The Place of Laity in Missions (5): Families Moving to a Mission Field

Previous article in this series: January 15, 2010, p. 182.

For our topic of the place of laity in missions we are going to study whether it is proper for families of existing churches to move to a place where a mission group has been established. This topic may take several articles because this is a serious matter.

Long has been the plea of smaller congregations outside the locales where a nucleus of our churches exist for families to move to their congregations and help them grow internally. A godly, well-grounded husband and wife who know what they believe and are wise in applying God’s word to their marriage or the raising of their children are a real asset to a congregation. Pious young men and women who have confessed their faith and are zealous to live that faith are, in the strength of their youth, a boon to the church. If families and young adults of this nature could see their way through some of the practicalities of life to move to another of these congregations it would truly be a blessing to such churches. In my own visits to these small churches, this has been expressed to me by saints repeatedly. This plea for members of the churches to move has, for the most part, gone unheeded (although our congregation in Loveland, Colorado seems to have a draw for some reason).

If the plea for members of our churches to move to a smaller church is urgent, it is even more so in establishing a thriving, well-grounded mission work. The mission work in Sioux Falls is an example of this. Godly families and young adults (notice the qualification, godly) of our churches have much to offer to the saints on a mission field.

Before writing about the benefits of families or individuals moving to mission fields, however, it is necessary to address some of the objections to this idea. Is it proper, is it even right, that members of the instituted church, where they enjoy the sacraments and are under the authority of the elders, move away in order to join themselves to a group of believers who are not yet instituted? Is that not a spiritual step backwards? Is it wise for a family to leave a church near to which is one of our Christian schools where our children can receive a good, Reformed education? Is it a denial of the covenant that God establishes in the line of our generations to move away from family: from parents and siblings? What benefits are there in becoming a part of a mission that could outweigh the benefits of the instituted church?

These are not only legitimate questions but serious questions. Yet, before addressing the questions themselves, we ought to take a look at the history of the church to discover the precedent established by the church in the past. To that we devote the next couple of articles.

The scriptural record only in a limited way teaches us about the radical change that took place in the Old Testament church institute during and after the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. After the Northern Kingdom (the ten tribes that had split away from the house of David) was overrun by the armies of Assyria, the Jews were scattered throughout the Assyrian kingdom. About 150 years later the Jews of the Southern Kingdom (Judah) were taken captive by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. This time the Jews settled in various communities, many of them in and around the city of Babylon itself. The Babylonian captivity lasted for seventy years according to the prophecies of Jeremiah the prophet (Jer. 25:11, 12 and Jer. 29:10).

After seventy years, the Jews were allowed, by Cyrus the Persian, to return to Judea in order to repopulate the country and practice their religion. But things had changed. The day of shadows was coming to an end. The temple was rebuilt, but there was no more an ark of the covenant and therefore no more presence of God in the Holy of Holies. The people who returned did not repossess the inheritance that once belonged to their families. They had lost their lot or inheritance in Israel. Another way of worship also had begun while in captivity. God’s people who were scattered far and wide from their home in Palestine had begun worshiping in synagogues in order to receive instruction in the word of God. We learn in the New Testament account of many changes that occurred in the worship of the church. Not only were there synagogues scattered throughout Palestine, but there were religious leaders called Pharisees, a ruling council called the Sanhedrin, a Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures called the Septuagint, among other changes.

The biggest change in the church, however, was that it was no longer limited to Palestine. The Hebrew religion was widespread. Jews had been dispersed all over the world. Neither can we say of all of the Jews who did not return to Palestine that they were sinning by not taking advantage of the opportunity to live again in Judea and Jerusalem. Daniel and his three friends never returned. Ezra and Nehemiah did not return immediately. When Ezra did return, then many of the Jews in the province of Babylon did not return with him, but they gave freely of their silver and gold to the cause of the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:16). These same Jews that were scattered abroad later made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the feast days. In Acts 2:5 we learn that these men were “devout” Jews who, though living far away, still had a love for Jerusalem and the temple worship. In other words, many Jewish families did not see the need any longer to live in and around Jerusalem where the service of the temple took place. The former glory of Israel had vanished.

