As I sit at my typewriter in the comfortable study of my home in the Beckwith Hills subdivision of Northeast Grand Rapids to write these articles on Missionary Methods I often feel rather uneasy. To write about the principles of missions as these may be gleaned from Holy Scripture is not difficult. But to write about how these principles ought to be implemented on the mission fields both here in North America and abroad is not so easy. There are problems and difficulties, for example, which Christians in Singapore face which are unknown to Christians in America; and the opposite is also true. As we stated before, however, we are convinced that Scripture teaches both the principles and the proper methods of missions. The Gospel, after all, transcends racial, cultural, economic differences and every other difference which exists among the nations of the earth. The gracious power of the Gospel makes us all one in Christ Jesus. In the multitude which no man can number (Revelation 7) there will be saints out of every nation. That conviction has guided us in writing thus far, and out of that conviction we shall proceed. With this article we return to our study of Dr. John L. Nevius’ book, Planting and Development of Missionary Churches. In chapter four of this book Nevius deals with this question: “What is the best mode of organization for native converts in new stations?” In other words, along which lines ought the native church to be organized? The author points out that when missionaries first arrive upon a foreign field this question scarcely enters their minds. The answer appears self-evident to them. If the missionary is an Anglican he simply assumes the native church ought to have the episcopal form of church government. If the missionary is Presbyterian he aims to organize the church under the Presbyterian and Reformed system of church government. Missionaries simply naturally fall into this without asking questions. They are anxious to put into practice as soon as possible the form of church government with which they are the most familiar and which they are convinced is biblical.
But, writes Nevius, “When the missionary, associated with co-laborers of different nationalities and church connections, looks at the question of organization from the stand-point of mission work on heathen ground, it assumes new aspects, and a few years’ experience and observation will probably effect a considerable modification of views. He soon finds that missionaries of different denominations ignore in a measure for the time being their several systems and, in the first stage of their work, agree in the main in a new plan which all have adopted under the force of circumstances. He sees companies of Christians placed under the care of unofficial religious teachers, and native evangelists preaching in unevangelized districts, while there are as yet no organized churches, and perhaps no bishops, elders, or deacons, nor even candidates for the ministry; only missionaries, and native preachers having the names of ‘helpers,’ ‘catechists,’ ‘native assistants,’ . . .In places where stations have reached a more advanced stage of development, requiring some sort of organization, missionaries are sometimes led by personal proclivities and local circumstances to the adoption of methods quite aside from their previous antecedents. Not long since in a conference at Chefoo of missionaries from different parts of China, it was discovered that an Independent was carrying on his work on Presbyterian principles, ‘because they best suited his field’; in the methods of another Independent from a different province the prelatical element predominated, while a Presbyterian was found working on a plan which had very little of Presbyterianism in it, but a singular blending of Methodism, Independency, and Prelacy” (pp. 55, 56).
From these facts, according to Nevius, we are to learn “that practical experience seems to point to the conclusion in the West are not to be, at least without some modification, our guides in the founding of infant churches in a heathen land” (p. 56). The only guide for the founding of mission churches is Holy Scripture. Does this mean that the existing forms of church government in the West are unscriptural? The answer, says Nevius, is no. He explains: “A plan of organization in England or America may be very different from one adopted in China, and both though different may be equally Scriptural; and one of them may be suited to the home church and one to a mission station, just because they are different” (p. 56). The all important question is, Nevius contends, (and we certainly agree this is the all important question) what do the Scriptures teach concerning church government and organization? Does Scripture lay down certain fixed and unchanging and rigid rules of church government to be followed at all times and under all circumstances? Or does Scripture give us a system based on general principles: “…purposely flexible and readily adapting itself, under the guidance of God’s Spirit and providence in which the Church can be placed?” (p. 56). Nevius answers: “I believe the latter is the true supposition” (p. 56).
Nevius, however, does believe that the main principles which form the basis of church organization and government in the West are Scriptural. In this connection he mentions the emphasis in Scripture on the office of believer, the appointment of elders as rulers in the churches, and the office of deacon. Nevius also speaks of “superintendents or overseers, having the charge and care of many associated churches with their elders and deacons” in the early history of the church (p. 57). To what or whom Nevius refers is unclear. If he means the Apostles he is correct. The apostle Paul, for example, speaks of the daily burden of the care of all the churches which was upon him (cf.II Corinthians 11:28 ff.). But, it must be remembered, the office of Apostle was unique and limited to the first century A.D., the age of revelation.
In support of his position, and this is a crucial part of his argument, Nevius points to “. . .diversity and gradual progression in the application of these principles. . .distinctly traceable in the New Testament” (p. 57). The Gospels and the early part of the Acts indicate a very simple form of government while the latter part of Acts and the Epistles reveal a more complete system of government developed from “previously established germinal principles” (p. 57). There can be no doubt about this. The office of Deacon arose in just this fashion out of a specific need in the early church. Nevius also points to the fact that there has been change and development through the entire course of the history of the church from apostolic times to the present. This too is true, although some and even perhaps much of the change has not been for the good of the church; Out of all this Nevius raises “. . .the general question as to whether the present forms of church government are not severally characterized by the special development of some one element to the exclusion of others which should supplement and modify it, presenting abnormal and disproportionate growths, each Scriptural in its dominating idea, but unscriptural in its human narrowness?” (p. 58). The answer of Nevius would obviously be affirmative.
Nevius continues with a plea for unity in these matters among the various missionaries and denominations represented on the China mission field. The missionaries ought “avoid as much as possible in the future the divergences which impair the unity and efficiency of the Church at home, retaining and perpetuating a degree of uniformity and co-operation which in Western lands seems impracticable. . . .Would it not have a decided influence for good on the home churches?” (p. 58).
Nevius concludes: “On the supposition that present forms of church organization are adapted to secure the-best spiritual interests of the Church in the West, the presumption is that in certain respects they are for that very reason not adapted to the wants of mission churches in China. What circumstances could differ more widely than those of churches which are the development of centuries or a millennium of Christian culture, and those just emerging from heathenism?” (p. 58).
The author continues by applying these ideas to the needs of the mission in China where he labored. To this we shall direct our attention in the next issue. Let it be noted, however, that these questions are not merely some interesting, abstract matters of Church Polity and Missiology. They are questions which concern principles of Scripture and, therefore, they are critical for the well-being of the church of Jesus Christ in every nation under heaven. In essence our churches faced the basic issue involved when they refused to organize the Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore on any other basis than the Three Forms of Unity. May the Lord continue to guide His church in the way of the truth also in its mission labors.