We look now at a selective overview of the history of the embrace and use of the three-self formula in Reformed foreign missions.
The first example is the mission work of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) in its Arcot mission field in India, which began in the 1820s.1 This date is significant because it pre-dates the influence of Venn, Anderson, Nevius, and Allen in Protestant foreign missions in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which indicates that some sense of the three-self formula already existed among Reformed missionaries and the calling churches at the beginning of their work in southern India.
In a large and thorough history about that RCA mission work in India, Prof. Eugene P. Heideman wrote a summary of the mindset and goal of the missionaries in the “Preface” of the book.2 He wrote that their goal was the development of mission stations into congregations and into a federation of churches. The goal was pursued through many challenges and difficulties, including persecution and famine. In fact, a reader of that extensive history might question whether the mission work always consistently followed the three-self formula. Nevertheless, the goal of a self-governing, a self-propagating, and self-supporting federation of churches was obtained finally in 1947. Consequently, the role of the foreign missionaries changed from a leading position to the position of a supporting role. Later in the book and according to the writings of the missionaries, Heideman concluded that the “Reformed Church missionaries knew from the very outset that the church in India could not be dependent on the presence of the missionaries permanently. That is why their aim was a self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating church.”3
In this first example, we observe that the development of new churches and a federation, characterized by the three-self formula, required conscious foresight and wisdom by the missionaries.
The second example is the mission work of the Reformed Church in America in Chiapas, Mexico. In a history of the work of an RCA missionary, Rev. John Kempers with his wife, Mabel, in Chiapas, from 1926 to 1965, Dr. Pablo A. Deiros gives the details of the RCA mission labors to develop indigenous churches in Chiapas. Although the indigenous churches were, interestingly, Presbyterian and not Reformed (a fact that raises questions not in the focus of this article), Kempers labored and helped to established indigenous churches, that is, self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting churches in a regional, federative union of a presbytery.
This commitment to the three-self formula and the respect of the autonomy of the local churches was clear to those among whom missionary “Kemp” (as he was affectionately called) labored. Deiros writes that in 1971 the officebearers and members of the local churches
in Chiapas knew that the Reformed Church missionaries were completely at one with their church. They knew that the heart of their missionaries was to build a strong national church. What was said of one of their missionaries, namely, that ‘he loves the church more than his own life,’ could be said of all of the missionary families; they worked in full agreement with the nationals. From the time that the Presbytery of Chiapas was formed (1949), the [RCA] mission upheld the rule to never have any missionaries start a new work or project without the approval of the presbytery or one of its official committees.4
The “strong national church” for which the RCA missionaries labored was not local churches or a presbytery that was part of the RCA denomination. Rather, they sought to establish through preaching and instruction churches and a presbytery that were mature, stable, thriving, faithful, and indigenous churches. These would be churches that possessed capacity for self-government, self-support, and self-propagation.
In light of that desire for a “strong national church,” the last sentence of the above quote is not an insignificant detail about the working relationship between the RCA missionaries and the local churches and federation in Chiapas. It is evidence that the RCA missionaries understood the application of Reformed principles of church polity in their mission labors, even at the point when they had transitioned into a different role among the national churches in Chiapas. The description of the working relationship, that the RCA missionaries would not start a new work in the region without approval of the national churches, is convincing evidence that the RCA missionaries honored the Christ-given authority of the elders in the local churches and presbytery. They respected them as self-governing churches in the fellowship, and were determined that they would not interfere or attempt to usurp authority by voting or by inserting themselves as officebearers in the local councils or as voting members of the presbytery. Committed to the three-self formula, they submitted to the authority of the elders of the local churches and presbytery and transitioned into a supportive and mentoring role within the locally autonomous churches. Consequently, that commitment of the missionaries won the admiration and confidence of the national churches so that they continued to seek the wisdom, guidance, and assistance of the foreign missionaries beyond 1949.
In this second example, we observe especially that a commitment to the three-self formula by the RCA missionary was a key tool in the development and maintenance of a healthy, ongoing friendship between the new indigenous churches and the foreign missionaries and their sending denomination.
A third example of a commitment to the three-self formula self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting churches, is found in the mission work of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) in the Southwest United States with the Navaho and Zuni tribal nations. In a striking 1946 speech for the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the labors of the CRC among the Navaho and the Zuni, John C. De Korne said that
I hope that there will not even be an Indian mission of the Christian Reformed Church a quarter of a century from now! By that time there should be a strong native church…, and the native leadership can take its rightful place in the maintenance and development of the church of God in the great Southwest.5
This statement conveys the conviction that the mission churches in the Southwest, comprised of members of the Zuni and Navaho nations, should be able on their own to self-govern, self-propagate, and self-support their own local churches within the federation family as full sister congregations.
That this was the goal of CRC foreign mission work among in the Southwest U.S. was confirmed again by Dick H. Walters in an article “The Reformed Approach,” part of the book Reformed Evangelism: A Manual on Principles and Methods of Evangelization. In the section about the necessary covenantal approach to Reformed evangelism and its specific application, he describes in his own words the matter of the three-self formula in missions as it also applies to local evangelism:
The “foreign missions” to which he alludes included the work of the CRC among the Navaho and the Zuni in the Southwest U.S.7 In foreign missions, the CRC was committed to the goal of native churches whose work of maintaining the threefold marks of a true church and exercising the keys of the kingdom of heaven was fulfilled as a “native responsibility.” That commitment was necessary because it honored “God’s own work among those whom He brings into His fold.” Although that thought was not developed any further, it does imply a connection between the three-self formula and the catholicity of the church. The words “His fold” is a reference to John 10:16 and the “other sheep” of the Good Shepherd. Of course, those “other sheep” are the elect sheep gathered into His sheepfold from many nations, tribes, and languages. Local, visible manifestations of the sheepfold of Christ are indigenous church institutes within their respective nations, tribes, and languages as self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting churches.
In this third example, we observe that the doctrine of the catholicity of the Christ’s church was understood as a reason for the establishment of fully-functioning, native American churches, characterized by the three-self formula.
In the next article, we will look at more historical examples from Reformed and Presbyterian foreign missions.
1 The Arcot mission in India of the RCA under the work of the Scudder missionary brothers began there in 1819. That area includes the familiar city of Vellore.
2 Eugene P. Heideman, From Mission to Church: The Reformed Church in America Mission to India, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), x.
3 Heideman, Mission, 80.
4 Pablo A. Deiros, KEMP: The Story of John R. and Mabel Kempers, Founders of the Reformed Church in America Mission in Chiapas, Mexico. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016), 481-82.
5 John C. De Korne, “What Hath God Wrought!” in Navaho and Zuni for Christ, Dr. J. C. De Korne, editor (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Board of Missions, 1947), 204.
6 D. H. Walters, “The Reformed Approach” in Reformed Evangelism: A Manual of Principles and Practices (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1948), 81.
7 Walters, “Reformed Approach,” 77.