Did Unreached Peoples Set Paul’s Mission Agenda?
Paul wanted to reach the unreached. This was a matter of urgency for him, as it should be for our churches. But was that Paul’s primary motivation in missions? Perhaps more important, was that the goal that set his missionary agenda?
If you were to listen in on many conversations within the missions community, you might think reaching the unreached was Paul’s preeminent aim and therefore it should be ours. In fact, other possible goals for missions, such as teaching young believers or leading healthy churches, are often deliberately and consciously sidelined for the sake of this more “urgent” goal. The critical need of the unreached demands it.
Programmatically, that means mission agencies and schools often direct missionaries to lead people to Jesus and then, as quickly as possible, leave. To go to the next locale. To release new believers to work on their own toward maturity. Because the missionary must, like Paul, always move on. But does that accurately represent Paul’s example?
In one sense, it’s hard to imagine a missionary with a more clear-eyed vision than the apostle from Tarsus. He was passionate to go where the gospel hadn’t, to reach the unreached. And Christians often quote Romans 15:20 to prove it. On his third stint ministering in Corinth, Paul penned a letter to the churches of Rome and revealed his plans to go to Spain. “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel,” he wrote, “not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.”
The apparent simplicity of that vision can be misleading, however. Paul’s agenda wasn’t nearly so straightforward. If we pause to consider Romans 15:20 in context, we instead find that Paul cared quite a bit about helping young believers grow toward maturity—as part of his missionary mandate. We also discover that Paul was only willing to go to Spain once he had fulfilled prior commitments in both Corinth and Jerusalem. A mission to the unreached wouldn’t come first.
REACHING THE “REACHED”
The Corinthian believers first received the gospel through Paul’s missionary preaching. However, as is well documented, their congregation suffered from numerous problems. They divided along party lines. They tolerated immorality. They misunderstood marriage and minimized idolatry. They shamed the poor and dishonored authority. They boasted in spiritual gifts yet lacked love. They were even confused about the resurrection. All this after Paul spent nearly two years ministering among them. (Perhaps this should temper our own missionary ambitions.)
In subsequent correspondence, Paul consistently qualified his confidence in the Corinthians. Early on, we learn he wouldn’t deeply teach them because he didn’t know if they had the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:1). When he addressed their various shortcomings—both in knowledge and behavior—he called them again to embrace the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–2). Later, he urged those in the church to be reconciled to God, to not receive God’s grace in vain, but to be saved (2 Cor. 5:20–6:3). Then, in his concluding word, Paul made his appeal plain: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:4–5).
What we find in Corinth, then, is a missionary not simply ambitious for those who haven’t heard, but one deeply anxious for those who had (2 Cor. 11:28–29). This explains why, at least on two occasions, Paul abandoned an open door for evangelism (in Ephesus and Troas) to return to the troubled Corinthian congregation. The unreached didn’t always set Paul’s missionary agenda. Instead, he spent much of his energies trying to reach those already reached.
DEVELOPING THE MATURE
This Pauline priority for the reached, in fact, can be seen in the literary context of Romans 15:20. For example, Paul only ventured to speak of Spain because he had “fulfilled” his gospel ministry in Corinth and elsewhere (Rom. 15:19). Also, we should note that, for Paul, accomplishing his mission meant more than merely seeing the gospel advance or people believe (Rom. 15:18). Rather, his priestly ministry included the fuller goal of seeing the nations sanctified by the Spirit; those who had developed such spiritual maturity would become an acceptable offering that he could be proud of on the final day (Rom. 15:16–17; cf. Col. 1:28).
This suggests that Paul’s ambition to reach Spain was secondary to—and somewhat dependent upon—his purpose of presenting a proper and pleasing offering to God. In the case of Corinth, that offering was in jeopardy. Paul would only launch into new lands once he was assured of their secure faith and spiritual growth. Earlier, he made this explicit. As long as his confidence in the Corinthians was wavering, Paul would seek to increase his influence in the church—among the reached—before pressing into new fields (2 Cor. 10:13–18).
What’s important to note here is that Paul wasn’t satisfied by the Corinthians simply receiving the gospel and reproducing. After all, there was a church plant in nearby Cenchrea. By the standards of some missiologists, Paul should have released these indigenous believers because of his confidence in the Spirit and the Word; they no longer needed missionary influence. But not so for Paul. Keep in mind: the chronology here is crucial. Paul didn’t write his letter to the Romans until his third visit to Corinth, that is, after he sufficiently resolved his concerns there. Only then did he set his sights on Spain.
SERVING THE POOR
What happened next is nothing short of astonishing. After completing his letter to Rome, Paul sent it by the capable hands of Phoebe, his patron from the church in Cenchrea. Instead of taking it himself and traveling westward toward Rome—and ultimately Spain—Paul headed . . . in the opposite direction!
He went east to deliver an offering for the poor, suffering believers in Jerusalem. In fact, Paul had spent many years in the prime of his missionary career to promote, gather, and deliver monetary aid to the Judean church. Furthermore, Paul was personally willing to make that journey when he knew—through the Spirit and a word of prophecy—that he would suffer and be imprisoned in Jerusalem.
If the ambitious apostle needed an excuse to prioritize travel to new lands with the gospel, he had it. He even had friends and churches begging him to abort his journey eastward (Acts 21:10–14). Along the highway to Jerusalem, there were multiple warning signs and numerous opportunities for Paul to turn back. He could have baptized such a decision as “keeping the main thing the main thing.” But Paul’s ministry agenda wasn’t so simplistic, nor were his missionary aims so singular.
EXPANDING OUR MISSIONARY AGENDA
Sometimes we picture Paul as not much more than a one-dimensional character with a one-directional ministry. We think of him as a pioneer missionary always pressing into new lands. And while it’s true that his ambition was to go to Spain and reach the unreached, his goals were more complex. He first wanted to secure the faith of the Corinthians. Then he wanted to deliver aid to the poor in Jerusalem. Perhaps most important of all, he was anxious for the spiritual maturity of those in his care because he wanted to present an acceptable offering to the Lord from the entirety of his ministry.
What does all this mean for our missionary agendas? Most basically, we can’t always assume that people who are reached—even reproducing—truly understand the gospel. Paul wasn’t convinced of this in Corinth, so he repeatedly reminded them of the gospel and called them to a clear understanding of Christ. This means that we shouldn’t limit the goal of missions to the multiplication of disciples. A fuller goal includes the maturation of disciples, which in turn work toward healthy churches—ultimately becoming a pleasing offering to God on the final day.
We should also be careful about defining “missions” too narrowly, as if it only includes ministries to the unengaged and unreached. Surely Paul was being faithful to his apostolic call when he visited churches, wrote believers, discipled leaders, defended the gospel, and delivered aid to the poor. In missions, we need to learn that the seemingly most urgent task isn’t always the most important. Reaching the unreached shouldn’t always set the agenda—especially if it puts the reached at risk. After all, what does it profit a missionary to gain one new field if only to lose another?