Where are evangelical missionary organisations heading in the long run?
So far we have seen that unbiblical positions, such as Open Theism, held within evangelical mission organisations may be the result of either theological ignorance or the work of false teachers. However, there are other factors which foster problematic theological views and mission strategies.
Pragmatism and organisation
Sometimes theological ignorance goes hand in hand with a strong pragmatic approach to ministry.
An example is the appointment of mission leaders. There are various reasons why missionaries are promoted to leadership positions. In some mission organisations the percentage of former missionary kids (MKs) among both membership and leadership is noticeably high. This can be because these adult missionary kids (AMKs) are considered to have a better understanding of African culture and the church scene, significant cross-cultural and linguistic skills, a broader world view and a higher degree of mobility and are therefore better qualified than those without this background.1 ‘They know what it’s all about. They know the walk and they talk the talk’ goes the argument.
However, this is not necessarily the case when AMKs have grown up in a mission-owned boarding school where they have been taught an American or British curriculum by Western missionary teachers. Neither is it helpful when they later in life enter the mission field in Africa because they long ‘to go home’.
Relationships above truth
In long established mission organisations this tendency of appointing AMKs to leadership positions is sometimes supported by an organisational culture whose motto is ‘We are family’. As a result the same family names appear again and again on the mission’s membership list. ‘Family bonds’ can be so strong that it takes a long time before leaders are, if at all, disciplined for false teaching or other inappropriate conduct. Because people’s common history goes back a long time, sometimes even to missionary boarding school, relationships can easily become more important than biblical truth. Loyalty to the organisation, i.e. ‘the family’, has priority over sound doctrine. Such an attitude is even strengthened when doctrine is viewed as something divisive and seen as a potential threat to the organisation — according to the postmodern motto ‘doctrine divides, but love unites’.
Being an AMK is, of course, not the only qualification for a leadership appointment. Other mission leaders may get appointed because they have been part of the organisation for a long time and it is felt that they cannot be overlooked.
Others have had a successful career in their secular business before they joined the mission, suffer from ill health and are no longer fit for front-line mission work, or are known to be people who will not oppose what their team members or superiors want to do.2
All these are, of course, the wrong reasons and the wrong criteria for appointing a mission leader. The right criteria can be found in Scripture. Passages such as Titus 1.5-9, 1 Timothy 3.1-13, 2 Timothy 2.1-13 and Acts 6.1-6 apply not only to church leaders who are involved in God’s mission in London or Sydney but also to those who are involved in cross-cultural mission work in Africa or other parts of the world. However, as David Hesselgrave has pointed out, mission organisations tend to be rather selective when it comes to these leadership criteria.3 While they emphasise qualifications for leadership such as ‘husband of one wife’, ‘blameless’ or ‘self-controlled’, they tend to pay little attention to a qualification that was extremely important to the apostles, i.e. the ability to ‘give instructions in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it’ (Titus 5.9).
Doctrinal statement no guarantee
Such a pragmatic approach to ministry can also be seen when it comes to biblical doctrine in general. Again it is David Hesselgrave who writes: ‘Many missionary leaders seem to feel that, once they have subscribed to an orthodox statement of faith, they can “bank it”, “bank on it” and get on with pressing practical issues. This assumption is not usually thought through, however’.4
Hesselgrave is right. Most evangelical mission organisations have a robust evangelical statement of faith to which all missionaries have to subscribe. But this does not necessarily guarantee that all their theological views and their ways of doing mission are actually in line with biblical teaching. To assume so would be short sighted. I once experienced that myself when a mission leader argued that Open Theism, which he promoted, was in agreement with his mission organisation’s statement of faith. When his missionary colleagues agreed that the statement of faith did not mention Open Theism explicitly and pointed him to relevant passages of Scripture instead, he responded that these were open to different interpretations.
Pragmatism and finance
Finally, we must not forget that a pragmatic approach to mission work can also be financially motivated. In times of economic crises and tight finances, when raising money for their general fund is getting more and more difficult, there is a great temptation for mission organisations to ignore particular doctrinal issues or to compromise on them. And all of a sudden issues that were generally considered primary issues only a few years ago, such as the doctrine of penal substitution or the primacy of evangelism, become secondary or non-essential issues, i.e. issues that ‘good’ evangelicals can disagree over.
Choose leaders wisely!
When a large evangelical mission organisation started the process of seeking to appoint a new international director, its officers drew up a list with gifts and qualities they wanted to see in their future leader. They were looking for a truly spiritual person, a careful thinker, a visionary and effective communicator, someone who was able to delegate work and exercise fiscal discipline.
What was missing on this list was the ability to teach sound doctrine and to correct those who don’t. If this is the case for an appointment at senior leadership level it is very likely that this quality will not be an important criterion when it comes to choosing leaders for other positions within the organisation. To choose mission leaders wisely surely means to make sure that they are committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, that their lifestyles are Christ-like, that they have a serving spirit, love for their fellow workers and for those they serve, a good knowledge of the Word of God, appropriate gifts of the Holy Spirit, and biblically informed convictions about the nature of God, human beings, the church, the work of Christ and God’s mission.
In other words, what is required of them is commitment, character, conviction and competency.5 The latter also implies that evangelical mission leaders do not hold unorthodox views. On the contrary, they should be able to grapple with heresies and controversies, such as Open Theism, Emerging Church and the New Perspective on Paul, as well as the hot issues of mission theory and practice, i.e. holism, incarnationalism, contextualisation, and professionalisation.
To be continued.
Thorsten Prill is a lecturer at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary (NETS) and a Crosslinks mission partner.
1. Cf. Sharp, L., 2006, ‘Is the mission field right for adult missionary kids?’, International Journal for Frontier Missions 23(4):143-148,144.
2. Brown, P.E., 1999, Churches in trouble? Developing good relationships in your church, Epsom: Day One.
3. Hesselgrave, D., 2007, ‘Will we correct the Edinburgh error? Future mission in historical perspective’, Southwestern Journal of Theology 49(2):121-149,141.
4. Ibid 139.
5. Johnson, D.W., 1994, ‘Biblical requirements of leaders’ in Leadership handbooks of practical theology, vol. 3. J.D. Berkley (ed.), Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
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