Editor’s note: This article is also available in full on Amazon Kindle.
How are the biblical qualifications of a pastor-elder (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) related to our divine responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)? This question is absolutely vital and has a direct bearing on the degree of impact—or “fruit”—a missionary has on the field.
The kind of missionary a church sends out—whether qualified or unqualified—is ultimately rooted in the sending church’s understanding of the nature of the church. In other words, how that church does church, how they plant churches, how they train faithful pastors and elders, how they worship, how they evaluate people for church membership, how they conduct church discipline, will inform and shape how that church does missions. There is a cause and effect relationship between a church’s ecclesiology and its missiology; the former will impact the latter, even if the sending church does not recognize this principle. So, if a church desires to have an effective, Spirit-wrought impact in foreign lands, and if it desires to see God-glorifying indigenous churches planted abroad, then it behooves that church to begin by first understanding what it means to be a church. Good missiology is ultimately rooted in good ecclesiology. The two must never be divorced from each other. Building healthy churches abroad begins by learning how to build healthy churches at home. Flawed, dysfunctional churches at home will send out missionaries who will plant flawed churches abroad.
The means by which ecclesiology influences missiology is through modeling: we learn – for better or for worse – by hearing and seeing how a pastor plants a church based on their understanding of what it means to be a church. The New Testament is filled with examples of the Apostle Paul encouraging his pastors-in-training to be living illustrations of the Gospel to the local church. His thinking reflects good pedagogy that will be obvious to any effective teacher: people learn best by seeing concepts and ideas actually lived out in the lives of others. Listen to Paul’s counsel: “In everything, set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” (Titus 2:7-8. See also 1 Timothy 4:12-15; 2 Timothy 1:13 and 2:2) As the congregation follows the pastor’s lead, the health and evangelistic witness of the church grows. In fact, this teacher / disciple dynamic is even more critical for missionaries because the foreign field may have little or no prior perception of what a healthy church looks like.
However, in my experience, the question of how ecclesiology relates to missiology – specifically, how biblical eldership relates to fulfilling the Great Commission – is not even on the radar of most American evangelical churches. 1 To be sure, there is much zeal and good intention, and a genuine desire to have a global impact for God’s Kingdom, but very little understanding of the symbiotic nature of ecclesiology and missiology. Most churches are completely unaware of the consequences of failing to build a foundation of biblical ecclesiology. Let me illustrate with two examples – one from abroad and one from North America.
From 2006 to 2016, I served as a missionary in Asia (for security reasons I need to be vague here), and it was disturbing to discover missionaries who did not have the biblical qualifications to be there. For example, there were missionaries who did not know their Bible or taught doctrines contrary to the Bible – some even openly hostile to it (Titus 1:9), they did not have the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9); virtually no one had been tested in either of these areas (1 Timothy 3:10), most were recent converts to the faith (1 Timothy 3:6); some had significant character flaws (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7); some did not know the local language or have good cross cultural skills. After one to three years, they returned to their home countries permanently and took up secular work. My rough estimate is that about 50% of the missionaries in my neighborhood fit this description.
Unfortunately, so few sending churches saw this! Nor was this unique to my region. I saw these same heartbreaking phenomena in several countries in Asia. For many years I have wanted to charter an airplane and invite the missionary committee members of these sending churches to travel with me to Asia so they can see with their own eyes the actual impact of their decision making. Vast amounts of time and money are squandered on missionaries who lack the biblical qualifications to be there. The rapid growth of short-term missions in recent years has only made the problem worse. 2 For some parachurch short-term mission organizations, it is no exaggeration to say that if you have a pulse, can pay your own way, and can recite a few biblical terms and phrases, then you qualify as a missionary. 3
Oftentimes the problems overseas can be traced back to a weak or unbiblical ecclesiology among the sending churches. For example, among North American churches, different areas of spiritual leadership in the church often have different sets of qualifications. The senior or associate pastor, generally speaking, must be ordained; must have the ability to teach or preach; must know their Bible; and must have godly character qualities. Each church and denomination applies these qualifications in different degrees, but usually the bar is set fairly high. For lay elders, the bar tends to be lower. More often than not, merely having godly character qualities is sufficient; a knowledge of the Scriptures and the ability to teach is helpful but not critical. If a lay elder can occasionally lead a prayer meeting, count the money collected on Sunday morning, and generally support the pastor’s decision making, then he will most likely be approved as an elder. At the bottom is the missionary, who typically is the least qualified. They tend to be young, just out of college; they love to travel and experience new cultures; are filled with lots of zeal and enthusiasm, but generally lack the qualifications of spiritual leadership as described in the Bible.
Both of the above examples are rooted in the same error. They both stem from an unbiblical ecclesiology that views biblical eldership as wholly unrelated to how missions is done. This opens the door for individuals to step into leadership positions in the church even though they do not have a firm grasp of biblical truth, nor the ability to effectively convey that truth through teaching and preaching. This is a pastoral theology that culminates in the formation of a church where the blind lead the blind. A missiology rooted in this particular ecclesiology sets itself up for failure and the consequences can be devastating.
There are dozens of ways to expand upon this topic (which could easily be enlarged into a book), but to narrow our focus it will be helpful to zero in on the heart of the problem: how missionaries are selected and financed. It is here where a flawed ecclesiology impacts missiology the greatest.
Watch for Part 2 Coming Soon!
- A partial explanation for this neglect is due to Christian publishing itself. If you look at the books published on biblical eldership over the past 30 to 40 years, there is almost no mention of the importance of missionaries being qualified as elders. The same is true for books on missions. This is a significant blind spot in Christian publishing. ↩
- Short-term missions has seen extraordinary growth over the past 30 years. “From around 120,000 short-term missionaries in 1989, the movement grew to more than 2 million in 2006.” Zane Pratt, M. David Sills, Jeff K. Waters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 248. ↩
- I once saw a poster for recruiting new missionaries at a mission organization which had four photos of people from different occupational backgrounds – a doctor, a teacher, a fireman, and a policeman. They were trying to convey the idea that a missionary can be anyone from any background. Underneath these photos they stated their qualifications for prospective missionaries: “All it takes is a willing heart!” ↩