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Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: December 15, 2007, p. 131.

According to John Nevius, an indigenous church includes the three self-helps he made famous: self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting. In this article we will consider the first of these, self-governing.

Admittedly, these three self-helps are integrated, and it is very difficult to isolate them from each other and treat them separately. Also, the subjects are comprehensive and basic to all mission work, yet we must be pointed and brief. With respect to self-governing we will try to relate Paul’s method to our own today.

Self-government concerns itself with the relationship between the sending church and the mission church that is eventually formed. The goal of the sending church is that the mission church in a foreign land assume its own leadership and decision making, whether in its own local congregation or in a federation that may be formed under the Lord’s blessing. To achieve this requires the commitment of the sending church to train the mission church to do this and then to withdraw when it is accomplished.

This is easier said than done.

It will help us to grapple with some of the issues involved if we take a brief look at the way the great missionary, the apostle Paul, did his work among the early Christian churches. We get help for this from Roland Allen’s book, Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours? (p. 84).

The facts are these: St Paul preached in a place for five or six months and then left behind him a church, not indeed free from the need of guidance, but capable of growth and expansion. For example, according to Ramsay [W.M. Ramsay, New Testament scholar in Scotland—1851-1939], St Paul preached in Lystra for about six months on his first missionary journey, then he ordained elders and left for about eighteen months. After that he visited the church for the second time, but only spent a few months in the province. Then for the last time, after an interval of three years, he visited them again, but again he was only a month or two in the province. From this it is clear that the churches of Galatia were really founded and established in the first visit. The same fact is also clear from the language used in the Acts concerning St Paul’s second visit. When he was about to set forth, St Luke says that he proposed to Barnabas to “go and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do,” and he is described as passing through Galatia delivering the decrees of the Jerusalem Council with the result that “the churches were established in the faith and increased in number daily.” This is not language which could be used of a missionary visiting congregations which could not stand without his presence, or which lacked any of the fundamentals of settled Christian life: it is language which speaks of organized and established communities. Similarly in Macedonia, Professor Ramsay calculates that St Paul did not stay in Thessalonica more than five months, and he did not visit the place again for over five years, yet he writes to “the church of the Thessalonians”,

I Thess 1:1,

and speaks of it as being on the same footing as “the churches of God in Judea”,

I Thess 2:14.

At Corinth St Paul spent a year and a half at his first visit and then did not go there again for three or four years, but he wrote letters as to a fully equipped and well-established church. 

Now these are typical examples of his work. The question before us is, how he could so train his converts as to be able to leave them after so short a time with any security that they would be able to stand and grow. It seems at first sight almost incredible. In the space of time which amongst us is generally passed in the class of hearers, men were prepared by St Paul for the ministry. How could he prepare men for Holy Orders in so brief a time? How could he even prepare them for holy baptism? What could he have taught them in five or six months? If any one today were to propose to ordain men within six months of their conversion from idolatry, he would be deemed rash to the verge of madness. Yet no one denies that St Paul did it. The sense of stupefaction and amazement that comes over us when we think of it is the measure of the distance which we have travelled from the apostolic method. [Note: Roland Allen writes from his perspective as an Anglican. Above, the designation “hearers” refers to heathen who are open to the gospel, and Holy Orders is a reference to officebearers in the church.]

When Allen first wrote these words in 1912, the ideas were pretty much ignored or discarded. By 1927, when he published his second edition, a more significant discussion was under way. He mentions this in the introduction and points out that no one criticized the statement of facts. The summary above is accepted as factual. The critics focused on two points: (1) the gulf between missionaries and heathen today is greater than between Paul and his hearers. (2) Paul could rely on, for the building up of his churches, converts from the synagogue, which are not present in foreign missions today. His answer to number (1) is that “the greater the gulf [between missionary and people], the greater was the value of the apostolic method.” To number (2) he states.

