"Missionary" Defined

What is a missionary?

  1. "The word missionary comes from the Latin word mitto, which means "to send." It is the equivalent of the Greek word apostello, which also means "to send." The root meaning of the two words is identical (Herbert Kane, The Making of a Missionary, ISBN: 081053587, p. 13). Then what is an apostle?
  2. ArostoloV= apostle, in the Septuagint used almost exclusively of a commission for a mission, rather than of an office-holder. But in the NT, the word is used of an office-holder and messenger (NIDNTT, Vol. 1, E. von Eicken, H. Lindner, p. 128). The word is sometimes used in the sense of messenger, but probably not of the office: Phil 2:25, 2 Cor. 8:23 (NIDNTT, Vol. 1, p. 130). The narrow definition of "apostle" is at Acts 1:21-22, ". . .one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection." Paul was an "apostle extraordinary," since he was not with Jesus from the time of John's baptism (Colin Brown, NIDNTT, Vol. 1, p. 136).
  3. "Paul, an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father..." Gal. 1:1. The term sending away (exapostelv) is found is Acts 22:21, "Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'" "I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending [apostellw] you to them 18. To open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light. . ." Acts 26:17-18. This verb is translated "send" in the NT. [apostolh] is "apostleship," obviously an office (Acts 1:25; Rom. 1:5; 1 Cor. 9:2; Gal. 2:8). "When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles" (Luke 6:13). This is Jesus' title, designating that He would send. "When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick." (Luke 9:1-2). They were given power and authority before given the task. Proclaiming the Kingdom came first, but then came ministry to the body, just as was the priority in Jesus' ministry: "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: 'Everyone is looking for you!' 38 Jesus replied, 'Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.' 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons." (Mark 1:35-39). The priorities were: (1 fellowship with the Father (2 proclamation of the Gospel over the pressing and urgent ministry of mercy (3 deliverance and mercy ministry. He sent them out in teams, not alone, as the 72 were sent out after the Twelve (Luke 10:1).

The Spirit must energize the call

The apostles were told to wait 40 days in Jerusalem until they were given the power of the Holy Spirit. The power was not in their office, but in the Spirit. Acts 1:8 was given specifically to the apostles--to witness in God's power. Doing the work of God without His power and His authority and His appointment is not biblical. If anyone could have done the work of God in the power of the flesh, it would have been the apostles after they had seen the risen Christ.

Calls to a specific field

Jesus was sent "only to the lost sheep of Israel." (Matt. 15:24). He sent His disciples to the Jews, but specifically not to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:6). After Jesus' ascension, they were sent into all the world. In Rom. 1:5 (11:13) Paul's apostleship was for a specific people group--a large one--Gentiles. But Peter's apostleship was tied to the other people group--Jews (Gal. 2:8). Today we have identified 24,000 people groups, 10,000 of which are defined as "unreached" by the US Center for World Mission. Three hundred churches and denominations are involved in reaching those 10,000 groups (http://www.uscwm.org, accessed 4/27/99). The point is that an appointment to be sent is sometimes associated in the NT with a specific people group. Notice that in Paul's case the appointment was cross-cultural, while Peter's was not.
Others besides the 12 are called apostles: Rom. 16:7, Andronicus and Junius--"They are outstanding among the apostles" (NIV). Barnabus and Paul are called apostles in Acts 14:14. Jesus was appointed to be an apostle (Heb. 3:1-2). The apostlate was an appointment by God (Eph. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1 [by command], 2:7. We do not know if Andronicus and Junius met the qualifications of Acts 1:21-22, but Paul did not. Therefore there is warrant to believe that apostleship is the wider sense of the word is open today, and that cross-cultural missionaries would qualify. In the narrower sense, for example that of Eph. 2:20, the church was built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and that foundation does not need to be laid again.

