Paul’s missionary motive was to receive honor or commendation from the Lord. This is the idea that shapes Elliot Clark’s book Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul. As we saw previously, Clark explains how this motive drives how he (and we) should think about mission strategy. Paul’s labor would be judged according to its lasting fruit. For this reason, he was not content to settle for metrics like speed and numbers as a measure of ministry success.
Today, we conclude the series by looking at three other points that Clark highlights in his excellent book. While they are not all major themes developed in Mission Affirmed, they are still noteworthy. I will merely summarize his ideas without rehashing his entire argument.
Was Independence Paul’s Motive?
Paul’s goal was not to establish independent churches. In our day of anti-colonialist sentiment, one could easily mistake Clark’s meaning. But I think he captures his point well when he writes,
I don’t come to the conclusion that the ultimate goal of missions is self-sustaining, self-supporting, and self-propagating churches who need nothing from the missionary or sending church. Neither is it the goal to have self-funded missionaries or independent operatives who don’t rely on the locals. That’s because missions is always a cooperative partnership. Which means the solution to dependency isn’t independence. It’s interdependence. (104)
No individual believer is autonomous in the sense of not needing other Christ-followers; in the same way, no church is independent, without the need of other churches. To presume so or even to strive for such independence is to contradict Paul’s repeated emphasis on the church being a body. For example, check out Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; and Ephesians 4:4, 16.
It is only when we are interdependent that we exemplify the unity that God desires for his church. Unity is practical. It is not a theological idea but a formative reality. Such interdependence pleases the Father and so brings God’s commendation on Paul and us.
A False Dilemma that Minimizes Missionaries
It’s not news to say that missionaries have taken a colonialist mindset with them to the field. One consequence is that the churches and ministries they started became highly dependent on Western resources. This phenomenon is what led to the push for self-sustaining, self-supporting, and self-propagating churches (rather than interdependence).
On a related note, we find a shift in contemporary missionary thinking. Clark summarizes,
In our efforts to develop churches in other cultures that are self-sustaining and self-governing, we’ve somehow felt the need to diminish our own selves—including the stewardship of our training and gifting—and God’s purpose for us in that place. In such cases, we’re confronting a new hazard in global missions. It’s the danger of false humility and cultural embarrassment.
Instead of elevating the foreign worker, we now minimize the role of the Western missionary and emphasize the superiority of nationals. “They can do ministry better than we can” is the mantra of our day. And our primary objective is now seen as “empowerment,” equipping locals while we serve from the shadows and prevent any sort of Western imposition. But I think this represents a departure from [Roland] Allen’s thesis, and certainly from Paul’s method. (119)
Westerners assume a false dilemma:
EITHER missionaries are present and thus colonialist and oppressive, …
OR missionaries minimize their presence and so empower local, indigenous churches.
This framing of the situation is problematic and certainly not what we see in Scripture. First, many people today seem to be oblivious to the fact that indigenous churches can bless their mother churches just as the missionary’s church can bless the local people. This is the nature of interdependence. We can be fellow learners and recipients of blessings!
Second, Paul felt a responsibility before God for the churches he planted. He did not abandon them once they had God’s word and a little teaching. He was deeply invested in their long-term health. D. A. Carson says,
Paul is willing to mortgage his own vision of the future to the needs of the Corinthian church. If God called him to establish a church in Corinth, he cannot abandon that responsibility just because he detects new opportunities and still greater need elsewhere.
Do We Spread the Virus of the Prosperity Gospel?
Finally, if we seek the Lord’s approval, we cannot be indifferent to the lifestyle and preparation of missionaries. We might be mindful to develop thoughtful strategies and biblically faithful teaching, but are we are conscientious about missionaries as people?
And I’m not merely talking about character; missionaries bring with them a culture and lifestyle habits that could undermine sustained fruitfulness. Clark explains,
Western missionaries themselves—even the best of them— carry the virus of prosperity theology latent within them. And we easily transmit it to others wherever we serve. This can happen simply by our observable lifestyle, as we instinctively gravitate toward comfort and ease in seemingly innocuous decisions about housing and entertainment, education and healthcare. Like it or not, local believers will interpret from us a Christian perspective of suffering and glory whether we overtly teach it or not. (77-78)
What do missionaries take for granted that subtly undercut their stated goals?
Consider, for instance, the desire to make disciples who are faithful in the midst of persecution and suffering. Clark addresses a contemporary form of colonialism that persists among missionaries because it is disguised and justified in various ways. He says,
I’ve known Western missionaries, working in countries with moderate persecution, who were sometimes mystified by the inability of new believers to endure hardship. Expat workers expressed frustration with locals who shied away from suffering or ran away from pain. They also wondered why those who claimed to follow Jesus would prefer to remain secret, never telling their family members or friends about the Savior.
But the sad irony I observed was that sometimes— in those very circumstances—the missionaries themselves had modeled the same secretive identity, the same avoidance of suffering, and the same inability to endure. Sadly, their new disciples weren’t diverting from the path. They were simply following their lead.
As a result, I’ve come to consider some of the ways Western missionary colonization still happens. Sure, we’re no longer exporting pews and pipe organs. We’re beyond that. But we do import our comforts and our fears. We implicitly inculcate others with our timidity, secrecy, contingency, and luxury. The great danger of cultural colonization isn’t gone; it’s only changed. We’re still making disciples in our image. (78)
Paul repeatedly urged churches to follow his example (e.g., 1 Cor 4:15-17; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thess 3:7, 9; 2 Tim 3:10-11; cf. Acts 20:35). Likewise, he told Timothy and Titus to be worthy of imitation (1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7-8).
Yet, it would be unthinkable for many people to say this to other people: “Imitate me!” Why? False humility? Or an intuitive sense that we are not being the sort of disciple that we want others to imitate?
Just some food for thought.