Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Missionary Support in the Bible (Part 3): Who is Supposed to Support Them?

Who is supposed to support missionaries? This is an issue that we often presume we have the right answer for. However, we may be surprised with the Bible's answer.

Our Independent Baptist answer to this question would be, local churches. This is absolutely right! But which churches? Do any churches have an obligation to provide support? Again, we would say, "Sure, all of the churches that missionaries go to on deputation. The churches back home have that obligation." Then we proceed to the Bible and show how the Macedonian churches and others provided some support for Paul. And we go to 'support passages' and point out that Paul 'raised' support from local churches. However, we are usually committing an error of anachronism. That is, we are forcing our modern methods onto the ancient text. We are assuming that things were the same then. I propose that if we deal with the Biblical Text honestly, we will come to some surprising conclusions (at least for some).

Jesus and Missionary Support

Jesus Himself gave us the first missionary support model. When Jesus sent out the 12 and then the 70 He gave very clear commands concerning their support. He gives the same orders on both occasions.
Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house, And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. (Luke 10:4-8, emphasis mine; compare Matt. 10:9-13)
Christ sent these first missionaries out with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were to rely upon those God provided (sons of peace), whom they would minister to, to provide them their necessities. They were specifically directed not to bring any other preparations in the way of clothes, money, etc.

Jesus gives us at least two reasons why He made such commands.
First, they were based upon an abiding principle: "the labourer is worthy of his hire." As we saw in a previous post, this is an abiding Scriptural principle which was stated in the OT (Deut 25:4, 18:1), affirmed by Christ here, and continued in teaching by Paul (1 Cor 9:9, 13; 1 Tim 5:18). Those who minister spiritual things have a right to receive 'carnal' or physical necessities from those for whom they minister (1 Cor 9:11).
Second, Jesus was trying to teach them a lesson on faith and the faithful provision of God, as we see by His later statements (Luke 22:35).
This is the most strictly Biblical model of missionary support. It is an obligation upon those being ministered to (I know, I know, I'm ending sentences with prepositions!). It is a right of those doing the ministering. Strictly working by this principle (law?), missionaries would not primarily be supported by churches 'back home,' by other outside churches on the field, or by working a secular job, but only by those to whom they are currently ministering! This is a sobering thought, considering that those we usually minister to on the mission field are significantly poorer than we are before coming to the field. But remember the 'deep poverty' of the Macedonian churches who were the most faithful supporters of Paul, even when he wasn't currently ministering to them (2 Cor 8:2, 11:8-9; Phil 4:10)?

Paul on Christ's Model

"But Debtor," you say, "Paul's practice didn't line up with this principle." Again, this was dealt with a bit in an earlier post. But, as already mentioned, Paul did teach it consistently as an abiding principle (See particularly 1 Cor 9:1-19). He taught it as a right he had, and an obligation that they had. Also note that Paul yet practiced the principles laid out by Christ to the 12 and 70. It is obvious to me that he sought and God provided persons of peace in nearly every city that he entered into for ministry (e.g. Lydia, the Philippian jailor, Jason, and other fulfill this role. All of them provided him shelter and certainly some food. Already established Christians provided necessities as well, such as Aquila and Priscilla, the disciples at Tyre, the brethren at Ptolemais, Philip the evangelist, Mnason of Cyprus, the Jerusalem brethren, etc.). He also followed the command to wipe off the dust of the city against those who did not receive him or the Word (Acts 13:51). More significantly, he implies that he did, at times, take upon himself the right of support from those he was ministering to at the time (2 Cor 12:13). (For reasons why Paul died to this right sometimes, see the post that I am continually referencing.) So, we can see that the missionary principles and methods taught by Christ were applicable to the later ministry of the churches. Are they not today?