(1) That the dangers which we anticipate, the dangers of lowering a standard of morals or of a confusion of Christian doctrine by the introduction of ideas borrowed from heathen philosophy or superstition, were not less in his day than in ours; (2) that the breach between the Synagogue and the Christian church arose so early and was so wide that as a matter of fact churches were soon being established which certainly were not “off-shoots of the local synagogue,” and yet the apostolic practice was maintained; (3) that at Corinth, and in Galatia, and in Ephesus, the presence of Jews or proselytes in the church did not prevent the dangers from arising; if St Paul relied upon them, they failed him; (4) that the argument demands that we should admit that Mosaic teaching is a better foundation for Christian morality and theology than the teaching of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; (5) that St Paul’s faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit would have forced him to act as he did, under any circumstances. He could not have relied on any power either in heathen philosophic, or in Mosaic, teaching to establish his converts, under any circumstances whatsoever. (6) that if we went to China or to India and told those people that in morality and intelligence they were so far beneath the provincial Jews and proselytes of St Paul’s day that he could not have dealt with them as he did with the provincials of Galatia, they would be insulted, and we should be saying what we should find it hard to prove. And if anyone answers me that when we use such speech we are thinking only of people in Africa and other uncivilized lands, I must reply that we are plainly thinking of all men, everywhere, because we everywhere employ the same method, and everywhere alike shrink from establishing the church on the apostolic plan.

It is helpful to hear from John Nevius, who concurs with Allen as Nevius writes inPlanting and Development of Missionary Churches, page 28:

We should with faith and confidence commit young converts “to the Lord on whom they believed.” This was the course unhesitatingly adopted by the apostle Paul and I know of no reason why we should not follow his example. Our Savior has promised to be always with His people unto the end of the world, and to send the blessed Spirit of all grace to abide with them forever. He will give them by conferring special graces of His Spirit, prophets, teachers, exhorters, helps, and governments, as they are required. Paul on his departure from places where he had made converts often left Timothy or Silas or others to spend days or weeks in instructing, exhorting, and comforting them, and also send special messengers to individual churches to correct abuses and furnish help as occasion required; but we read in the Acts of the Apostles of no case in which he left any one to stay with them as their resident minister. I believe that in failing to follow this apostolic example, we have often checked the development of individual gifts, and self-reliance, and aggressive power in our Churches, making them weak, inefficient, and dependent from the first.

J.H. Bavinck adds to this discussion some worthwhile ideas. In his book, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, he writes a chapter on “The Role of the Mother Church”:

The problem felt on every missionary field is to find a solution to two alternatives. Ought the mother church to keep its hands off and leave a young congregation with its own ministers and consistory to itself? Or, initially at least, ought the mother church retain a certain authority, support, and guidance? 

From the preceding it is clear how difficult it is to draw parallels between the missionary work in the church of the apostles and that in our own day. And it is still more difficult to draw any conclusions on the basis of these parallels with respect to the line of actions which we ought to follow (p. 191).

In the subsequent discussion he makes a point that contradicts Allen, by insisting that Paul worked within his own world and with people who had attained a certain level of civilization, people with whom he held certain cultural values in common. He contrasts modern missionaries as those who face a world that is so foreign to them. In the process of establishing a church, a huge gap exists between the missionary and the church to be established, and it will take a longer time for the missionary to be useful and also to help them mature. One example of this is language, Paul did not have the barrier of foreign tongues. He could speak the gospel within the context of the Roman Empire, which in the places Paul visited practiced Greek culture.

What do we learn from this exchange (and it could be multiplied many pages) for self-government? We must keep in mind that Roland Allen was Anglican, and the government of his church was one of hierarchy, which contributed to the problems he faced in the mission field. It more than likely contributed to his extreme insistence on radical change. Nevius was Presbyterian, and because in his labors in China and Korea he had the freedom to develop his methods, he saw the benefit of Paul’s New Testament methods. Bavinck came from a more structured church connection and therefore was more balanced in applying Paul’s principles to present mission work.

First, we must have as our goal from the very beginning that the church-in-forming, as well as the church-established, must be composed of true believers who bear the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in them. The heart of missions is to bring the message of the gospel that is faithful to the Scriptures, and thus a suitable avenue by which the Spirit works. We have to sort out how the gospel impacts the life of the hearers in a foreign culture. All too often we begin with the proud notion of our superiority over heathen. We mix our notions of cultural superiority with the gospel. Rather than accepting them on their level, we think we have to bring them to our cultural practices if they are going to become Christians. A better approach is that we view the Bible as a sieve through which we pass all cultural practices. That which contradicts the Bible must be rejected, and that which does not contradict is allowed.

