When ministers of the Word are sent out as missionaries, they shall be and remain subject to the Church Order. They shall report and give account of their labours to the Church which sent them and shall at all times remain subject to its calling.
It shall be their task, in the specific region assigned to them or chosen by them in consultation with the Church that sent them, to proclaim the Word of God, to administer the sacraments to those who have come to the profession of their faith, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded His Church, and to ordain elders and deacons when this appears feasible, according to the rules given in the Word of God.
The first thing we note here is that a missionary does not have a special office: he is a minister of the Word. Certainly, he is a minister of the Word with a special task, namely to go and proclaim the Word of God to those as yet ignorant of the true Gospel and to work towards it that a church can be instituted among them, but that he does the work of a minister in faraway regions does not mean at all that he has a different office.
With a view to the many questions a missionary faces in connection with his work, it is advisable that he first have served in a church on the “home front.” He will then have become more acquainted with all sorts of situations and also difficulties that may be encountered in regular church life. This will prove to be a great help when he goes far away and will have to solve all sorts of difficulties without the opportunity of asking a consistory or a colleague for advice. Communications are often difficult to establish with the home church and they take time. This is not to say that a newly-ordained minister would not be able to do the work well. All we want to express by these remarks is the desirability that he have some experience before going out and being on his own with the added problems of the mission field. Further we note the provision that “they shall be and remain subject to the Church Order.” This means, among other things, that they are and remain bound to the church for life, Art. 12.
Going somewhere as a missionary requires extra preparation. The language of the people among whom he is going to work will have to be learned; their history, customs, and social life will have to be studied. Time will have to be spent on the study of specific problems which he will have to face. Various religions and movements that are found in the country will have to be studied as well. These are only a few examples of the preparatory work involved, which will require a considerable amount of time.
For this reason it is only reasonable that a missionary promises the sending church that he will not consider a call from another church until he has served a definite number of years in the mission field. A church in our own
country could have another minister shortly after their “old” minister has left. This is a practical impossibility for the mission field: time of preparation, time required to obtain the necessary visa, even apart from finding a suitable — and willing—family preclude a speedy filling of the vacancy. Thus a reasonable period should be observed before a missionary accepts a call from another church.
This does not mean that a missionary would have the right to say: “After my next furlough I will serve as your missionary for another three years, but that is it.” He is and remains subject to the Church Order, with its provision in Article 12 that a minister is bound for life to the church that has called him. In addition, Article 18 states clearly that he “shall at all times remain subject to its calling.”
As for the position of a missionary with respect to the sending church, he is an office-bearer of this church, although not in it, because he has been called for a specific task, namely to bring the Gospel to those who are without. Although being an office-bearer of this church, his work is outside the church. When he is on furlough, he certainly may be invited to attend consistory meetings either for a specific purpose or on a regular basis, but he does not have to attend them nor does he have to be invited to them.
Another question is of which church the missionary and his family are members. When he is sent to faraway regions where no church has been formed as yet, it is logical that he remains a member of the church that sent him. More and more, however, it is becoming a practice to send not one but two missionaries to the same region, besides some mission-aid workers. In this manner the nucleus of a future church is present. One might say that for the time being it is a “ward” of the home church, but this ward cannot yet be instituted. The Home Church exercises the oversight over the members in that “ward” via the office-bearers present, that is, the missionaries. There is, of course, also the mutual supervision.
When as a result of the proclamation of the Gospel others, too, become believers, they are also involved in the mutual supervision. Until institution takes place, the “mission congregation” is and remains a “ward” of the home church, being taken care of by the office-bearers in its midst. As all local office-bearers report regularly about their activities to the consistory, so the missionary is under obligation to keep the sending church informed about his activities in this field.
The missionary’s reports should be quite extensive. This is one way in which the sending church is able to judge whether he does his work faithfully or whether there is reason to urge him to greater activity and diligence, or to warn him against dangerous trends in his manner of working or in his way of presenting the Gospel.
Although it brings extra expenses with it, it is a necessity that at regular intervals a team from the home church visit the mission field to report to the consistory on the basis of their own observations and experiences. Being a missionary brings extra responsibilities and special dangers with it. We all need the constant supervision of the office-bearers and of the whole congregation. It is always more dangerous when one is all by himself, far from the
“control” by the brotherhood. By means of his reports the missionary informs the consistory about his work, and in this manner he can receive the so much needed encouragement as well as correction if necessary.
