What Is A Missionary?

This is a question began rattling around in my head a few weeks ago while in Zambia and I’ve been curious to hear what you folks out there think.

In spite of the fact that the Scriptures only describe two church offices in any detail, missionaries have become an unofficial official role in the church along with others like Sunday School superintendent and youth pastor. The problem is that it leaves us with a vocation that lacks biblical definition. This is a wonderful boon on the one hand because we can launch thousands of missionaries in a short period of time since all we really need are people with the willingness to “go” somewhere, anywhere. No real need for extensive training. No red tape to slow the process down. Here today, gone tomorrow. But what kind of people end up being sent? How many of them should not only be kept home, but be locked away? How many of these will go into the field adding to the already heavy load of the local mission or even disrupt the work there because of unresolved or undetected character or theological issues?

Instead of missionaries, should we instead think of them as elders or deacons that will be sent abroad (like church planters, I suppose) and therefore hold them to the same character and doctrinal standards? Wouldn’t it be better for churches at home to strive toward sending over-qualified candidates into the mission field rather than anyone who’s “willing”?

What do you think? How does your church do it?



  1. Pete:

    I am a former missionary to South Africa. I was called of God, trained for the work, sent out by my local church and served on the field with the state-side assistance of Baptist World Mission.

    A few comments, if I may.

    1) I believe the Bible lays out a biblical definition of the missionary with Paul’s call to and service as a missionary- evangelist, pastor and teacher. I believe the book of Acts give an excellent frame-work from which can define the role of missionary. Missionaries can fulfill any number of vital roles on the mission field. Paul was quite adept at many.

    2) “ we can launch thousands of missionaries in a short period of time

    If you were to survey missionaries currently on deputation you’d 9 of 10 times hear a different report. It takes years for most to raise their support, outfit and passage.

    3) “ How many of these will go into the field adding to the already heavy load of the local mission…

    If you are suggesting there is glut of missionaries on the field I encourage you to rethink that. It is quite the opposite. So many are approaching or have retired from the field. There are not enough to fill those vacated slots and many more peoples in the world have never heard the name “Jesus Christ” who He is and what He did to provide salvation.

    The Lord’s command in the Great Commission has never been rescinded and I trust you, like me, will pray for God to send forth more laborers into His harvest.


    1. Hi Lou…I am very glad to hear from you on this, esp given your experience.

      1) My problem with linking our definition of missionary to Paul is that it does not (in my mind) adequately take into account the uniqueness of the biblical idea of the apostle, whose main qualification – according to Acts – was that they were eye-witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Christ, beginning with His baptism. By those standards even Paul didn’t qualify – he was as one “untimely born” – but by virtue of Jesus’ personal commission on the Damascus road, he was made an apostle. Based on those qualifications, I don’t see how anyone subsequent to Paul or the rest of the 12 can be eligible for apostleship, which leaves us with the two clearly defined offices Paul gives us in the Pastorals.

      2) I’m thinking here of both short-term and long-term missions here. I minister in a university town and on an annual basis see close to a hundred students each Spring head out around the globe for a couple weeks, but I’ll grant your point that the candidate pool is not as deep or rich.

      3) Not suggesting that at all. The heavy load I’m speaking of is the distraction that unprepared, unqualified new candidates can bring to a field office whose primary focus is on making disciples of the local population. I do see the vacancies that are out there and am wrestling right now with the question of whether or not God is also sending us…in the meantime, I want to do what I can to make sure that we are equipping those in the field with properly trained and assessed workers.

      Hope that clarifies things. I would love to hear your further thoughts on #1.

      The Lord bless you for your service,

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