Now, we have always understood that the purpose of God in the captivity was that of God’s judgment and punishment on an apostate church. It was. Jeremiah clearly prophesied of this in Jeremiah 25. But we seldom view the captivity as the very means God was using to gather His New Testament church from the nations of this world. It was also the purpose of God in the scattering of the Jews to pave the way for the spread of the gospel in all the world. The prophet Micah makes reference to the dispersion of the Jews in Micah 5:7. He points out how this scattering of God’s people would be a blessing to the world. “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many people as a dew from the Lord, as the showers upon the grass, that tarrieth not for man, nor waiteth for the sons of men.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia makes reference to this in its explanation of the Dispersion in volume II:

The thought of such a Dispersion as a punishment for the disobedience of the people finds frequent expression in the Prophets…. That the Dispersion of the Jews was for the benefit of the Gentiles is a conception to which expression is given in utterances of psalmists and prophets…. It is found also in the Apoc Bar, a work belonging to the first century A.D.: “I will scatter this people among the Gentiles, that they may do good to the Gentiles.”

There can be no doubt that the families of the Jews living in different parts of the world contributed to the gathering in of Christ’s church. On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of Christ was poured out upon the church, we read of Jews present from all over the world (Acts 2:9-11). From distant eastern countries there were men from Parthia, Media, Elam, and Mesopotamia. From the south there were men from Arabia, Egypt, even Cyrene and Libya in North Africa. From the north and west there were men from Cappadocia,

Pontus, Asia, Phyrgia, Pamphylia, the island of Crete, and even from as far away as Rome itself. These were Jews of the Dispersion. But it was also true that many of these Jews during the four-hundred-year inter-testamentary period had also voluntarily moved away from Palestine to settle in large communities in these different nations. But they were faithful Jews. They were present in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.

All of them witnessed the events that Pentecost day. All of them heard the gospel. How many out of the three thousand that came to repentance and faith on that day were among the men of these distant lands we are not told, but we can be sure there were many. These, however, did not move back to Jerusalem in order to join themselves with the Christian church that was now rapidly growing there. They returned to their homes and took the gospel with them. And the gospel spread rapidly through the world. The point is, of course, the gospel was spread by individuals and families that lived in various places of the world.

Another dispersion took place shortly after the death of Christ. Persecution hit Jerusalem and the region around it hard. We learn in Acts 8:4, “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.” Many Christian Jews left Jerusalem to find safety elsewhere. It was not as if these Jews traveled to regions of the world where there were no Jews. They probably settled in communities of Jews who would not harass them for the gospel’s sake. But everywhere they went they carried the gospel with them. In this way too the early church spread rapidly. Will Durant, in his book The Story of Civilization, Part III: Caesar and Christ, page 602, writes, “Nearly every convert, with the ardor of a revolutionary, made himself an office of propaganda.” Likewise, J. Herbert Kane, on page 20 of his Concise History of the Christian World Mission, comments:

It is noteworthy that during all this time (first century—W.B.) there was no organized missionary endeavor such as characterized later periods. The gospel was preached by laymen…. With no weapon but truth and no banner but love, these single-minded, warm-hearted followers of Jesus traveled land and sea to all parts of the empire, and where ever they went they gladly shared their new-found faith with friends, neighbors and strangers. As slaves, traders, and later on, soldiers, they used their secular calling to advance the cause of Christ. Even as exiles they carried the contagion of their faith to distant shores.

God used families and individuals who were scattered abroad to advance the cause of Christ in places where at first there was no instituted church. There are a few conclusions that need to be drawn from the history of the early Christian church after Christ. First, not all Christian families stayed in the mother church of Jerusalem. Already before Christ’s advent, millions of Jews had moved away from the temple and its worship in Jerusalem. It was exactly because families had moved away that the church was able to spread so rapidly in the beginning centuries. Likewise, Christians moved everywhere. They settled in new places where there was yet no instituted church. But soon after, one began.

In the second place, these individuals and families that did move away from the church in Jerusalem did not simply leave and live in an isolated way among the pagans all by themselves. There were communities of Jews with their synagogues scattered all over the world. Jews joined themselves with other saints of like faith with them. So also did the Christian Jews. As was mentioned, instituted churches were very soon established in the places where they lived. James wrote his epistle to these Christian churches. We read in James 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” Peter, the apostle to the Jews, similarly in his first letter writes in I Peter 1:1: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” Both of these men were writing to churches. But it is obvious that many in these churches were families and individuals that had left the confines of the Christian church in Jerusalem and had moved to other parts of the world.

Finally, the Scriptures not only recognize, but also promote, this sort of healthy growth of the church. The Amish and Mennonites are wrong when they try to separate themselves from the rest of the world and live in their own little communities. They are wrong when they think that there is safety in keeping their generations corralled in their own little section of the world. God’s people are the light of the world. When there are places of worship today to which families can move, they ought to consider whether the Lord is calling them to be a help to fellow saints in the forming of churches elsewhere.

We will, in the next article, examine whether there is precedent in church history of such a movement of families leaving their established churches to take up life and labor in a place where missions is being performed.