Frequently one hears it said that every Christian is a missionary - that is, that every Christian ought to be a missionary. The little chorus puts it, “Be a missionary every day!” It sounds good, but this kind of fuzzy thinking only clouds the issue. Every Christian cannot be a missionary, nor should be. But what is wrong is saying that every Christian is to be a missionary? First of all, it is just like saying that every Christian ought to be an evangelist. These statements are so obviously wrong that few Christians would make that mistake; but as pastors and evangelists are specially called by God for a ministry of the word of God, just so with the missionary! A missionary is specially called of God for a distinct ministry. But let us see what the Biblical data indicates before we go any farther. The root of the words ‘mission’ and ‘missionary’ is the Latin verb mitto (I send). But since the Bible wasn’t written in Latin, but in Greek and Hebrew, we need to find the same concept in the Greek New Testament. The verb apestello has the idea of being sent, and from it comes the word for ‘apostle’ (apostolos), which means ‘sent one’.
The Apostles: The First Missionaries
The Lord Jesus set apart twelve of His disciples as ‘apostles’ and sent them out to their own people Israel (Mk. 4:12; Matt. 19:1-6). They were sent to announce that Jews should repent since the Messiah-King had come and his kingdom was impending. Later God set apart others like Paul and Barnabas as apostles to the Gentiles as well (Acts 9:19; 13:3; 22:21; Gal. 2:7-9). The idea of ‘being sent’ is central in both cases. So the apostles were the first ‘missionaries’ - home and foreign. But what were they sent to do that ordinary Christians were not commissioned to do? First, we find that the twelve apostles had left their secular occupations and devoted themselves full time as disciples of Christ. Some had left their fishnets and boats long after they became believers in Christ. Matthew left his tax-collecting occupation. Now they devoted themselves full time to Christian ministry, as Peter said, “but we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). We find that Paul and Barnabas and the other apostles normally did the same when they had financial support from churches. Although Paul worked at tent making in Corinth when his money ran out, when Silas and Timothy brought gifts from the Macedonian churches, he devoted himself again completely to the ministry of the word (Acts 18:1-5 NAS) What else distinguished these missionaries to the Gentiles? The witness of Jews to the Gentiles involved crossing a cultural barrier. Not only did the Christians in Antioch begin to cross that barrier (Acts 11:19-20), but Barnabas and Paul seemed especially gifted in cross-cultural witnessing and were sent out as the first missionaries (Acts 13:3). So they were being sent to cross both geographical and cultural boundaries to win Gentiles to Christ (Acts 22:21). Paul traveled extensively in four Roman provinces during his three missionary journeys. Apparently he crossed other geographical and cultural boundaries in his ministry after Acts was written (as we infer from his letters). Although the oft-repeated saying is true that “crossing the ocean never made a missionary,” crossing boundaries is an important part of what makes a missionary distinct. There is another aspect which especially distinguished Paul’s missionary career, which is worth noting. Paul’s ambition was to preach Christ where He was unknown so that he might not build upon another man’s foundation. “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another mans foundation; but as it is written, “They who had no news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand’” (Rom. 15:20-21).
Herbert Kane has suggested that although it is not possible to give a flawless, scientific definition of a missionary, the following one should suffice: In the traditional sense the term missionary has been reserved for those who have been called by God to a full-time ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4), and who have crossed geographical and/or cultural boundaries (Acts 22:21) to preach the gospel in those areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely unknown (Rom. 15:20). Charles Ryrie has pointed out that we must distinguish between a general practice in the church and a special gift which God gives to some in that area. For example, all Christians are to give financially; only some have the gift of giving. All are to be witnesses; only some have the gift of evangelism and/or apostleship. Many other examples could be given. The point then is that all Christians are to witness for Christ, but not all Christians are called for a full-time, specially gifted ministry of evangelism. All Christians are to be missionary-minded in obedience to the Great Commission, but not all Christians can be missionaries in the proper biblical sense of the word. We cannot all pack up and go! Some must stay behind and stand behind those who do go. Since a missionary is sent by God, it follows that a missionary must go somewhere. This is well illustrated from the events of World War II. All Americans were mobilized for the war effort. Housewives collected frying-pan oil, metals were collected from cellars and garages, everybody grew ‘victory gardens,’ housewives went to work in factories for the first time. Everybody was mobilized to win the war against the Axis powers. But not everybody could go into the Armed Services, and not even all of them could go to the front and personally be in the fight. The same kind of distinction should be made in the spiritual warfare in which we are engaged. The total resources of the Christian church should be thrown into the battle for the souls of men on a global scale, and every member of that church should regard himself as being involved in the total mobilization required by such an operation. But not every church member is a missionary.
The Devastating Consequence
What difference does it make after all? Are we merely nitpicking in our definition of a missionary? Look at it this way, if every Christian is already considered a missionary, then all can stay put where they are, and nobody needs to get up and go anywhere to preach the gospel. But if our only concern is to witness where we are, how will people in unevangelized areas ever hear the gospel? The present uneven distribution of Christians and opportunities to hear the gospel of Christ will continue unchanged. It has been said that ninety percent of the Christian workers are ministering to ten percent of the world’s population and ten percent are working among ninety percent of the people of the world. Many Christian leaders have picked up Ralph Winter’s analysis of world need which states that beyond the one-fourth of the world’s population which is nominally Christian, only one-fourth of the world’s people are being somewhat effectively evangelized by cross cultural contact with Christians. The other half of the world’s people are not being reached effectively because they are isolated from any real contact with Christians. This is hardly fair to those who have never heard! So in reality the idea that every Christian is a missionary is a ‘cop out’. It avoids responsibility for the about three billion people who are not being effectively evangelized today. It means direct disobedience to the ‘Go’ of the Great Commission!
What Do We Mean by ‘Missions’?
Missions is the whole task, endeavor, and program of the Church of Jesus Christ to reach out across geographical and/ or cultural boundaries by sending missionaries to evangelize people who have never heard or who have little opportunity to hear the saving gospel.
By Gordon Olson