  1. The Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) was given also to the 11 disciples, but was not exclusively directed to them. This was a commission to make disciples (learners) of all nations, through going, baptizing and teaching the message of Christ. But it was not simply directed to the 11. Why would Jesus promise to be with them until the end of the age, if so? What warrant do we have to go into all nations and baptizing today, if this command was to the 11 and to all believers who followed them? William Carey wrote,
    "FIRST, If the command of Christ to teach all nations be restricted to the apostles, or those under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Ghost, then that of baptizing should be so, too; and every denomination of Christians, except the Quakers, do wrong in baptizing with water at all. SECONDLY, If the command of Christ to teach all nations be confined to the apostles, then all such ordinary ministers who have endeavoured to carry the Gospel to the heathens, have acted without a warrant, and run before they were sent. Yea, and though God has promised the most glorious things to the heathen world by sending his Gospel to them, yet whoever goes first, or indeed at all, with that message, unless he have a new and special commission from heaven, must go without any authority for so doing" (William Carey, "An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens," (1792) in Perspectives, p. 295, ISBN: 0853649995).
  2. What is a missionary? "In the traditional sense of the word the term missionary has been reserved for those who have been called by God to a full-time ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4), and who have crossed geographical and/or cultural boundaries (Acts 22:21) to preach the gospel in those areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely, unknown (Rom. 15:20, Kane, p. 14). "Stephen Neill has warned that if everybody is a missionary, nobody is a missionary. The Chinese have a proverb: 'If two men feed a horse, it will lose weight; if two men keep a boat, it will soon leak.'. . It is correct to say that every Christian is, or should be, a witness. It is not correct to say that every Christian is a missionary." (Kane, p. 15). A missionary is someone sent by God with the priority to preach the Kingdom of God and to meet other forms of human need.Generally this is done cross-culturally. The word can be defined too narrowly, so that Jesus would be excluded, having been sent only to His own people, and too broadly to encompass every Christian, making the terms synonymous. Historically, God has given a special mission to many individuals in the biblical record.

