On the Authority of a Sending Church
Ryan and Julie Jones recently promised God in prayer that they’ll do whatever he wants them to do—even leave their home city, church, family, and jobs to proclaim the gospel wherever God leads them. After telling their friends at church, everyone’s excited. A pastor is assigned to help them determine where they should serve, and he helps them prepare to go. He even counsels them to develop their character and gives them a plan to do so, as well as helps them learn about life overseas.
A year later, their departure approaches, Everyone is both excited and saddened. The Joneses are excited to finally move, but they’ve never experienced the love and support of a family of Christians like this. This church has loved and supported them, but many in the congregation and church staff silently wonder what this relationship will—or should—look like for members who move so far away.
The pastors and members steel their resolve: “We’ll never forget them. We’ll continue to care for them just like this even if they’re far away! After all, we are the ones sending them, so it’s our responsibility to continue this same care for them until they return to us. Just like the first missionaries from Antioch!”
There’s much to commend in this sentiment—and yet, I can’t help but wonder: how wise is this? Is such a view consistent with what the Bible teaches about church membership? How should we think about our responsibilities to missionaries we send out?
THREE THOUGHTS ON THE AUTHORITY OF A “SENDING” CHURCH
1. A thousand miles away is not local.
Christians need the authority of a church—a local church. By “local” I don’t mean “one that exists in a location” but, rather “one that’s near the Christian.”
In the Bible, the church’s authority over its members means a community of Christians provides ongoing affirmation that each Christian’s life agrees with their confession to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, church membership is a covenant of love and union that includes a Christian community’s ongoing assessment of a Christian’s way of life. Membership also includes a mutual promise of oversight on the part of the community and submissive involvement on the part of the Christian. For a community to fulfill this kind of oversight there needs to be meaningful, regular, and easy access to the life of the Christian. Likewise, for the Christian to fulfill this kind of covenant, they must have meaningful, regular, and easy access to the activity of the church and to the lives of others in the community.
To remain meaningful, such a covenant cannot be fulfilled at great distance.
But much more is at stake than simply fulfilling our covenant to one another: we actually need each other. The Bible says mutual involvement of Christians in one another’s lives is nourishing (Eph. 4:16, Col. 2:19). We know good things don’t result when humans are deprived of physical nourishment—and spiritual nourishment is even more important. Christians need to worship Christ in groups, they need to be served by others, they need an outlet for the gifts of service given them for the growth of others, they need to demonstrate the gospel in words, and they need a mutual ministry of the Word brought to bear on areas of their lives in discipleship. Without meaningful involvement in a local church, Christians are literally holding their spiritual breath.
This may explain why, in Acts 13:1–4, the Antioch church “set apart” and “sent away” (a very strong term that was sometimes used for “divorce”) Paul and Barnabas―thus “commending them into the grace of God” (Acts 14:26).
Perhaps the Christian community in Antioch knew it could not fulfill its authoritative duty of oversight while the apostles were away.
2. It’s good and right and wise and loving for a church to support in every way possible those who go out for the sake of the gospel.
While my family lived overseas, we regularly received packages from home. These would be filled with as much of our favorite goodies as could be crammed into a small box and shipped around the world. We loved receiving these packages and they were great encouragement to us. But we didn’t try to live off of them.
Similarly, we maintained all the relationships God had given us, but only as much as we could. We’re so thankful for the churches that supported us and for every phone call, email, letter, and gift that we received, no matter how big or small. Each one reminded us we were supported and not forgotten, which was most important to us.
Yet, we still needed the local body in our city.
Do sending churches have any biblical authority over missionaries they send? I think the answer is a qualified “yes.” It just can’t be the authority of church over church member. Instead, I think the authority of the sending church comes from wisdom and providence and love—not membership.
It’s wise for churches to expend energy supporting those they affirmed and discipled and who are now laboring for the gospel. Support is a good response to God’s wise providence. He began a work in these missionaries through the sending church, and therefore we should understand these circumstances as a calling to our church to responsibly support them as they go. It’s loving for churches to pray for those who labor in hard places, as well as for those they serve.
When churches pay the financial support of missionaries, there’s an additional authority that comes from being an “employer” over the missionary―but even this should not be confused with church membership. And when missionary support comes from a parachurch organization, how much less we should confuse employer authority with church membership!
Like parents who continue to relate—though differently—to their children long after they leave home, it’s wise for churches to maintain loving connections to those whose lives they’ve helped shape.
Even though we cannot continue our relationships exactly as they were, we should still maintain involvement in one another’s lives however we can. Let’s help missionaries—even from far away. However . . .
3. “Support” can harm the missionary when it is confused with the role of church member.
We don’t want missionaries to become so dependent upon good and wise help from a church far away that they neglect necessary church membership where they are. Since Christians need a nearby church, anything that might hinder that involvement can become unwise or even harmful in the long term.
Some missionaries are convinced that their ministry, life, and church involvement should be modeled after the apostle Paul’s, especially from the narrative sections in Acts. But we should be really cautious here. Some biblical narratives are simply telling us what happened―not giving us a model to follow―and they can be vague, missing the kind of detail we need for prescriptive application.
Thankfully, the Bible includes large amounts of clear data handed down by the Holy Spirit about how all Christians, Paul included, should be actively involved in a local church for the sake of their ongoing maturity and spiritual health. When missionaries base their church involvement on a few obscure passages—that may or may not have been intended to model church involvement for Christians—they’ve not discovered an “out” to the many authoritative passages in the rest of Scripture that clearly prescribe active involvement in the activities and oversight of a local church.
At the very least, missionaries should obey both sections of Scripture in order to faithfully fall under its authority.
What about “pioneer” missions? Does church membership understood this way mean we should never send Christians where there is no church? Definitely not. Instead, it seriously compels us to find creative solutions other than sending lone families to the hardest places on earth. Let’s at least resolve to never send families alone to places where there is no church. (Missionaries in church history were perhaps better at this than we are, and we can learn from the examples of Moravian or early monastic missions.) Let’s coach teams of missionaries to pour themselves into one another, even constituting themselves as a local church if necessary.
Healthy churches can care for their members by recognizing the limitations of any church, however healthy, in fulfilling its covenant with its members. They can perform the three-fold action modeled in Antioch: set them apart, release them, and commend them to God’s grace.
But keep caring for them! Let’s ensure that missionaries who leave quickly fall under the authority of a Christ-governed healthy church wherever they are. This is not only good for the missionary; it is good shepherding.
Then, commit church resources to what’s good and right and loving and wise: let’s care for those missionaries in every way possible. Pray for them! Call them frequently. Write them and video conference with them. Ask about their spiritual welfare and, above all, make sure they are involved in a local church.
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See Jonathan Leeman’s definition of church membership in The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Crossway, 2010), 217.
On this term in 14:26, see H. Beck, “παραδίδωμι,” ed. L. Coenen, E. Beyreuther, and H. Bietenhard, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 3:368.