Why I Think it’s Time to Retire the Word ‘Missionary’

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G. N. Barkman's picture

The proper New Testament word for the person we call "missionary" is "evangelist."  However, before we can expect a successful transition to this Biblical term, we will have to increase our understanding of the office of evangelist. 

A Biblical evangelist is not someone devoted exclusively to evangelism, nor is he necessarily sent only to places that do not have established churches.  Timothy was an evangelist.  That's why Paul told him to do the work of an evangelist.  (II Timothy 4:5)  Paul was not saying that in addition to the work of a pastor, Timothy should also do evangelism.  Rather he was telling Timothy to be faithful to the office to which he was called and appointed.  (Ephesians 4:11)  As an evangelist, he was to "fulfill his ministry."

The primary difference between the office of pastor and evangelist is the itinerary nature of an evangelist.  Pastors have settled ministries in one church.  Evangelists move from church to church to strengthen existing churches.  They go where they are needed and invited, then move to another location when they have accomplished their specific assignment.  They may also travel to new territories to evangelize and plant new churches, appoint elders, and move on to another location.  They should expect to return to churches they have planted to inspect, encourage, and strengthen, and then move to another ministry location.

The evangelist should anticipate a life time of itinerary ministry.

G. N. Barkman

Steve Davis's picture

While in France in the 1980's I discovered early on not to describe myself to French people as a missionary. When I did my DMin at TEDS I had a section on "missionary" and discovered this conversation had been going on for years. Here are some excerpts:

"The very use of the word “missionary” remains problematic.  Bosch notes that “the Latin word missio was an expression employed in the doctrine of the Trinity, to denote the sending of the Son by the Father, and of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son.” He further observes that in modern usage the word “‘mission’ is historically linked indissolubly with the colonial era” and “‘missionary’ was irrevocably tied to an institution in Europe, from which he or she derived the mandate and power to confer salvation on those who accept certain tenets of the faith” (Bosch 1991, 228).  

"Samuel Rowen questions whether the term “missionary” should be dropped and proposes organizational, cultural and biblical definitions of missionary.  He concludes that “without a continuing apostolic office there is no biblical necessity for the term ‘missionary’” (Rowen 1971, 97-98).

" Campbell, in treating the three occurrences of “evangelist” in the New Testament (Eph 4:11, Acts 21:8, 2 Tim 4:5), suggests that originally the evangelist, although not an apostle, “went about preaching that message and by means of it bringing new communities of believers into being” (Campbell 1992, 121-22).  

Combs argues that “the NT evangelist was primarily a church planter” and “any ministry of itinerant evangelism that does not lead to new converts being formed into local congregations is foreign to the NT” (Combs 2002, 28).  He further asserts the probability that “the placing of evangelists in Ephesians 4:11 after apostles and prophets and before pastors and teachers is because of their function in the church,” that is, “they carried on this foundational work by taking the gospel to new groups of people and ‘extended the work of the apostles’” (Combs 2002, 38).  

"O’Brien sustains that New Testament evangelists “carried on the work of the apostles” (O’Brien 1999, 299).  Bruce notes that although the apostolic office has ceased, “the various functions which they discharged did not lapse with their departure, but continued to be performed by others—notably by the evangelists and the pastors and the teachers” (Bruce 1984, 347)."

I think missionary will continue to be used in-house among churches and believers. Personally, I would not use it as a descriptor in a cross-cultural place of ministry.  I recognize that there may be places where "missionary" might be appropriate and not connected to colonialism. 

Bert Perry's picture

I like the name of the magazine; "Rage against the minivan", with perhaps a hint of a nod to the 1990s heavy metal band "Rage against the machine."  Word picture there that those who minister to moms might do well to heed....

Really, given that a lot of missionaries today are female and not qualified for the office of pastor/elder, I would dare say that we could call many of them simply "Christians."  We are all to do some of that evangelistic work, no, and it's worth remembering that simple acts of kindness during a plague in Rome are said to have led many thousands to Christ--they received care from Christians they did not get from their pagan families and neighbors.  It left a mark.


Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

Her article came up on my "Feedly" RSS feed for Christianity Today

When I clicked on the link ... not  there

This explains:

My book Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World released this month. The magazine Christianity Today asked to publish a lightly-edited excerpt from the book, and I agreed to let them; but at the last moment - literally - they pulled the piece, citing concern that publishing it might cause their readers to doubt their commitment to the cause of cross-cultural evangelism. They were afraid of entering into this conversation.

Richard Brunt's picture

Do words mean anything anymore?  I used to call myself a Baptist and a Fundamentalist.  Now I don't know what these words mean anymore.  Looking on the internet for a Baptist Church in my area I find one co-pastored by a husband and wife, one that is non-judgemental, and one that welcomes all genders (I thought there were only 2 and didn't know of any churches that didn't welcome both).  I was talking to a coworker who goes to a Baptist Church and they pray in tongues.  And just the thought of Jack Hyles causes me to run away from the term Fundamentalist.  

Richard E Brunt

apward's picture

Like my dad says, "I don't care what you call me, just don't call me late for dinner."

When people ask me what I do, it's awkward to answer, "missionary." Especially when I know that the person I'm talking to has a different idea of what that term means. So I usually have to give a 1-2 sentence description of what I do in Togo. But when I write my occupation in Facebook or on a travel visa application, I put "missionary" because I can't think of a better 1-2 word title.

I just double checked my commissioning certificate so see that it doesn't specifically use the term "missionary," but it does say "set apart for the ministry of propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ." So you could rightly call me an Evangelist.