"Hold on Debtor! Jesus changed His orders in Luke 22:35-37 just before His crucifixion. These rights and obligations are no longer binding! Christ's methods can now be discarded for whatever 'works'." Wrong. As we already saw, Jesus' original commands were continued in teaching and/or practice by Paul and the early churches. Further, this is a difficult text (at least for me), which the disciples themselves seem to have slightly misunderstood when it was spoken (v. 38). Further, He was expanding His original support allowances only in light of specific circumstances that were about to arise (v. 37). He was not overruling the principle that was the foundation for the original command, as Paul makes clear when he references Him (1 Cor 9:14). He also told them to carry swords, but the NT doesn't reveal that they ever defended themselves in this way. I would suggest (not dogmatically) that Jesus wasn't telling them to actually make these changes, but was impressing upon them the difficult times that were coming, though I do believe they often began taking purse and scrip with them, while yet maintaining the original principles.

Which churches have a Scriptural obligation to provide support for the missionary? Those churches who are currently receiving the missionary's ministry, no matter where they are or what condition they are in. They alone have this Scriptural obligation. Other churches, as with Paul, may be moved by the Holy Ghost to send to his necessity, but they have not Scriptural obligation to do so.

How should this be applied today? I believe, it should be applied just as Paul applied it.
  1. Teach It: This obligation should always be taught to new churches, no matter how poor they are. We have no right to withhold this command from them.
  2. Practice It: This right should, in many cases, be taken by the missionary, as he receives support from those new churches he has planted and is ministering to on the field. This will not be popular with many, but it is Scriptural. I don't know of anyone practicing it now, but it should be.
  3. Sometimes Die to It: This missionary right should be died to by some missionaries. Some should receive support from elsewhere (sending and supporting churches, a secular job, other Christians on the field, etc.). Principles that guided Paul in making this decision were discussed in that other post.
Remember, the deputation process is not found in the Bible. While churches would send missionaries on their way to their next destination with certain necessities, missionaries did not go church to church to raise support, and regular support was not usually provided. Instead, missionaries relied upon those they were currently ministering to, their own jobs, and the sporadic support of outside churches.

This does not mean that deputation and State-side support is wrong. It should be seen as one way in which more prosperous churches die to themselves to provide the Gospel freely to others (for these supporting churches aren't under obligation). I don't know that this is how it is usually viewed, but it should be.

Let us seek to apply Scriptural principles and commands before we begin relying upon other methods and models.

Thank you for reading this series. I know that it seems very academic (like a textbook, yuck!), but it is not. It is very practical and important to modern ministry methods if we seek to be guided by Scripture. Please continue to read and comment!


Aaron said...


I've been strongly considering missions work in China and have been coming to the same conclusions you've come to: Paul supported himself or received support from churches that he himself planted or encouraged for a while. I've heard of an article that made a pretty strong case that deputation can defended with a goal to serve churches rather than the goal to raise money from them; "Can Deputation Be Defended Biblically?" by Walter Liefield EMQ, Oct 1986 (Evangelical Missions Quarterly Magazine).
With that said, we're setting our sails to leave in July, using TESL to get us there at first, with our home church taking care of some incidentals like health insurance, travel expenses, etc.

Debtor Paul said...

Thank you for the comment. I pray that the Lord guides you clearly as you follow Him to China.

Concerning biblical support. We should remember that Paul's methods of missionary support were largely descriptive rather than prescriptive. He provides us with significant precedence, though little command. He does clearly teach the single biblical prescription concerning missionary support (that those being ministered to at the time should supply some support). However, he doesn't usually follow this model himself! Instead he dies to it for the sake of the Gospel. Even those churches that Paul had planted in the past or encouraged for a while were under no biblical obligation to support him on a continuing basis. Paul considers himself to be robbing them (Macedonians) in order to minister to the Corinthians.

How does this affect deputation? It is extrabiblical, though not unbiblical. Granted, there are some ideas that have been built up around it that may be unbiblical. But the method itself is merely extrabiblical, and practically legitimate. One of the primary problems with it is that it usually hasn't been well maintained, making it practically cumbersome. If viewed correctly, it is an act of self-denial on the part of supporting churches, in order to get the Gospel to the world. I still believe, in most cases in the west, that it is, practically speaking, the best method. It only needs a little shift in philosophy, and needs maintained much better.

Concerning, what you are planning to do. There is nothing unbiblical about it. Your method has support in some biblical description, though not prescription - which is OK.

Thank you so much for your comments.