Sunday, August 9, 2009

Missionary Support in the Bible: Off-Site Supporting Churches

No. No. Deputation is not in the Bible. Why do we use this model of missionary support then? Is there any Biblical support for it? Can it be altered?

There are several principles and practices in the New Testament that are applicable to modern Independent Baptist missionary support. There is the primary principle concerning support being received from those being ministered to on the field - not a principle often practiced today (or then). There are also principles that would lead us to refuse such a means of support. New Testament practices that are applicable to modern missionary support include practices such as working a secular job on the field and sending single male missionary teams.

But where in all of this do we find our typical means of modern missionary support, i.e. deputation and off-site church support? The short answer is, deputation is not found, but off-site church support is.

Let me clarify some things before continuing. Deputation is the process of going from church to church by request and invitation in order to seek financial support for your off-site ministry. By off-site I mean a ministry that is not taking place within the supporting church. Rather, it is taking place outside of that church, often in another country.

We know that the church the missionary is currently ministering to is the only church with an expressed biblical responsibility to support the missionary. But it is clear that off-site churches (especially the Macedonians) often sent financial and other assistance to Paul (Phil 4:10-19; 1 Cor 16:17; 2 Cor 11:8-12). They had no apparent obligation to do so. Neither does it seem that Paul demanded it of them. In fact, he considered himself to be 'robbing' the off-site churches (2 Cor 11:8). There are at least a couple reasons why he was willing to receive such off-site support, instead of rightly requiring the on-site church to provide his needs.
  1. Freeing the Gospel - It allowed him to preach the Gospel of God free of charge. (2 Cor 11:7)

  2. Cutting Off Criticism - It cut off occasion from them which desired an occasion to accuse him of mixed motives. (2 Cor 11:12)

  3. Lifting Burdens - It allowed him to remove a financial burden from the church among whom he was currently ministering. (2 Cor 11:9)

While these churches had no expressed obligation to supply such support, Paul yet said that they had "well done" (Phil 4:14), that it would result in fruit abounding to their account (4:17), that their gift was a sacrifice pleasing to God (4:18). Further, they could be assured that all their needs would be met abundantly by this pleased God (4:19).

Did they have a law that bound them to support an off-site missionary? No. However, their display of Christian love for the missionary and the unreached was right and rewarded.

With the above now understood, let's consider a few of the differences between the support provided by the first century off-site churches and that which is provided by them today.

  • No Regularity - There is no indication that their support came or was promised on a regular basis (e.g. monthly) while ours is.

  • No Continuity - Their support came to meet the acute needs of the missionary on the field (Phil 4:14b) while ours is the expected means of the missionary's continual support.

  • No Solicitation - I do not find that Paul ever requested support from off-site churches as we do, though he did praise them for their assistance.

  • No System - We provide support within a system of deputation and monthly support while their giving was sporadic (perhaps led only by their love for the missionary, reports that reached them concerning his acute need, and prompting from the Holy Ghost).

Note that the principle that requires the church to provide for the needs of the on-site minister did apply to the missionary in his travels through some of these 'supporting churches.' But, again, this was only a factor as long as the missionary was among them. Churches were (and are) expected to bring them along to their next destination (Rom 15:23-24, 3 Jn 5-8). This in no way took the form of continual monthly support though. It merely applied to the acts of providing necessities while he was among them and helping him along to his next destination.

Where does our current system of deputation and support fit in then?

  • Bringing them along - We do bring our missionaries along as the first century churches did. When our missionaries are on the 'deputation trail,' our churches generally care for the them generously as they are present among them and often help them to their next destination.

  • The System - While it does not seem that there was a 'system' of off-site support in the first century, it isn't a totally unbiblical way to approach modern missionary support. It is a way in which off-site churches with a passion for the Mission can ensure that the Gospel is provided free of charge, lifting a financial burden off the newly planted churches. In this way it is a system that has very Biblical motives underlying it.

I have heard some claim that deputation is not only absent from the Biblical record, but it is in fact unbiblical, or wrong. However, arguments from silence rarely hold water. As we approach the modern system of deputation and support we ought to keep several things in mind though.

  • It Is Not Doctrine - There is nothing in the Scriptures which would hinder us from changing the system, as long as we remain within Biblical principles. It can be changed.

  • It Has Its Rewards - Like the giving of the Philippians to Paul, sacrificial supporting churches can expect fruit abounding to their account and their needs being met by a great God.

  • It Is Right - It is not doctrine, yet it is right for churches to support missionaries within the modern system. They have "well done." If it is right for churches to send support sporadically in the NT, surely it is just as well for them to do it on a regular basis today.

  • It Benefits the Mission - It is a way that we can provide the Gospel free of charge, lift the burden of support off of new churches, and cut short some possible accusations.

  • It Is a Good Use of Resources - The abundant resources of the West, combined with the modern ability to wire money instantly make our system wise and practical.

  • Don't Remove Vulnerability and Faith - This is an issue that cannot be fully explained here, but it is Biblical for a missionary to rely upon God and those he is ministering to for support. This was Christ's way. Any system which totally removes these, has no Biblical foundation.

  • It Needs Tweaking - As we will see in future posts there are some changes that need to be made, though I don't think it should at all be totally scrapped. For example, in general churches need to increase their monthly support levels to keep up with inflation. Also, it would be wise for churches to try only invite those missionaries whom they will definitely support, cutting down deputation lengths. It can be changed.

Let us use the system wisely. Let us improve it. Let us sacrifice more to allow missionaries to provide the Gospel free of charge. While deputation is not found in the Bible, it is an appropriate application of some Biblical principles to modern resources and realities. I pray that this has not been too 'technical,' but helpful.

What do you think about our system?

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