Missions Agencies and Field Councils

In The Nick of Time
by Kevin T. Bauder

The work of missions centers upon the local church. Properly, missionaries are sent out by local churches. Once sent, they are accountable to their sending and supporting churches. Their responsibility is the work of establishing indigenous, self-perpetuating local churches. The local church is indeed the center of missionary enterprise.

Some have taken this principle to mean that mission agencies are unnecessary and perhaps even unbiblical. Particular objections are raised to mission agencies that use field councils to coordinate their missionaries. Organizations of this sort are thought to usurp the authority of the local church and to curtail the freedom of individual missionaries. Occasionally the suggestion is made that each church should act as its own sending agency, directly supervising the work of its own missionaries.

This suggestion is not without merit. Some churches, particularly larger ones, do manage to send their own missionaries, provide for their needs, and manage their work without the aid of separate mission agencies. Churches that follow this pattern are within their rights.

The question, however, is whether this model is the only pattern for missions that can be justified from the New Testament. The short answer is that it is not. In fact, one searches the New Testament in vain for an example of a local church supervising the operational decisions of its missionaries.

The New Testament pattern is quite different. The first missionary team was sent out from the church of Antioch. It consisted of two individuals who were set apart by the church for the work to which God had called them. Those two individuals were Barnabas and Saul. These two decided—apparently on their own initiative—to take with them Barnabas’ nephew, John Mark.

The experiment was not a happy one. In Pamphylia, Mark found himself overwhelmed and left the duo to return home. Barnabas and Saul continued the journey on their own, establishing churches throughout southern Asia Minor.

Later on, Paul suggested that he and Barnabas pay a return visit to the churches that they had planted. Barnabas agreed, and insisted that they take Mark with them. Paul objected. When neither man altered his position, they left one another and formed two groups. Barnabas and Mark went one way; Paul took Silas and went another.

What is striking about this episode is the lack of specific direction from the church at Antioch. The silence is all the more impressive because Paul and Barnabas were actually in Antioch at the time of the disagreement. When Paul and Barnabas had made their first circuit through Asia, they had operated without direct supervision from the Antiochian church. They had made operational decisions on their own, without so much as advice. Nor did the church seek to advise them in their present disagreement. The decision that they made (to form two separate teams) went unchallenged and seemingly unreviewed by the church.

Also striking is Paul’s choice of Silas to take the place of Barnabas. While Paul and Barnabas had both been set apart by the church at Antioch, Silas clearly was not. He had been sent by the church at Jerusalem with a specific commission to Gentile churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Although they were commissioned by different churches, Paul and Silas chose to work together.

Along the way, Paul and Silas added other members to their party. In Lystra they found Timothy. Luke joined them before they crossed into Macedonia. Other individuals joined and left the group at odd intervals: Gaius came from Derbe, Sopater from Berea, Trophimus from Asia. Aristarchus, Secundus, and probably Demas were all from Thessalonica. Titus, Sosipater, and Jason also labored with Paul.

The membership of Paul’s team was clearly drawn from several churches. Presumably, each of these individuals remained accountable to his own church. None of those churches, however, exercised direct control over any member of Paul’s team.

While Paul was the leader, the team seems to have made its plans in a variety of ways. Often the process involved some element of consultation between members of the teams. Sometimes the process terminated with the reception of direct, divine revelation. Nowhere in the record, however, does any member of the team appeal to his home church for direction or even counsel about operational decisions. The actual direction of the team resided within the team alone.

Paul’s team was a band of Christian individuals who organized to plant local churches. Yet their organization was not itself a church. To repeat: Paul’s company of church planters was an organization, but it was not a church. It existed to perform a function that belonged to the local church, and yet it performed this function without the immediate direction of any local church. While its members were ultimately accountable to their churches, they were immediately accountable to the organization itself.

The organization of Paul and his companions was virtually indistinguishable from the modern missionary field council. That being the case, arguing that field councils (or, by extension, mission agencies) are anti-Scriptural makes no sense at all. In fact, exactly the reverse appears to be true. Paul’s field council is really the only organized effort to plant churches that is depicted in the New Testament. Never does the New Testament anywhere present the picture of a solitary missionary who answers only to his commissioning church.

The burden of proof, therefore, is not upon mission agencies that operate field councils. On the contrary, those who reject the pattern of Paul and his companions have the duty to explain why their methods should be accepted as more biblical or useful than the one that is actually displayed in the New Testament. Until that argument is made convincingly, Christians have every reason to think that missionaries on the field ought to be organized together and immediately accountable to one another, even though each missionary remains accountable to his sending church.

O Love, Who Madest Me to Wear the Image of Thy Godhead

Johann Scheffler (1624-1677)

Tr. Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878)

O Love, who madest me to wear
The image of Thy Godhead here;
Who soughtest me with tender care
Thro’ all my wand’rings wild and drear,—
O Love, I give myself to Thee,
Thine ever, only Thine, to be.

O Love, who ere life’s earliest dawn
On me Thy choice hast gently laid;
O Love, who here as man wast born
And like to us in all things made,—
O Love, I give myself to Thee,
Thine ever, only Thine, to be.

O Love, who once in time wast slain,
Pierced thro’ and thro’ with bitter woe;
O Love, who, wrestling thus, didst gain
That we eternal joy might know,—
O Love, I give myself to Thee,
Thine ever, only Thine, to be.

O Love, who thus hast bound me fast
Beneath that easy yoke of Thine;
Love, who hast conquered me at last,
Enrapturing this heart of mine,—
O Love, I give myself to Thee,
Thine ever, only Thine, to be.

O Love, who lovest me for aye,
Who for my soul dost ever plead;
O Love, who didst my ransom pay,
Whose power sufficeth in my stead,—
O Love, I give myself to Thee,
Thine ever, only Thine, to be.

O Love, who once shalt bid me rise
From out this dying life of ours;
O Love, who once above yon skies
Shalt set me in the fadeless bowers,—
O Love, I give myself to Thee,
Thine ever, only Thine, to be.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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