What Is a Missionary?

Thoughts from the Heart of a Missionary

What is a missionary? I have been called one for twenty-one years, and through those years I have heard many different people use the term—from well diggers, to doctors, to school teachers, to veterinarians, to church planters, to orphanage directors, and some whose sole purpose is teaching good hygiene habits. Although they all in some way or another do good things, are they really missionaries in the biblical sense of the word?

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines a missionary as “one sent to propagate religion.” The majority of independent fundamental Baptist churches I have been to on deputation or furlough define missionaries as “church planters,” and often will not support a missionary who does not fit this description. However, where do we get our biblical basis? Who says that a missionary is a church planter? If the Bible is our sole authority for faith and practice, and it is, where do we get this teaching from?

To be clear, the word missionary is not found in the Bible. It was a term that began to be used in the 17th century from the Latin word missionarius meaning, “one who is sent on a mission.” Please do not get me wrong. I am not attacking the term missionary. I call myself one, and I support many missionaries personally through my home church and through our churches here in Uganda. But if this position is correct, it must be based on a biblical definition.

Several years ago the idea of “lifestyle-evangelism” started to creep into churches; with it, a feel- good philosophy was developed. What used to be humanitarian work has now become missions work, and missions work has become humanitarian work. We see the same thing happening to our military. Many American warriors are not being sent to fight, but to engage in humanitarian efforts. Definitions have become clouded, and missionaries today are confused about their real job description.

There are some of the humanitarian mission groups who accomplish good things, and a few eventually do start a church; but church-planting should be a missionary’s primary objective, not an afterthought. You may say, “What about countries where you can’t get in as a church planter?” I understand that there are circumstances where missionaries have to go in as a businessman or a teacher. But when you interview them, their goal is still to start churches, albeit their activities due to government restrictions are limited. However, in countries where missionaries can enter as church planters, why would we send people to do humanitarian work and then call them missionaries when starting churches is their secondary objective or not their objective at all?

I am not against assisting with education. Church planters help nationals with education. I am not against teaching people how to farm. Church planters teach nationals farming with great success. I am not against helping people medically. Church planters help many with medical problems and finances. I am not against helping orphans. Church planters help orphans, widows, and the poor in many ways.

Ephesians 4:11 says, “And he gave some apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” Biblically speaking, this is the extent of church leadership. Deacons were given to the church, but on a servanthood basis to the pastor and church. We need to have a clear understanding of what these leadership positions are, and see if what we call a missionary is found in any of them.

Notice, first of all, the foundational leadership seen in the apostles and prophets. Ephesians 2:20 tells us that the church was built upon the, “Foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” Understanding that the foundation of the church has been laid and does not need to be laid again, we know that the apostles and prophets had their times, but their time and purpose has been accomplished. This leaves us with two leadership positions in the church, which I want to take a closer look at—evangelists and pastor-teachers.

The term evangelist is found three times in Scripture. We have already looked at Ephesians 4:11, but it is also in Acts 21:8 and 2 Timothy 4:5. In these passages, we see “evangelist” mentioned as a leadership position in the church, as a man identified as an evangelist, and as telling someone to do the work of an evangelist. The Greek word for evangelist is euaggelistes meaning a “preacher of the gospel.” Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines an evangelist as a, “preacher or publisher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, licensed to preach, but not having charge of a particular church.”

I would like to submit that although not much is said about the evangelists, we can, through deductive reasoning, get a better idea of what an evangelist truly is.

1. He is not just a soul-winner. Before you cut me off here, let me explain: Are we not all to be soul-winners? Is not every man, woman, boy, and girl who is saved called of God to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ? Without a doubt, the answer to that would be yes, but we are not all called to be evangelists. We would not say that every christian is an evangelist.

2. He is not a pastor. Since he is listed separately in the list of Ephesians 4, it would be obvious that he is something different from a pastor, and for that matter, an apostle, and prophet.

3. He must be a man. This is stated in the fact that these are all church leadership roles, of which Timothy states that women are not to usurp authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11–12). Both of the men mentioned in the Bible who were evangelists or who were to do the work of an evangelist were men.

Now, in looking carefully at these church leadership positions we have the following:

1. The Apostles and Prophets

They founded the church and gave us the Epistles so that we would know how to behave ourselves in the house of God. The foundation for what we are doing has been laid.

2. The Pastor

These men are shepherds over a particular local church. Each local church is to have one, and the local church is to take care of their man of God. They are not to hop from church to church but are to feed and oversee the flock of God as shepherds (Acts 20:28).

But we have a gap between the above two. How do we get from the foundation (the apostles and prophets) to having existing local churches around the world in need of pastors?

3. The Evangelist

There must be an evangelist to not only bridge the gap between the two leadership positions but also to continue the multiplication of churches around the world.

There must be a man who builds on the foundation that has been laid, being sent from those local churches and through evangelism, not only brings people to Christ, but also gathers those people together in order to establish a new local church. They then turn that church over to a pastor who has the responsibility to continue the perfection of the saints for the work of the ministry. This is the biblical model given to us in the New Testament as we observe Paul, the great apostle and missionary.

I believe that what we call church-planting missionaries today is what the Bible refers to as an evangelist. If it is not, then where do we get the authority to use the term “missionary” in relation to the church? Every church needs to be sending out evangelists to build on the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, by planting new local churches.

I believe there has been a “muddying of the waters” in our distinction of church leadership. Because we have lost the distinction in church leadership definitions, the world has taken the term “missionary” and has applied it to every occupation you can imagine as long as it is in a different country from their home. I hope this article will help us get back to the Bible in our terminology and to get a clearer understanding in the area of missions.

Missionaries, let’s keep our focus on our purpose: building churches and training pastors to take them over so that we can go on and do it again and again!

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