In previous articles we have distinguished among the various aspects of the church’s missionary task. There is mission work which must be done among the heathen. Missionary efforts must be directed toward the Jews who are the natural branches of the olive tree of God’s church (cf. Romans 11). There is also mission work to be done among what we termed, “covenant wanderers.” ‘This latter work we prefer to call evangelism, or Reformed evangelism. At this point the question is: is this a legitimate aspect of the missionary task of the church? Should the church do mission work exclusively among the Jews and heathen or does the church have a calling to preach the gospel (evangelize) to those who have apostatized?
Dr. J. H. Bavinck answers the question affirmatively. He defines this work as the church’s “efforts to bring back into the church covenant members who have wandered or strayed away…” (pp. 74ff., An Introduction To The Science Of Missions). Bavinck points out that there is a real difference between work carried on among the “churched” and among those who have never heard the gospel. Among the latter obviously one can assume no prior knowledge of the gospel. The missionary must come to them with the milk of the Word, for these are not able to receive the meat. Bavinck bases his distinction between mission work among the heathen and that done among the “covenant wanderers” on a threefold parallel: 1) The prophets of the Old Testament were sent to apostate Israel. 2) Jesus’ compassion for and His sending of the disciples to “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” These were as sheep without a shepherd. Jesus was deeply concerned for them. He both personally and through His disciples ministered to them (cf. Matthew 9, 10, et al.) 3) There is finally the example of the apostles who “beginning at Jerusalem went through Samaria to the uttermost parts of the world” (Luke 24:47) and then, too, always to “the Jew first and also the Gentile.” In this connection Bavinck makes a point well taken when he writes that the distinction between “covenant wanderers” and heathen is not to be overstressed because the two are coming together. The gap between the two is narrowing. This is due primarily to two reasons: the growing secularism of our times and the woeful ignorance of the wanderers.
We essentially agree with Bavinck’s position. The church definitely has a calling to labor among covenant wanderers. This belongs to Church Reformation, and Church Reformation is always the calling of the church; it belongs to the genius of the Reformed Faith. The Church must be Reformata et semper Reformanda, Reformed and always Reforming.
This is also the position of the Form For The Ordination Of Missionaries used by the Protestant Reformed Churches. We noted in the previous article that the Form distinguishes between the “Heathen” and the “Dispersed.” The Heathen are those who in their generations are outside of the covenant: “all nations” in distinction from Israel. The grounds which the Form cites are: Matthew 28:19 where Jesus instructs the disciples to baptize and instruct “all nations”; Peter’s vision and his preaching to Cornelius (Acts 10); and the church at Antioch ordaining Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13). This is valid, this is missions. The church, as long as history continues, must go and preach the gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the triune God.
Concerning the dispersed the Form has this to say:
That unto the Dispersed also these glad tidings must be brought is plainly inferred from what God says in
“For thus saith the Lord God: Behold I Myself, even I, will search for My sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will deliver them out of all places whither they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them upon the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountains of the height of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie down, saith the Lord God. I will seek that which was lost, and will bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick. I will feed them in judgment.”
That the Lord does this by means of His servants, is clearly shown by the way wherein God, in the same chapter, rebukes the unfaithful shepherds: “Neither have ye brought again that which was driven away,” and expresses His holy indignation because: “My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, My sheep were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and there was none that did search or seek after them.”
The same follows from the fact that Jesus, Who Himself was sent to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel,” calls the Church the salt of the earth, while besides all this, the example of the Apostle Paul teaches us plainly that it is our high calling to bring the bread of life to our dispersed brethren after the flesh everywhere, and therefore certainly first of all in our own country, to gather them, if possible, as congregations of our Lord.
By the “dispersed” it is evident that the Form means those who are apostatizing. These are what Bavinck calls “covenant wanderers.” Missionary work among these the Protestant Reformed Churches call “Church Extension” and/or “Church Reformation.” The preamble to the Constitution of the Mission Committee of these Churches reads: “The Protestant Reformed Churches believe that, in obedience to the command of Christ, the King of the Church, to preach the blessed Gospel to all creatures, baptizing, and teaching them to observe all things which Christ has commanded, it is the explicit duty and sacred privilege of said churches to carry out this calling according to the measure of our God-given ability.
“We believe that this missionary activity includes the work of church extension, and church reformation, as well as the task of carrying out the Gospel to the unchurched and heathen. However, we are convinced that our present duty lies primarily in the field of church extension and church reformation.” (Quoted from the revised constitution, Acts of Synod 1977, p. 32)
The grounds cited by the Form for working among the dispersed are fourfold: 1) Ezekiel 34:11-16. This passage speaks of God’s promise to gather and feed His scattered sheep. These were scattered by unfaithful shepherds (cf. vss 4-6) and belong to the house of Israel. 2) Jesus was sent to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (cf. Matthew 15:24; John 4:22). 3) Jesus sent the disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel upon whom He had compassion because they were as sheep without a shepherd (cf. Matthew 9,10). 4) There is the example of the Apostle Paul who in all his labors always went to “the Jew first and also the Greek or Gentile. Our Lord in His ministry followed this formula. He Himself went and He sent His disciples to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” The Apostles did likewise. They went from Jerusalem to Samaria and thence to the uttermost parts of the earth. And even St. Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, went and preached in the synagogues first, and he carried with him to his grave a tremendous, heartfelt concern for his brethren, “his kinsmen according to the flesh” (cf.Romans 9:1ff.). But the question persists: does this mean, as our Form infers, that our first calling and mission responsibility is always Church Extension and Church Reformation and then we go to the heathen? This is explicitly stated in the Preamble to the Mission Constitution. Should this be revised, or is it correct?
We believe the emphasis is correct. While it is certainly true that the Jews enjoy a unique priority (cf.Romans 9-11), the analogy referred to in the Form (the Jew first—then the Gentile) holds. The church must first go to the “covenant wanderers” and then the heathen. We must first labor among our “brethren after the flesh.” We quite agree with the Preamble to the Mission constitution that our first responsibility is to those who are closest to us. In all of this we must follow the Spirit’s direction and seek the doors which He opens to us. We must labor according to the opportunities presented by the Holy Spirit and by the grace which He supplies. We must be very conscious of this calling. It belongs to the very essence of the missionary task of the Church of Jesus Christ. We must zealously seize every opportunity and “labor while it is day, ere the night cometh in which no man can labor.” We must never forget that now is the accepted time, now is the Day of the Lord. We must remember that right now the fields are white with harvest and the laborers are few.
Ideally, therefore, the Church will have a two pronged mission program. The church will direct its efforts to the dispersed and to the heathen. The church will do this under the direction of the Holy Spirit of Christ and by His grace. Neither aspect of this two-pronged mission will be to the detriment of the other. Neither will be to the exclusion of the other. Beginning at “Jerusalem,” at home in its own locale, the Church of Jesus Christ, in obedience to its Lord, will preach the Gospel, seeking to effect continual reformation and seeking to reach the untold numbers of elect in every nation under heaven until finally the multitude which no man can number is complete and Jesus comes again in all His power and great glory.