Previous article in this series: September 1, 2021, p. 474.
A second example of the PRCA commitment to the three-self formula in foreign missions is the PRCA work in Singapore. After several years of developing contact with the Gospel Literature and Tracts Society (GLTS) of Singapore, in 1979 synod approved the calling of a missionary to serve in Singapore. It was clear to the synod that the GLTS needed, as they earnestly requested, a missionary to preach the gospel to them and to instruct them in the Reformed faith and practice for the goal of the establishment of an indigenous church. Rev. Arie denHartog was called and sent by the Doon (IA) PRC to labor as a PRCA missionary in Singapore among the members of the GLTS and other converts to the Reformed faith brought by the Lord into that gathering of believers and their seed.
Rev. denHartog was called to the work in 1979. He with his family left Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on January 29 and arrived in Singapore by way of Chicago, Amsterdam, and Bangkok on February 1, 1980. From 1980 until January 1987 he served enthusiastically in Singapore with his wife and family. The labors in Singapore were foreign mission labors: with those who in their generations had never heard the gospel. In addition to working among the relatively young members of the GLTS, themselves recent converts to Christianity and the Reformed/Presbyterian faith from idolatry and superstitions, the missionary labored with Hindus, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, and, according to his May 1980 report, even briefly a Marxist. The missionary was assisted with the pastoral work in the congregation by elders from the PRCA, on short-term assignments. He labored in Singapore during its significant renaissance from a developing country into a top-notch commercial, technological, banking, and academic center in the entire world.
The missionary labored with a clear understanding of the goal of the foreign mission labors in Singapore. His conviction regarding the three-self formula was stated clearly in a report to synod that “in any mission field, the missionary must seek to encourage autonomous and indigenous development.” Again, he wrote that “in the development of the church on the mission field, we must recognize the indigenous character and autonomy of the local church.” The missionary must lead in such a way that the mission group “becomes an autonomous and indigenous church.”1 By “autonomous” and “indigenous,” the missionary meant self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. These statements early in the work in Singapore (1981) are significant because they are in harmony with what the PRCA synod explicitly adopted two years later in 1983 in the “Policy for Missions in Jamaica.”
According to this understanding of the three-self formula and Rev. denHartog’s conviction on the matter, the PRCA through its missionary labored and led the GLTS. Evidence of this can be seen early on in the work through a report that the missionary gave to the PRCA through the Standard Bearer in the March 1, 1981 issue. Regarding the development of the GLTS to the goal of a church institute that would be self-governing, the missionary reported that
we are very thankful for the large amount of work the leaders of the GLTS do. They also take a great part of the pastoral work. Though they are not yet officially officebearers in the church, they perform very much of the labors of the officebearers. We long for the day when these brethren can be officially ordained as officebearers in the church. We need this…. The Lord has raised up in the GLTS men who are well qualified to be officebearers…. From the start the work of the church on the foreign mission field must be carried on by the saints whom the Lord gathers. The Lord Jesus gathers the church as a local and autonomous church…. In all of our labors we therefore give as much of the work as possible to the leaders of the church here, we allow them to make as many of the decisions…themselves as they are able to make….2
This quotation demonstrates that the missionary encouraged, led, and prepared the men of the mission group to embrace their role and duty as future officebearers in the church for their own future self-government as a church institute. The eventual fruit of that preparation and leadership led to the organization of the First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore on January 24, 1982, with five elders and three deacons. With the approval of the calling church and concurrence of synod, the missionary continued his labors with the First ERCS in the duties of their pastor while the congregation remained vacant. A second congregation was established later in June 1987: Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church.
Not only were the congregations “self-governing,” but they were also characterized by being “self-propagating” from the outset. Two examples can be observed in the same report by the missionary. The first example comes from a description of the general attendance at public worship services:
At the same time, it is a great thrill to see capacity audiences each Lord’s Day. Several new people are attending our worship services regularly as well as being involved in other activities in the GLTS. We are always amazed by the fact that the sole means through which new people come to the worship services is that of personal invitation and encouragement of members of the GLTS. While we certainly believe that it is through the instrumentality of the preaching of the gospel that Jesus Christ is pleased to gather His church, it is evident again and again that the members of the church have a vital part and calling in the work of the gathering of the church. The church grows through zealous witness of the saints and the living testimony of their lives as they go forth from the preaching of the gospel.3
In addition to the zealous witness of the members, a second example of “self-propagation” of the indigenous church is the desire of men to serve in the office of the ministry of the gospel. With the growth of the work and the ERCS, there was an obvious need for native pastors that the missionary noted in his May 1980 report. Only a few months after his arrival, the missionary was already advising and mentoring several men in the GLTS for possible training for the ministry of the Word. By the time that the missionary gave his report in the SB in 1981, one man was already in formal training in the PRCA seminary.
One of the common questions in missions is whether a developing congregation of believers and their seed can be self-supporting within their national, cultural, and economic context and with their God-given financial means. Although the PRCA was prepared to support its foreign missionary and his family fully so that the GLTS would be free to focus on the support of its own expenses and future pastors, the group still gave to the missionary and family “evidences of love and appreciation….” 4 In fact, the GLTS through its weekly offerings was able in God’s providence to support the missionary family’s utility expenses and the school transportation expense for the missionary children, in addition to the regular church expenses and the support of two seminary students (with families) in full-time training in Singapore. Apparently, this self-support represented a very “high percentage of their income.”5 Thus, the GLTS was growing in its commitment to the self-support principle.
Of course, the development of indigenous Reformed, Christian churches in Singapore was not without some controversies, debates, and differences of opinion on other issues. Nevertheless, we may observe in this example regarding the three-self formula the blessings of a missionary and calling church who are mutually convinced from the outset, and throughout the duration of their work, of the three-self formula. There was the blessing of a congregation that, in their development toward full institution, embraced the three-self formula and by the grace of God stood as a local, autonomous, indigenous church of the Lord Jesus Christ. There was the blessing of the resulting growth, both spiritual and numerical, of indigenous congregations and a federation by June 1987.
Moreover, this example demonstrates the relation and the role of the office of believer to the three-self formula of a Christian church. In other words, a congregation that is faithful to the three-self formula has in its membership believers, male and female, with their covenant seed, who understand and live what it means to be a Christian in the church institute to which they are bound to join and to remain faithful members thereof.
In our next article, we will observe the PRCA’s commitment to the three-self formula in a third example, namely, the foreign mission work in Ghana from 1996 to 2006.
1 PRCA Acts of Synod 1981, 149-150. 2 Rev. Arie denHartog, “Foreign Missions: Singapore,” Standard Bearer, vol. 57 (11), 260-261. 3 denHartog, “Singapore,” 260. 4 denHartog, “Singapore,” 259. 5 Rev. Arie denHartog, Report to the Consistory of the Doon PRC and the FMC of the PRCA (July 26, 1980), 6.