White Unto Harvest
Missionary Work in the New Testament Churches
(From part of a series of lectures delivered at Abilene Christian College Lectureship in 1920. Originally appeared in Gospel Guardian, vol. 2, #33, p. 12)
The purpose of this address is to examine the New Testament record and see how New Testament churches conducted missionary work or the work of evangelizing the world. We shall see that, in the execution of their divine commission, the matter of supervision, management and control was in the local churches, where God himself placed it, and was never transferred to a general board. The authority divinely invested in the local church was everywhere strictly respected, which effectually blocked the way against the entanglements which have always marked the history of general ecclesiastical organizations in religion. We can see an exemplification of the work in the apostolic days by noting a series of facts.
I. The Jerusalem church, as such, sent Barnabas as a missionary and defined the territory of his labors.
Referring to the action of the Jerusalem church when it learned that a door for the gospel had been opened in the city of Antioch in Syria, the historian says, "And the report concerning them came to the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem; and they sent forth Barnabas as far as Antioch; who, when he was come, and had seen the grace of God, was glad; and he exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and much people was added to the Lord." (Acts 11:22-24) Let it be carefully noted here that "the church," as such, is declared to have acted in the matter of sending Barnabas to an inviting missionary field of which it had heard. This example alone is sufficient to show the churches anywhere, and at all times, how to act. When they learn of an open door for the gospel, the way is here made plain for the same action on their part. Let them "send" a Barnabas, to enter the open door and preach the gospel that "much people" may again be "added unto the Lord."
(Point II. skipped in original)
III. The Philippian church, as such, sustained Paul as a Missionary in Thessalonica.
We learn this from his own testimony, "And ye yourselves also know, ye Philippians, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church had fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving but ye only; for even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my need." (Phil. 4:15,16) This authorizes any other church to do the same thing, and this is exactly what all the churches ought to do. These examples of mission work by individual churches should encourage hundreds and thousands of churches in modern times to do the same work.
IV. The Thessalonian church, as such, sent the gospel to other parts of Macedonia, to Achaia, and to the region around.
Writing subsequently his first epistle to the Thessalonian church, Paul himself testifies, "For from you hath sounded forth the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith to God-ward is gone forth; so that we need not to speak anything." (1 Thess. 1:8) Thus it is clearly revealed in the New Testament that churches of Christ, as such, conducted missionary work without any general ecclesiastical organization with its central board of control, and hence it is God's order that from every church "the word of the Lord" shall be "sounded forth." Unquestionably this is missionary work as it was conducted in the days of the apostles and the primitive churches.
In this connection there is a significant fact which I would have every student of the New Testament to carefully note. I refer to what might properly be termed a missionary chain of self-multiplying institutions called churches, each link in the chain creating one or more other links, and thus lengthening the chain indefinitely. For example, the Jerusalem church, through missionary Barnabas, as we have seen established and confirmed the church in Antioch in Syria; the church in Antioch, in turn, through the labors of Paul and Barnabas and their companions, established, among others, the Philippian church; the Philippian church, in turn, through Paul and his companions, established, among others, the Thessalonian church; and the Thessalonian church "sounded forth the word of the Lord," to other parts of Macedonia, to Achaia, and to the regions around. Hence, with this principle of operation, the churches are continually multiplying themselves; and, should the work be thus faithfully continued, the chain of missionary churches would by and by belt the globe.
V. In these examples, it is distinctly and necessarily implied that two or more churches, if need be, may cooperate in the work.
Paul's testimony on this point is clear and explicit: "And ye yourselves know, ye Philippians, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church had fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving but ye only." This clearly implies that, while the Philippian church, as a matter of fact, was the "only" church that contributed to sustain Paul in Thessalonica, yet other churches could properly have done so if they had so desired. This was an implied rebuke to the non-contributing churches, though he distinctly informed them that he said this "not that" he sought "for the gift," but because he sought "for the fruit that" might "increase to" their "account." Hence, the fact that one church is contributing to sustain a missionary is no reason why another church or churches may not do so if one is too poor financially to sustain the work; and, in such a case, each church maintains its own independence and sends directly to the support of the missionary in the field. Churches may communicate with other churches by means of "messengers," and thus make arrangement at any time for two of them, or for any number that may be necessary, to thus cooperate in sustaining a missionary. Giving some account of missionary operations, Paul said to the Corinthian church, "Whether any inquire about Titus, he is my partner and my fellow worker to you-ward; or our brethren, they are the messengers of the churches, they are the glory of Christ." (II Cor. 8:23) Where one church can sustain a missionary, let it do so, of course, if two are needed, let them cooperate and do the work. Whatever number may be necessary may properly do so, and in such procedure there would be no interference with the independence of any local church.
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