Example: what are proper musical instruments for worship? We use organs and pianos, and they use guitars or keyboards. If we apply the principle of self-governing, nothing is forced on them. They accept both the teaching and practice of the Bible because they understand, and we do not fret when they practice something different from us. This can never be accomplished by our laying down the law and insisting that we have it right regardless of their struggles. Within the context of the culture of the people, the converts determine with the missionary what is acceptable as Christians and what must be abandoned. At every level the missionary brings the gospel to bear on the heart and life of the people and they are trained to understand.

Second, it is not wise to draw from the timing of the apostle the standard for all foreign mission work. We must not enter into a country and expect that within six months to a year or so a well-founded church will be established. Rather, we ought to conclude from the example of Paul’s labors that we must think and work much faster than we are doing. Paul, too, was under the guidance of the Spirit in all his labors. It is the Holy Spirit’s pleasure to accomplish His will through the preaching of the gospel in the mission setting. We must not put a time clock on the Spirit’s work in any country. That certainly varies, and history confirms this.

Third, we ought to give priority to training local men for the work. One incontrovertible conclusion we draw from Paul’s labors was his effort to train others to help him. Many of these brothers were from the field itself. Some of them became pastors in the newly established congregations. Others traveled with Paul or beyond Paul to assist in the work. We do well to focus on this. When we begin a work in a foreign field, we must seek out men who can be trained. This will obviously take time, but in the service of a self-governing church the missionary must take leadership as little as possible. We must communicate to them that this is not our work, and it is not a foreign church establishing their church. We are there to assist them to have their own church. The quickest way to do this effectively is to train local men.

Fourth, this training must not be viewed as setting up a seminary in their country. Rather, it ought to be one-on-one in the very early stages of the work. What the western church has to contribute to missions is not so much going out into the jungle (something that may still be needed, but is done with great difficulty due to issues of health and culture), but teaching. We have the knowledge, books, and learning that the mission church lacks and desperately needs. The quickest way to train one or more local men is to sit down with them on a daily basis and teach them the gospel and its implication for converts in that country. In this way, rapport is built between the missionary and the local natives, and they can help the missionary tremendously in understanding their culture and how the gospel can be applied.

Again, self-governing is on the foreground here. The locals are included, and bridges are built for a future church. I learned that this sort of training can be done quite quickly. I always marveled how soon one could forsake the Chinese religion and become a well-grounded Christian by regular study. The same is true when God provides a local man who has some basic gifts. Through intensive daily training, he can be prepared in a matter of months. This man may serve in office and be received as a gift of the Spirit.

Fifth, Paul’s role in missions in his day makes clear that he did not stay very long in one place but saw his field as broad. We make a mistake when a missionary settles down for years in one place. Rather, we ought to see a country or district as our field of labor. This does not mean that he abandons his work in an area where there is good evidence of the beginning of a church. No, he leaves temporarily so that he can extend the work of the gospel in other places, some nearby and others distant. This is important for the self-government of the mission church. The members of the mission are forced to maintain themselves, and even to grow, without depending on the missionary. A great hindrance to self-government is the smothering presence of a foreign missionary. It is not good for the missionary or for the mission church.

Sixth, we must understand weakness in a mission church and not allow our desire for perfection to hinder us from allowing the church to make mistakes and grow through failure. Certainly this is clear from Paul’s best work. Even Paul did not produce by the Spirit churches free from problems. He had Corinth and Galatia to contend with. In fact he tells us that the biggest burden for him was “his care of all the churches” (II Cor. 11:28). This must not discourage us from doing the work, nor must we needlessly be critical of work done, if it is inherent in mission work. We must recognize that the Spirit does not produce a perfect church at home, or on the mission field. This keeps us humble and dependent upon Him. Rather than being our discouragement or occasion for harsh judgment, it forces us to our knees to seek the Spirit’s help in organizing mission churches.