk of synod, must be thanked for this work. Each year, the Index is updated, so that a student of PRC history can carefully research almost any topic (not just missions) if he has access to all of the Acts of Synod, which almost every PRC minister and many church libraries have.
In the course of studying PRC missions history, the increasingly strong conviction of this editor is that there are two areas in which PRC missions can grow in their faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Suggesting a need to grow in faithfulness is not necessarily to be taken as criticism, not of the missionaries or of those who oversaw their work—any more than to say that Christ’s growth in obedience (Heb. 5:8) implies He previously was disobedient. Besides, as will be shown, there may be good reasons—historical reasons—that explain why the growth in at least one of these areas has been delayed. At the same time, there are also reasons—good reasons—to be convinced that the time to seek this growth is the present.
First, the documents show that, in the course of working out missions policy and practice, there has been little appeal to Reformed church mission precedent. Most of the decisions—good decisions—were made without explicit grounding in Reformed tradition. The records do not show that the mission policies adopted by the synods over the years were policies based on those from previous generations in the Reformed church world so that the PRC would stand on the shoulders of those who went before. And when issues or problems in missions arose, more often than not the resolution of those issues was not grounded in appeal to history. “What did the Reformed church in the past say when she faced these questions?” was not often asked. Because of this, many crucial missions decisions were, or appear to be, building from the ground floor.
This is a surprising thing for the PRC, whose life for 80 years has been defined by appeals to history. Reformed churches always ask the “question of history.” Rightly they do so. No decisions regarding doctrine, worship, church government, or life, should be taken without a conscious grounding in the past. With that consciousness, the PRC have sought to “hold the traditions” and ask for the “old paths” (II Thess. 2:15; Jer. 6:16). In the debates regarding common grace (the PRC’s origin) and in the controversy over a conditional covenant, history was followed. The old paths were called for in discussions over Psalm-singing and other matters of worship. And when there is question regarding the Christian walk, such as marriage and divorce, “What has the church in the past decided?” is one of the first questions asked. Indeed, tradition may be corrected, if it is shown to be in conflict with the Scriptures. But tradition will be consulted. This does honor to the Spirit’s work in the church of the past and preserves the church from a careless sectarian spirit that isolates. It also is the principle implied in the Church Order, Article 46. The denomination is and must remain a part of the church down through the ages.
But in the matter of missions, this sense has not been so strong. Two examples illustrate this. The struggle in the PRC some 25 years ago over baptism on the mission field produced much good fruit (see especially the document in the Acts of Synod, 1976, pp. 103-115), but produced little reference to history and tradition. Interestingly, one of the first questions faced by the Reformed churches in the Netherlands doing mission work was the question of baptism in missions. Or, in the question of the objects of missions—should we go to pagans or to “erring Christians”—there appears to be no appeal to history to justify going to the “schismatics among confessing Christians,” even though there is long history, ancient history, of the church sending missionaries first to those who had departed from the true faith. Happily, there are exceptions. But they are exceptions, and not the rule in the PRC’s history.
What is necessary, first (to start at home), is that the seminary require the students to be familiar with missions history, beginning with the history of missions in the PRC, but including the history of Reformed missions and Christian missions from the earliest days. The seminary teacheschurch history and history of doctrine; included should be some missions history. Second, growth in obedience in missions is that decisions taken at synods and in the mission committees be taken, as much as possible, in the light of the past. Third, the missionaries themselves will want to be fluent in the ways of the church in this great gospel work—both past and present—so that they can assist the calling church and the synodical committee in knowing both the precedents and the modern errors to avoid.
The churches can also grow in faithfulness by increased training of those who will participate in missions. The training could include both of the missionary and of the bodies supervising the missionary.
That the churches have not required special training for missionaries may also be surprising. Yet a consideration of the PRC history in missions will explain the lack. From the beginning, the Lord opened doors for missions mainly among those who were already Christians but wanted to be instructed in the Reformed faith. Most opportunities the Lord gave were among “erring brethren” in other Reformed denominations. So missionaries criss-crossed the country preaching and organizing churches among those who were already very close to being Protestant Reformed. For this work, a thorough seminary training was sufficient. Little, if any, specialized training in missions was even considered.
