Lessons for Missions from the Ministries of John G. Paton and Wang Ming-dao (王明道)


Christians don’t always recognize the importance of the local church and church polity to missions. Yet some of the great missionaries and evangelists of the past knew that building healthy churches was central to their work.

The biographies of John G. Paton and Wang Ming-dao (王明道)1 both illustrate this lesson.

JOHN PATON (1824-1907)

Born in Scotland in 1824, John G. Paton spent much of his adult life as a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands of the South Pacific. Over many years, as Paton did pioneering missionary work among unreached peoples, he saw remarkable conversions. Paton served the cause of missions in the New Hebrides for decades, and eventually passed away in 1907 in Australia. Today, Christianity is the dominant religion in these islands, now known as Vanuatu.

While Paton offers many lessons for today’s Christians, three points from his autobiography stand out for contemporary discussions about missions’ strategies. (1) Paton practiced careful church membership as a part of his pioneering evangelism. (2) Paton centered his ministry on the local church. (3) Paton stressed the importance of patience.

Careful Practices of Church Membership

Paton refused to view pioneering evangelism as being at odds with church membership. His approach to baptism and the Lord’s Supper illustrates this conviction. For example, in his autobiography, Paton recounted how he handled Waiwai, a man living in polygamy who began attending church and sought to take the Lord’s supper:

At Communion time, he was dreadfully disappointed when informed that he could neither be baptized nor admitted to the Lord’s Table till he had given up one of his wives, as God allowed no Christian to have more than one wife at a time. They were advised to attend regularly, and learn more and more of Christianity, till God opened up their way in regard to this matter (402).2

In response, Waiwai vocalized public repentance, but Paton “learned privately” that Waiwai was likely being duplicitous. So, Paton “remonstrated with him on his hypocrisy, warning him that God knew his heart” (403). After some time and providential trials, Waiwai finally showed what appeared to be true repentance. In a speech, Waiwai said, “I tried to deceive [Paton], but I could not deceive God. . . . I pretended to serve the Lord, when I was only serving and pleasing myself” (404).

As a result of this speech, Paton “agreed to baptize him and admit him to the Lord’s Table” (404). After telling this story in his memoir, Paton anticipated that some “readers may perhaps think that this case of the two wives and our treatment of it was too hard upon Waiwai” (405). Paton responded, “In our Church membership, we have to draw the line as sharply as God’s law will allow betwixt what is Heathen and what is Christian, instead of minimizing the difference” (405).

Paton later recounted a similar story that shows his careful church membership practices. He recalls that when “a considerable number of Candidates for membership” had completed the communicants’ class, “after careful examination, I set apart nine boys and girls, about twelve or thirteen years of age, and advised them to wait for at least another year or so, that their knowledge and habits might be matured. They had answered every question, indeed, and were eager to be baptized and admitted; but I feared for their youth, lest they should fall away and bring disgrace on the Church” (414-415).

After considerable time had passed, the teenagers spoke with Paton again. Finally, “after much conversation I agreed to baptize them, and they agreed to refrain from going to the Lord’s Table for a year; that all the Church might by that time have knowledge and proof of their consistent Christian life” (415). This was like Paton’s first communicants’ class, where he required that people “gave evidence of understanding what they were doing, and of having given their hearts to the service of the Lord Jesus” before partaking of communion (375).

Stepping back from the particulars of these stories, Paton’s understanding is clear: careful church membership is biblical and helpful for missions.

Church-Centered Ministry

Paton built his ministry around the local church. He labored to see real conversions as well as elders being raised up to shepherd God’s flock. He understood that elders were critical for the missionary effort. At one point, Paton wrote, “when I saw the diligence and fidelity of these poor Aniwan Elders, teaching and ministering during all those years, my soul has cried aloud to God, Oh, what could not the Church accomplish if the educated and gifted Elders and others in Christian lands would set themselves thus to work for Jesus, to teach the ignorant, to protect the tempted, and to rescue the fallen!” (416).

Further, he saw the centrality of the Lord’s Day for discipleship. He reflected on how “Sabbath after Sabbath flowed on in incessant service and fellowship”—a reality that made him lament how “the Lord’s Day was abused in white Christendom” (380, emphasis original).

The Importance of Patience

For 15 years, Paton labored in an area no larger than a few dozen miles (312). At first, his efforts seemed unfruitful, but instead of moving on, he stayed put. Even after disciples began to multiply, he remained in place. Reflecting on his life and devotion to evangelizing the people of the New Hebrides, he wrote, “is it not better to have one good idea and to live for that and succeed in it, than to scatter one’s life away on many things and leave a mark on none?” (443).

WANG MING-DAO (1900-1991)

Shortly before John Paton’s death in 1907, Wang Ming-dao was born in 1900 to a Christian family in Peking, China (today, Peking is known as Beijing) (2).3 Ming-dao grew up around western Christianity propagated by westerners. He soon would denounce this Christianity and remarked that “doctrinal truths were never studied” (19).