These reports also enable the home church to maintain a lively interest in the work being undertaken in the mission field and to be more specific in its prayers for the work which is done on its behalf. After all, mission is the task of the church and not of some persons who feel prompted “to give it a try.”
When a missionary replaces one who has accepted another call, there will not be any problem where he has to go. The situation is different if a field has to be chosen for the first time or if the work in the original area has been concluded so that a new terrain is to be sought. It may be expected that the sending church will have done its homework so that the brothers have a fair idea where approximately the missionary will have to work. But the final decision can be made only after he has thoroughly investigated locally what the centre of activities should be. Even so, the sending church will have to approve the choice of field.
The first task of a missionary is obviously the proclamation of the Word of God. When we state that this “obviously” is the task of the missionary as minister of the Gospel, we take a stand over against all theories which have abandoned the first principle. The purpose of missionary labour is not to lift the heathen out above their social and economic ills and misery, but to free them from the misery of sin, the slavery of the evil one. This can be achieved only when the Word of God is preached purely, in all its fulness.
The manner in which God’s Word is to be proclaimed will also be determined by the condition and level of the hearers; but the basic contents of the message may not be affected by the difference in the people to whom it is addressed. The message is the same throughout the centuries and remains the same regardless of conditions or places.
When, perhaps after a long time of seemingly fruitless labour, there are some who come to the faith, they will have to be instructed further, so that they can come to the profession of faith and thus receive the sacrament of holy baptism, followed by their participation in the celebration of the holy supper. It is evident that this takes time. Even if it pleases the Lord right away to open the hearts of some so that they “give heed to what is said to” them, Acts 16: 14, the missionary will need much more time to instruct them so that they ultimately may make profession of faith with an adequate understanding of what it entails.
Some are of the opinion that a missionary has to move on to another place as soon as there are some believers, who then have the duty to spread the Gospel in their own surroundings. No one will deny that it is the duty of every believer to let the light shine so that everyone can see it. But that a missionary’s task has ended as soon as there is a circle of believers
in a certain area is a fallacy. This becomes even clearer from the third part of the missionary’s task: “teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded His church.” Even when heathen have come to the faith and to the profession of faith, there is still ample work left for the missionary.
The question could be asked whether the newly converted, though they have reached the level at which they could make profession of faith, have a sufficient grasp of how the Word of God affects all of life and how the Lord’s will is to be obeyed in every area of life. It certainly is not a missionary’s task to transplant or impose upon the new Christians some sort of “Western Civilization,” but it is his task to show them how God’s Word permeates the whole life with all its activities and relations. In the course of the centuries the Holy Spirit has led the church also in that part of the truth which shows how the redemption by Christ encompasses all there is in our life. The accumulated wisdom of centuries is to be shared with the new Christians, too, and so the work of the missionary goes on for quite a while.
The instruction of men who may serve as office-bearers so that the church can be instituted in due time also takes time. No one should receive the “laying on of hands” hastily, without a sufficient time of preparation, Scripture warns us.
The question has been raised what the missionary’s position is once the church has been instituted as a fruit of his labours. There is no longer a “mission congregation,” which is a distant “ward” of the sending church; and there is no longer any “supervision” by that church. The “mission church” has become an autonomous, instituted church. Have the missionary family and mission-aid workers now become members of the newly instituted church? It appears that this is the only logical conclusion. Is it not our obligation to join ourselves to the church where it has pleased the Lord to establish it? Do we not confess that every one has to do this? When we take this confession seriously, it is evident that the communion of saints has indeed to be maintained and practised locally.
Although now a member of the newly-established church and thus under the supervision of its consistory, the missionary is and remains an office-bearer of the sending church and may be sent to another area to work there. In the newly instituted church he has no special authority, even though the consistory may request him to do the work of a minister when necessary. The new office-bearers may find it strange that now they have supervision over the missionary as a “common member” of the church, but this is only proper. No tutelage ad infinitum!
Such a situation is not as strange as it may seem. Ministers who have been released by their consistory for the work at the Theological College and move to a place in the neighbourhood of the College also remain an office-bearer of the “releasing church” and are just “common members” of the church they joined themselves to. The very same applies to retired ministers who move elsewhere. They remain office-bearer of the church they served
last, but in their new place of residence and in the church at that place they have no special privileges or responsibilities, let alone authority.
Matters are no different in the case of a missionary. Once a church has been instituted, this church is completely autonomous, and neither the missionary nor the sending church has any authority in it.