In the last decades, since the 1970s (1960s if Jamaican missions are included), the Lord has been opening other doors. The missionaries have been working among those who know nothing of the Reformed faith, and sometimes little if anything about Christianity. Protestant Reformed missionaries have worked in different cultures, both at home and abroad, in Jamaica and Singapore, the Philippines, India, and Ghana. Even the two current “home missionaries” labor in areas where non-Christian religions and radical heresies abound. The majority of contacts are no longer white Dutchmen with Christian education and solid family background. The religions are strange to the missionaries, the cultures—even local cultures—stranger. Now, the missionary’s task is not simply to assist the potential church members in the Reformed faith. Times for Protestant Reformed missionaries have changed.
But the requirements for training have not changed. They should. Men in the churches are beginning to express this sense of need. Last year’s report on the missions in Ghana, produced jointly by the calling church and the Foreign Mission Committee, was a call for missionary training (see the full report in the Acts of Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005, pp. 96-117). The report reflects on the reasons to close the field in Ghana. “Our work in Ghana has … suffered from our own lack … in providing a focused training of ministers for the work of missions.” “The work of missions … is markedly different from the work of the pastoral ministry.” The joint report judges that the churches were “unduly optimistic” when they expressed the judgment that only a short period of “briefing and training will be necessary for the missionary and his co-worker.” When synod examined the report, synod judged similarly. Among the mistakes listed in a painful self-examination were inability to communicate with non- English-speakers and an incorrect judgment that only a “minimal amount of culture training would be necessary.” “The FMC reports indicate that they as a committee, and we as churches, were unprepared to undertake the work in Ghana.” Part of the lack was training.
This is not the first time the PRC have seen the need for training missionaries. Already in 1952, synod issued a special call for “young men who desire to prepare themselves for foreign mission work in our seminary.” At the same time, the Theological School Committee and the faculty were instructed to “study a proposed missionary training program in our seminary” and report to the following synod. The following year was the culmination of the schism in the churches, and nothing came of the mandate. Is there a reason it should not be resurrected?
In 1999, the Theological School Committee received a significant gift from an estate. The TSC earmarked this gift specifically for “instruction focusing on missionary skills and/or for student internships involving missions.” Synod 2000 gave guidelines for use of the funds. Let us use them, while the Lord tarries.
Thorough training of missionaries has a history.
Gisbertus Voetsius, sometimes called the “father of reformed missions,” mandated specialized training for all missionaries in the earliest days of the Reformation. Voetsius lived from 1589 to 1676. After a rigorous selection process, Voetsius and the churches required the candidates to be thoroughly trained in languages of the people, their religious and cultural history, even science, history, eloquence, and social skills. This is the history of Reformed missions.
Again, a beginning is made in the seminary. In the past years, Professor Robert Decker has developed courses that are important in this regard. World Religions is required of every student. Cross-Cultural Missions and Contemporary Trends in Missiology have been offered as elective interim courses. These are good beginnings for training a Protestant Reformed missionary in the twenty-first century. The seminary must build on these good beginnings.
If the Lord gives strength and opportunity to the churches, there could also be developed a training program for calling churches and mission committee members. All would be well-served by a familiarity with 1) mission principles, 2) Protestant Reformed mission history, 3) missions history generally, and 4) the great value of learning the differences in cultures and the mistakes that can be made without this understanding. Since Babel, the cultural differences have grown so great, it is well-nigh irresponsible not to learn the culture and customs of the people with whom a man will labor.
Let us pray for our missionaries and their families, for the consistories and committees that oversee them. Let us pray for and support them intelligently. Let us read missions history. Let us be knowledgeable of this great work of Jesus Christ in gathering His church.
Lord God, gather, defend, and preserve Thy church. Be pleased to use us. Make us faithful.