    A missionary is not defined by his field of destination. What is one Christian's far corner of the earth, is the next Christian's local market. Crossing salt water does not make a missionary, nor does sending 3 years of goods in a container to an exotic destination. Everywhere on the planet is potentially one generation away from being the darkest place on the planet.
  3. Is a special missionary "call" needed? Christians are divided. Carey would seem to indicate no. Favoring the position that a specific and special call is needed are the experiences of those God has called, in the OT, in the NT and since those times. Whether or not every missionary needs a specific call, here are some facts:
    1. Many missionaries testify that they have received a missionary call.
    2. In the Bible God did call specific men to cross-cultural ministry, such as Jonah, Paul, and Barnabus.
    3. God asked that we specifically pray that He will “send out workers into his harvest field.” (Luke 10:2). Why do we need to ask God to raise up missionaries, if we are all supposed to be missionaries (Lk. 10:2)? Apparently some special action is taken by God to send people, who otherwise would not go.
    4. The Great Commission does not seem to have been addressed only to the apostles. So we all must be willing, at the least, to disciple cross-culturally.
    5. God uses human means to spread the Gospel (see below).
  4. Calls to salvation: "And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ." (Rom. 1:6). The invitation in Rev. 22:17 is open-ended to whoever is thirsty. "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." (2 Cor. 5:20). This is the same type of function that apostles performed--calling people to reconciliation with God. "For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' How, then can they call on the one they have not heard? And how can they hear without some preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'" So the call to salvation depends upon someone responding to the call to be sent. he Gospel is the means by which the "effectual call" to the elect is made (2 Thess. 2:13-14). God's chosen are "called" out of darkness into light (1 Peter 2:9).
  5. Some calls to missions -- Old Testament:
    1. Abram (Gen. 12:1-3) was called to start a nation which God used as His vehicle to provide the savior. "When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many." (Is. 51:2). Moses was called to a mission of deliverance (Ex. 3:2-4, 10; 4:1-16).
    2. Joshua was called by God to conquer Canaan (Num. 27:18-23; Dt. 31:23; Josh. 1:1-9). Jonah's call, like Abram's, was more a classic call to missions.
    3. Jonah was told to "Go to the great city of Ninevah and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." (Jonah 1:2). God and even Jonah foreknew that Nivevah would repent, so this commission to missions is contrary to the usual OT pattern of nations coming to Israel to find God (Is. 42:6-8). So fixed was the call and so determined God's purpose to give an opportunity to repent, despite Jonah's almost equally determined disobedience, that God also commissioned a fish, a plant, a wind and a worm to get the job done (Jonah 1:17; 4:6-7) and gave the gift of repentance (even the animals fasted Jonah 3:7; Acts 11:18).
    4. Jesus Christ, even in the Old Testament, was called to be a missionary (God's servant--Is. 42:1): "I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." (Is. 42:6-7). This is an amazing description of the missionary. Jesus healed the physically blind (Lk. 4:18), delivered from darkness (John 12:46), and set free the captives (fulfilled at Luke 4:18-21).
    5. The nation of Israel also was called God's servant (Is. 49:3). In perhaps the clearest O.T. statement of God's missionary purpose to reach the world, God said: "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth." (Is. 49:6). Nations would come to that light (Is. 60:3).
  6. Some calls to missions -- New Testament:
    1. The Great Commission is the most obvious cross-cultural missions directive (Matt. 28:18-20). The primary focus of the command to go into all the world is to make disciples ("learners").
    2. Paul--(Acts 9:4-6, 15-16) "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (v. 6). "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." (v. 15). Service was not optional, nor was it easy. God also defined the people group. Paul's mission field was the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7), because he probably would have had an extremely short ministry to the Jews.
    3. Peter was called to witness specifically to the Gentile Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:19-20). Peter was most reluctant, being a Jew. It took three visions (10:16), a miracle of timing (10:19), the Holy Spirit's definite word (10:20), and a confirmatory message to Cornelius from an angel (10:30). The Jews were not ready missionaries. However, Peter's primary calling was to the Jews (Gal. 2:7).
    4. A specific mission trip (AD 46-48--First Journey) was appointed for Barnabus and Paul by the Holy Spirit at Acts 13:2. Jesus called Paul in Acts 9:5; but the Spirit called in Acts 13:2. The Second Missionary Journey (AD 49-52) originated as a follow-up to the first journey (Acts 15:36). The Macedonian Call clarified the route of the Second Journey, after the Spirit would not let them proceed to Asia or Bithynia (Acts. 16:6-7). The Spirit seems to be the Lord of the Harvest. This called for discernment. A vision of a man from Macedonia confirmed the only direction left open. This call was not to begin missions, but to clarify a mission. Missionaries have far more need of this type of guidance than the former.
  7. Some calls to missions -- Since the New Testament:
