“When Everything is Missions” – A Review (Part V)

“When Everything is Missions”
by Matthew Ellison and Denny Spitters
Copyright 2017 Pioneers-USA & Sixteen:Fifteen
(A review by Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz)
This is the fifth of eight posts that examine the ideas and analysis found in Ellison and Spitters timely volume.

In this fifth post, we examine Chapter 4: “Is Every Christian a Missionary?” (chapter written by Denny Spitters)

Answering the question posed in this chapter’s title is, of course, predicated on more basic questions posed in previous chapters that orbited around the issue of “What is missions?” In other words, figuring out who is a “missionary” will be partially decided by one’s definition of “missions.”

Spitters starts the chapter by recounting two statements made by speakers at a conference on becoming a strategic sending church. One speaker used John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you,” to support his claim that every believer is a missionary. Then another speaker suggested that, by saying that “when a church calls certain people missionaries, …the rest of the people in the church are disenfranchised.” (p. 65)

The author uses a number of verses to answer the chapter’s question. First he quotes Scripture to show that all believers are “on mission” for the proclamation of the gospel. Then the big question is raised: does being “on mission” make someone a missionary, or is being a missionary “in any sense unique or set apart as pastors and elders are?” (p. 66)

One could naturally get the sense that Spitters is drawing the conclusion that, while all missionaries are Christians, not all Christians are missionaries. But then he quotes a number of famous Christians (Spurgeon, Von Zinezendorf, Alan Hirsch) and one not-so-famous Christian (Winkie Pratney… though with a name like that, he should be famous), who seem to make the case that all Christians are missionaries.

However, the crucial point each of these luminaries of varying luminescence is trying to make is that all Christians should be active in evangelism where they are. But does saying that every person should be a witness (evangelism) mean that every believer is a missionary (cross-cultural missions)?

Spitters notes Justin Long’s definition of “missionary:” “(a) sent (b) across a boundary to where the Gospel is not (c) to see a church planted (not just converts made) that (d) can reach everyone in that place without the missionary being present (through the work of witnesses, evangelists, pastors, etc.). (p. 69)

Our first thought when reading that is, “There sure are a lot of parentheses.” Our second thought is that Long’s definition would actually rule out quite a number of people who go overseas to do missions. Why do we say this? Well, sometimes missionaries go to places where the gospel is already being shared and the church is already planted. And it is vital for that to happen.

Denny acknowledges that the term “missionary” doesn’t appear in the Bible, though that doesn’t necessarily make it “extra-biblical.” Quoting Kevin DeYoung, Spitters concurs that, basically, “a missionary is someone who has been sent.” There are plenty of examples of people being sent, such as Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13. Quibbling over whether or not “mission” or “missionary” are biblical is like arguing about the legitimacy of Trinitarian theology, since the term “Trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, either. Nevertheless, the ideas of “missions” and “Trinity” are thoroughly biblical.

“Apostle,” as the author points out, is used in two different ways in the NT: (1) as simply a messenger or (2) as a means of referring to the inner circle of Christ’s disciples charged with primary leadership responsibilities in the 1st century church. He says that, for our purposes in these times, apostle should mean someone gifted with the role of the advancement of the gospel where it is not. Spitters then connects “apostle” with the word “ambassador,” which means an authorized messenger or representative, II Cor 5:20. (p. 70)

So, the bottom line is that, in the same way that not everyone is gifted or called as a teaching elder or a pastor (though all believers have the capacity to do some teaching and shepherding), not everyone is a missionary (though each Christian is sent on mission).

Before we started reviewing this chapter, we thought we had a good handle on the definition of the word missionary. What this chapter has revealed is that there are a lot of opinions on what is and isn’t a missionary. We would suggest you not get into an argument in your Sunday school class about this. There has been a lot of ink spilled on this and it won’t get settled in a five-minute after-church discussion.

Additionally, in trying to define “missionary,” we got a little nervous when we saw that the next section was dealing with “calling” (another term that gets thrown around way too much). The author wisely points out that saying “God has called me” can be a real conversation stopper because it prevents the church from being able to test “character, preparation,” or clarifying one’s calling. (p. 72)

Overall, we do appreciate the discussion and find ourselves agreeing with the authors that not everyone is a missionary. As Greg Wilton is quoted, the term “missionary is too precious and vital to what God in His sovereign plan intends to do throughout the world” to generally apply to all believers. (p. 74)

While wrestling with whether it would make more sense to just drop the words “missionary” and “missions” altogether, the author wisely concludes that this is probably not a helpful solution to the problem. He says “we also believe it is time for the Church to recover, reclaim, and restore the amazing God-inspired role of the apostolic, cross-cultural missionary for the sake of God’s kingdom purposes and for the soul of the church.” (p. 75)

To those who think the term “missionary” carries negative connotations from the past, Spitters helpfully alludes to Robert Woodberry’s ground-breaking research (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html) that indicates that, even though missionaries have made mistakes in the past, by and large the impact of missionary presence has been overwhelmingly positive. So, those involved in missions don’t need to be afraid of the term “missionary.” We are inclined to agree, even as we sometimes find it necessary to rattle off a list of caveats when we use certain terms.

This closing quote helps to summarize the point of this chapter: “When we stretch the definition of missions and missionaries too far, missions in any traditional sense is marginalized. We believe this will only be remedied when the entire body of Christ is focused on Great Commission obedience that includes the thrusting out of workers to the ends of the earth.” (p. 80)