The reader will recall that we are involved in an analysis of the significant little book, The Planting And Development of Missionary Churches, written by the seasoned Presbyterian missionary of nearly a century ago, Dr. John L. Nevius. Nevius contended that the new converts should not be employed and paid by the mission for the work of preaching and evangelism. They should rather be left in their stations in life and encouraged to leave a witness to the Gospel by word and deed. This, Nevius argued, is much more conducive to the spread of the Gospel than using paid helpers from among the native Christians. It cannot be denied that in places where his methods have been followed, China and Korea especially, there has been amazing growth in the mission churches.
The question naturally arises, how shall the missionaries deal with the new converts? This question becomes especially acute with the passage of time and the growth of the mission churches. After all, there comes a time when the missionaries must leave, in order that the mission churches may stand on their own. There comes a time when those “young” churches must have their own native pastors and teachers. How must all this be accomplished? In response to this question Nevius had this to say: “We may get help in learning how to deal with new converts and stations (he means mission preaching stations, potential but as yet unorganized churches, R.D.D.) by considering the nature of the Church and the law of its development. Christianity, whether embodied in the individual or in a Church, is the outgrowth of a vital principle. In the spiritual as well as vegetable kingdom every vital germ has its own law of life and development, and it is only in following that law that the highest development can be secured. Christianity has been introduced into the world as a plant which will thrive best confronting and contending with all the forces of its environment; not as a feeble exotic which can only live when nursed and sheltered. All unnecessary nursing will do it harm. A pine may be trained into a beautiful and fantastic shape so as to be an object of interest and curiosity, and it may flourish in a way; but it will not tower heavenward as the king of the forest, unless from first to last it is subjected to the various and seemingly adverse influences of scorching sun, biting frost and raging tempest. A certain amount of care, and especially the right kind, is necessary; too much or injudicious care is injurious and may be fatal to the life which it is intended to promote” (p. 26). That which we know from Scripture concerning the preaching and teaching of the Apostles and their co-laborers and the churches which were organized as a fruit of that preaching certainly supports Nevius’ position. The Apostles as a rule did not stay very long in one place. After preaching awhile they moved on. As soon as possible, in some instances within only a few months after the initial contact with the Gospel, elders were ordained. The Apostles were not able to give, and as a matter of historical record did not give, to the newly organized churches much personal attention. Even those churches which experienced severe problems and troubles (notably Corinth!) were allowed to develop. To be sure, the Apostles did write letters which were often addressed to the problems and weaknesses, but they themselves either refrained from visiting the churches or were restrained from doing so. The point of all this is that the new church, the mission church, must grow and develop naturally, indigenously in its own country. The new church must develop, using its own spiritual and material resources. That new church must fight the battle of faith, evangelize, preach, and teach the Gospel in its own land. That Church must have its own officebearers. It must express its unity and faith creedally over against the enemies of the cause of God and the heresies and false religions peculiar to its own land. To be specific, the Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore, organized as a fruit of Protestant Reformed mission work must be a Reformed Church in Singapore. It must have its own pastor and elders and deacons. Pastor den Hartog must not stay there indefinitely. Mission churches ought not to be dependent upon the sending church indefinitely.
This means, obviously, that the new church needs its own officebearers. It is of utmost importance that these “first be proved” before being ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons (cf. I Timothy 3:10). In the zeal and enthusiasm of new converts they can often, unwittingly, deceive not only the missionaries but also themselves. Scripture after all lays down certain basic qualifications a man must have before he can be called to office in God’s church. The bishop must be blameless, a good husband, one who rules well his own house, one who has ability to teach; he must not be a drunkard, he must not be covetous, he must be given to hospitality (cf. I Timothy 3:1-5). What is particularly applicable to the mission field is taught in verses six and seven of I Timothy 3 “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” A “novice” is one only very recently converted. He lacks experience in the Christian life. He is just beginning to fight the battle of faith. Often it can happen that the joy of salvation which floods his soul leads him to believe mistakenly that God calls him to the ministry. Later, in the heat of the battle, he stumbles and falls. Such candidates for church office must be tested before they are rushed off to the Seminary or hurried into the office of elder or deacon. They must encounter the trials and difficulties which must be faced in the ministry. Above all it must be evident to the church that these men display those qualifications the minister must possess according to the Word of God. Still more, they must have a good reputation on the part of those “that are without,” i.e. outside of the church. This is necessary for obvious reasons. A man who is known as a liar or cheater or a scoundrel in some other way is certain to be of little or no effect either in the church or in the work of evangelism and missions.
Those converts who, in the course of time, manifest the qualifications for church office according to the Scriptures must be instructed and trained for that office before they are ordained. Nevius strongly believed that this training “includes not only study, but work, trial, and perhaps suffering. It should be such as will fit a man to endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (p. 27). What he meant by this Nevius explained: “A man may be carried through a course of theological training, freed from the struggle of ordinary life by having all his wants provided for, and yet get very little of this disciplinary training which is so important. We may think we are helping a man by relieving him of burdens when in fact we are injuring him by interfering with this training” (pp. 27, 28).
In this connection Nevius notes that taking the proper time to do this is a necessity. Missionaries and their sending churches are often far too hasty in selecting suitable candidates for the ministry and giving them a two or three year “crash course” in doctrine, sermon making, exegesis, etc. It is feared that the cause of Christ will suffer unless these native pastors are quickly prepared for the work. This certainly is not the Biblical pattern. Nevius correctly points to the example of the Apostle Paul From the time the Apostle was struck down by Christ on the Damascus road until the hands of ordination were laid on his head at Antioch was nearly ten years! We know from the history of Paul’s ministry that the Apostle needed that lengthy preparation for a life of arduous work and persecution. The Aposlte Paul’s spiritual son, Timothy, obtained a good report among the Christians at Lystra and Derbe only after several years of work there. Only after this did he accompany the Apostle Paul as one of his companions and helpers. And only after several years of this which no doubt included instruction from the Apostle did Timothy become a co-laborer with the Apostle in the Church. The taking of proper time to train men for the office is necessary from the point of view of their being proved. In the normal course of events, that a man is qualified for the ministry is confirmed by his training. It can also happen that the training indicates that a man lacks the qualifications for the ministry and that he can better serve the Lord in some other capacity.
Even during the training period Nevius advocates that the converts be left in their place in life. “Nothing can supply the place of God’s providential training in the school of ordinary life and practical experience. . . .Meanwhile we should give these young converts all the instruction, advice, and help which Christian sympathy and prudence suggest” (p. 28).
Whether one agrees with this methodology in all its particulars or not, one thing is clear, viz., the main theses are correct. They are Scriptural and for that very reason they are effective on the mission fields. In the main, they ought to be followed, though not slavishly in every detail. Time and circumstances of the various fields in which the church is preaching may very well dictate some modification of these methods. However that may be, two things must be done: the young church must be allowed to develop naturally and without an unhealthy dependence on the sending church; and there comes a time when the sending church and its missionaries must commit the converts “to the Lord on Whom they believed.’ ” The missionaries ought not to stay indefinitely. They must leave the young church to grow and develop. They must seek other fields of labor in order that the work of the gathering of the church out of the nations may continue until Jesus returns.