    1. Patrick [b.389]-: ("in the depth of the night". . . "I saw a man named Victoricus, coming as if from Ireland, with innumerable letters; and he gave me one of these, and . . . while I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought that at that very moment I heard the voice of those who were beside the wood of Focluth, near the western sea; and this is what they called out: 'Please holy boy, come and walk among us again.' Their cry pierced to my very heart, and I could read no more; and so I awoke." (Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, ISBN: 0310459311, p. 38-39). He planted 200 or so churches and baptized an estimated 100,000. "But I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever has deigned to scan or accept this document, composed in Ireland by Patrick the sinner, an unlearned man to be sure, that none should ever say that it was my ignorance that accomplished any small thing which I did or showed in accordance with God's will; but judge ye, and let it be most truly believed, that it was the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die." (Tucker, p. 40).
    2. William Carey c.1785. While a pastor, Carey read Captain Cook's Voyages, and privately studied the biblical theology of missions (Tucker, p. 114). His Enquirey Into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens was entirely contrary to the Calvinism of his time. Carey is the "Father" of modern missions.
    3. C.T. Studd (c. 1870’s). Studd dedicated his life to God and to mission service while D.L. Moody preached (Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Ruth Tucker, p. 263.).
    4. Samuel Zwemer (b. 1867—missionary to Muslims). “It was while attending Hope College that Zwemer sensed the urgency of foreign missions. During his senior year, under the persuasive preaching of Robert Wilder (the same missionary enthusiast who had strirred John R. Mott and the Mount Hermon Hundred), he and five of his seven classmates volunteered for foreign service (Tucker, p. 276).
    5. Ida Scudder (b. 1870—medical missionary). “The most distinguished missionary family in all history was the Scudder family, beginning with John Scudder, a young medical doctor in New York City who, after reading a booklet appealing for missionaries left his growing practice and in 1819 sailed to Ceylon with his wife and child. The Scudders served for thirty-six years in Ceylon and India, and during that time thirteen more children were born to them, nine of whom survived to adulthood. Of those nine, seven became missionaries, most of them specializing in medicine like their father. In four generations, forty-two members of the Scudder family became missionaries, contributing well over one thousand combined years of missionary service.” (Tucker, p. 332).
    6. Bruce Olsen (Bruchko, ISBN: 73-81494). "The next evening I talked with Mr. Rayburn. "You're wasting your time here," he said. "The whole world is damned, and it's your responsibility to give them the truth." For weeks after the conference I quarreled with God. "But why are you set on making me a missionary?" I asked. "Why can't I be Your servant here in Minneapolis?" My aim was to become a professor of languages, to get a Ph.D. in philology. But something within me said, "That isn't what God wants you to do." "Listen, God, these missionaries are ridiculous," I argued. "They wear tennis shoes in the pulpit. Their prayer letters aren't even written in decent English. And their theology. They're always talking about hell and damnation. Where is their love for the people they're living among? They're failures, Lord. They can't make it in normal life, so they go off to be missionaries. But I can succeed here, Father. Everyone agrees. Why should I have to work with naked, starving people?" God never told me why. But He did change my heart. Gradually my pleasant sane dream of becoming a linguistic professor vanished into this ridiculous idea of going to other countries to talk to savages about God." (pp. 36-37).
    7. Isobel Kuhn (Isobel Kuhn, by Lois Hoadley Dick, ISBN: 0871239760. The call to missions came through a missionary, as often it does. In this instance the missionary J.O. Fraser, who served the Lisu people of western China. “‘I need men,” Fraser said, leaning over the pulpit desk and gazing down at his audience at the Firs. ‘Consecrated men, men willing to live a lonely life for Christ, willing to suffer and do without the comforts of civilization,’ “On the aisle seat, halfway down the rows, Belle’s heart swelled with love and pity for the Lisu.” “’I’d go,’ she prayed to the Lord. ‘I’m not a man—but I’d go! Oh, I’d go!’” (p. 43).

For Discussion:

  1. What patterns do you perceive among missionary calls, if any?



  2. Does a Christian need a specific call to missions?



  3. What support is there for the “no call” position?



  4. What support is there for the “individual call” position?



  5. Can you detect a pattern in the Bible for either position?



  6. One church has this requirement for missionaries: “‘we will only send and support proven disciple-making leaders.’” (“Provenness,” Paul Kaak, EMQ, April 1998, p. 164). Kaak wrote of this kind of test: “We do them a favor by helping them validate their call to the difficult, lonely, draining work of cross-cultural church planting before they face life in a strange and far away place.” (p. 166).

    Should a sending church require a credible testimony to a specific missionary call of a candidate-missionary?



  7. Is every Christian a missionary? If so, what is a missionary? If not, for whom is the Great Commission?



  8. How does God call a missionary? J.I. Packer wrote: “The work of God in these cases [of vocational guidance, that is, choices which are not already determined by the application of specific biblical texts] is to incline first our judgment and then our whole being to the course which, of all the competing alternatives, He has marked out as best suited for us, and for His glory and the good of others through us.” (Knowing God, ISBN: 0877847703, p. 215)



  9. Are you personally willing to determine whether or not God is calling you to cross-cultural missions?