Previous article in this series: March 15, 2022, p. 274.
According to our examination of the historical examples in foreign missions of a commitment to the three-self formula, the three aspects of this formula should be somewhat familiar. However, it is beneficial that we have a clear description of the self-government, self-support, and self-propagation of an indigenous, autonomous church institute that functions faithfully in obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.
First, what is the “self-government” element of the three-self formula?
As defined by Robert Decker,1 self-government means that
in the biblical and confessional sense…each congregation is under the care of Christ by means of properly called, qualified officebearers. These must be natives…these men must be trained to assume leadership in the congregation.2
This principle has been described similarly by Rev. D. Kleyn as follows:
The basic idea of a self-governing church is that she is one in which the officebearers are local men. The ministers, elders, and deacons are not foreign missionaries or other men who may have moved to the field from the sending churches. Rather, the special offices are occupied by nationals. An indigenous church is one that has local men, chosen by local congregations, to be the local representatives of Christ in its midst.3
In light of this principle, the government of the indigenous church is not characterized by two extremes.
First, the government of the local church is not exercised from outside the congregation in another distant place, which, for example, characterizes the hierarchical form of church government and missions of the Roman Catholic Church. In this erroneous system of church government, decisions for the local church and its members are ultimately made in the higher levels of the hierarchical system. Decisions about the purchase of the property connected with a local church are made by those in another part of the locale or in an altogether foreign country where the person in higher authority must make such decisions. This is not the biblical principle of “self-government.”
Secondly, the local church is not governed under the hierarchy of one man, perhaps the pastor or another influential leader in a local church. This can appear in small, independent congregations where the government of the church is according to the whim and decisions of the most influential person in the leadership of that church. While in this situation the government of the church is certainly local, it is not, however, what the principle of “self-government” means.
“Self-government” means that the church governs, not one individual of a church. The church institute that governs is represented in its local officebearers as a body. The church institute, through its council of qualified officebearers, makes decisions about the ordination and installation of men into the special offices. She makes decisions about the confession and walk of her members. She governs her liturgy. She oversees the purity of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. She exercises Christian discipline upon the impenitent. She makes decisions about the financial support of the work of the church. She distributes the benevolence for the care of the poor. She trains men for the ministry of the Word. She sends out her own missionaries in her region. She decides to seek the unity of the church of Jesus Christ in a local federation that is also characterized by the three-self formula in relationship to other and foreign denominations.
She decides as a federation to seek contact with other Reformed churches, and, if possible, in sister-church relationships. She has both the right and the duty to govern.
However, “self” does not mean that the local church governs according to her own will and whim, doing whatever she wants, however she wants, and whenever it feels right. Rather, she has been invested with spiritual authority to rule the church according to the will of Jesus Christ, the King, which is revealed in the inspired Holy Scriptures, summarized systematically in our Reformed Confessions, and according to our biblical and Reformed church order.
Secondly, what is the “self-support” element of the three-self formula? When thinking of this principle,
…nearly everyone thinks of but one thing when he hears the word, “self-supporting,” viz., money. The mission churches ought to be financially independent from the very outset. To build churches for the converts, to pay the salaries either in whole or in part of the native preachers, to assist the converts in ways, other than benevolence, is bad mission practice.4
Concluding with some practical applications of the self-support principle, R. Decker wrote that this principle
…is proper we believe. Converts ought to build their own churches and support their own preachers. Churches need not be elaborate buildings costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Native preachers ought to be supported by the congregation which they serve. Where this is done things will be done “decently and in good order.”5
In other words, the church characterized by self-support is one that
…supports itself. The church supports its own ministers and ministerial training. The church supports and does its own benevolence work. The church supports its own building projects and mission work. In a nutshell, a self-supporting church does not depend upon financial support from others.6
A Presbyterian foreign missionary observed that without the “self-support” element a church cannot be a thriving and faithful church:
When foreign funds are used to provide the pastor for a church group, such support almost inevitably fosters a dependent spirit among the people. It weakens them, because it relieves them of the necessity of using their own resources to the fullest to forward the work for which God has made them responsible…. A church dependent upon foreign funds will also be handicapped in its evangelistic expansion work.7
A self-supporting church is one that seeks the kingdom of God first, gives of the firstfruits of her weekly income to the support of the ministry of the gospel and the training of new pastors. A self-supporting church is one whose covenant households and individuals sacrifice themselves and a high-percentage of their resources to the Lord Jesus Christ in thanksgiving for the continuation of the proclamation of His Word and the government of the same in their indigenous church and federation. Hence, a self-supporting church learns to live and operate, not according to the economic and cultural standards of a foreign church or federation with whom she may have fellowship, but rather according to the economic standards of her own God-given and governed economic setting. A self-supporting church submits to the providence of God with regards to her financial resources and remains content with where God has placed her economically. A self-supporting church and indigenous federation resists the pitfall of dependency with respect to foreign churches and the pitfall of paternalism with respect to her very own native mission stations.