After being converted at age 14, his life changed, though he remained deeply off-put by lax and largely unbiblical western Christianity (20). Around age 18, he began aspiring to preach, writing: “I now began to look at preaching in a new light and saw it as a great and important work. Even the president of a country could not change people’s hearts” (47).

Hungering for Scripture and considering ministry, he read the Bible six times in sixty-two days (73-74). Ming-dao would go on to have an influential evangelizing, pastoring, and discipling ministry in China. He died in 1991 in Shanghai, China. His life spanned multiple wars, uprisings, and famines, and he spent two decades in prison for his faith. Even in Ming-dao’s last days after being freed from prison, one scholar noted that Ming-dao “remained an unrivaled symbol of uncompromising faith.”4

While Ming-dao’s life of faithfulness is a powerful testimony that will be remembered for centuries, three points stand out from his ministry in light of contemporary discussions about missionary strategies regarding (1) false conversions, (2) baptism, and (3) church discipline.

The Danger of False Conversions

Ming-dao saw the dangers of false conversion, especially of filling churches with unregenerate members. He saw this as a significant hindrance to evangelism. Ming-dao wrote, “Were I to relate what I have seen and heard of the deplorable circumstances in the churches, I could fill a small book. There are, of course, many reasons for this widespread corruption. Chief among them is the fact that many have been received into the church who are not true Christians” (96; cf. 89, 92, 94, 107).

To protect Christianity from false conversions, Ming-dao often emphasized the importance of the fruits of faith, not just a profession of faith. In fact, he recounted an experience where his concern over false conversions grew: “As I listened to them, I realized that although these people were Christians by name, they were not in fact believers at all. My eyes were opened, and I began to distinguish between true Christians and false Christians” (66).

Later in life, Ming-dao wrote, “Many years ago, I also took the view that those who made a profession of faith were true believers. After many years of painful experience, I have come to the conclusion that, of those who profess to believe in the Lord, less than half have really done so” (135).

The Danger of Uncareful Practices of Baptism

Ming-dao also saw how the rapid baptism of false converts led to the type of unbiblical Christianity that repulsed him as a young man. He writes:

In March 1924, I was invited together with more than thirty preachers, Chinese and Western, from all churches in the city, to go and take part in an evangelistic campaign at an army camp farther south. It was the first time that I had joined workers from all the churches. Unhappily the things I saw and heard caused me great anxiety (lit. headache and heartache). A few amongst these preachers made a good impression, but for the most part, they were truly unworthy to be called the servants of God. As a result of the six days’ evangelism there were more than 3,000 baptized. But it was apparent by careful observation that only a few of them really repented and trusted the Lord. On the day when they all met enthusiastically for the baptismal ceremony, I could not bear to be a spectator, and I returned by train to the city. This experience only made me recognize all the more clearly the corruption, the emptiness, and the poverty of the churches in China (77-78).

Later in his writing, Ming-dao explained more about his principles for missions and baptism:

Unless we are quite sure that a person has repented and believed in the Lord and is thereby saved, we will on no account accept him for baptism. We do not enquire into knowledge of doctrine, we only emphasize repentance, faith, and salvation. This experience must be evidenced by the change in their manner of life. In some cases, it is soon clear that they have repented and believed, and they can be baptized without delay. In other cases, it is more difficult to be sure. We then ask them to wait; it may be a year, or two years, or even three years, and only then can they be baptized. In some cases, they are asked to wait so long that they begin to complain and even grow angry. They cease to attend meetings. It is certainly well that such people have been delayed, for if they became church members, it would not be for the good of the church (124-125).

For Ming-dao, baptizing people for whom he could not have reasonable confidence in their conversion was unbiblical. It also undermined the missionary effort and the cause of the church in China.

The Importance of Practicing Biblical Church Discipline

Ming-dao understood church discipline to be biblical, so he practiced it. On the subject he wrote, “if a believer in our fellowship falls into sin, there are only two courses before him: one is to confess his sin and repent; the other is to leave us” (132). Ming-dao understood himself to have “acquired enemies” due to this practice (132). He accepted this opposition because Scripture was his authority. In his life, Ming-Dao advanced a Christianity marked primarily by Scripture and indigenous Chinese culture, and not by Western influence.

After reflecting on the legacies of Ming-Dao and Paton, one commonality stands out: the fruit of their labors endured. Today, China and the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) have substantial Christian populations. Though John Paton and Wang Ming-Dao served in different centuries, on different continents, and with different languages, they both believed and obeyed Scripture. Because of this, they fought for the church’s purity through careful baptism and church membership practices. They believed churches are an essential and powerful accelerant to missions.

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[1] Wang Ming-dao is sometimes referred to as “Wong Mingdao.”

[2] All inline citations pertaining to John Paton come from John G. Paton, The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) (1898; repr., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).

[3] All inline citations pertaining to Wang Ming-dao come from Wong Ming-dao, A Stone Made Smooth, trans. Arthur Reynolds, 2nd ed. (Southampton, UK: Mayflower Christian Books, 1984).

[4] Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 221.

Eric Beach

Eric Beach lives in Washington, D. C.

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