That has been the goal of the PRCA in its work in the Philippines. The PRCA does not desire
to produce congregations that must depend and rely on foreign churches. Our goal is to produce and nurture churches that are able to stand alone. Our goal is churches that are able to do the work of the church by using what God has provided for them in this work.8
Finally, what is the “self-propagation” element of the three-self formula? R. Decker explained that
[by] this we mean that the newly organized congregation of believers and their children under the care of Christ through the officebearers has the mandate of Christ to “go into all the world” preaching and teaching the gospel. The mission calling applies with equal force to them as to the older, established, sending churches.9
This same understanding is echoed by Rev. Kleyn in his description of this principle:
Every church of Christ on earth is called to carry out the great commission. Every church must go forth into the world and preach the gospel. Beginning in her own land, every church must pass on the truth to others. A self-propagating church is one that is busy in this work. She wants others to hear, to know, and to have the truth. She is not selfish with the truth, but speaks of it boldly to others around her.10
The local, indigenous church must be characterized from the outset as “self-propagating.” The term in the strict sense, as defined above, is not a reference to the spiritual growth and viability of a particular congregation. The viability and growth of a congregation is the Lord’s gift and blessing upon a church that is faithfully self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Hence, the term, in a strict sense, is a reference to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ by which the church is gathered and grows. The local church “self-proclaims” the Word of God. She “self-preaches” the gospel. She “self-proclaims” it promiscuously. She authoritatively calls sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. In so doing, she fulfills what she exists to do in behalf of Christ in the earth according to her mandate in Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47-49, and Acts 1:7-8. She must preach His gospel throughout the world, wherever and whenever He by His Spirit is pleased to send her.
In conclusion, then, what does this threefold formula mean in just one word for the local indigenous church? A healthy, indigenous church institute is in her very character Christian. Therein lies the legitimacy of the three-self formula, to which thought we will give some attention next time.
1 Robert Decker (1940-2021) is former Professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary. In addition to other subjects in the area of practical theology, he taught
missions from 1973 to 2006.
2 Robert Decker, “Missionary Methods (28),” Standard Bearer 61, 14 (April 15, 1985): 329.
3 Rev. Daniel Kleyn, “A Goal in the Philippines: Self-Governing Churches,” Standard Bearer 88, no. 4 (Nov. 15, 2011): 90. Rev. Daniel Kleyn has been serving as foreign missionary of the PRCA
in the Philippines from 2009 to the present.
4 Decker, “Methods (28)”: 328.
5 Decker, “Methods (28)”: 328.
6 Rev. Daniel Kleyn, “A Goal in the Philippines: Self-supporting Churches (1),” Standard Bearer 89, no. 13 (April 1, 2013): 298.
7 John M.L. Young, Missions: The Biblical Aim and Motive. (Pittsburgh: Covenant and Crown Publications, 2007): 141-142.
8 Rev. Daniel Kleyn, “A Goal in the Philippines: Self-Propagating Churches (2),” Standard Bearer 88, no. 15 (May 1, 2012): 357.
9 Decker, “Methods (28)”: 329.
10 Rev. Daniel Kleyn, “A Goal in the Philippines: Self-Propagating Churches (1),” Standard Bearer 88, no. 13 (April 1, 2012): 295.