Friday, June 29, 2007

But Is It Biblical? (Dependency Part 2)

I recently saw an advertisement by a ministry stating that they are partnering with church leaders in restricted nations through a sponsorship program where, for about a dollar a day, you could free national pastors, missionaries and evangelists in various developing world countries from having to work to supply their needs and those of their families. According to the ad, many of these Christian workers spend most of their time providing the necessities of life for their families. But with your help, apparently, they could spend more time spreading the gospel and ministering to others.

At first glance, one might think that such support makes perfect sense. Why not free up a national pastor, evangelist, or missionary from the burden of having to spend most of their time working to provide the necessities of life? Such an appeal makes sense to our Western sense of efficiency. Anything that helps spread the gospel faster to more people must, of necessity, be good and right.

I recognize that such programs are fueled by good intentions. But good intentions do not always lead to good practices.

One of the most valuable books that I own is by Christopher R. Little, entitled "Mission in the Way of Paul: Biblical Mission for the Church in the Twenty-first Century" (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005). Despite its ridiculous price ($75 USD), it is a book that is truly worth owning and studying. From its first sentence, I knew that this was a book that I was going to want to take seriously: "The greatest need of the church in mission is to reflect biblically and thereafter act upon that reflection."

Little is absolutely correct! His point is so obvious that it should not have had to be said, but it does; the Bible needs to be our authority for how we carry out the mission of God in the twenty-first century. We need to reflect on the scriptures and then strategize accordingly; being sure that our practice is as orthodox as our beliefs. Otherwise, as Little says, we end up putting unnecessary obstacles in the path of the missio Dei (mission of God).

Little identifies six reasons why Paul insisted in supporting himself in his ministry through his trade as a leather worker (probably a more accurate rendering of the phrase "tent-maker"):

1. Such a philosophy of ministry was a carryover from his Jewish heritage that valued hard work and self-sufficiency, and resisted the idea that people should profit from the teaching of the Law. Now, later Paul does affirm that there is nothing instrinsically wrong with local leaders receiving financial assistance from local sources, but Paul had no desire to see himself as an agent of anyone else apart from the God who supplies all of his needs.

Leaders in restricted nations who receive financial aid for their salaries (which people inevitably find about) are often seen as agents of the west, under the payroll of western governments. They are viewed with suspicion which casts a cloud over their credibility and that of their church, increasing the threat of persecution. If someone is to be persecuted, let it be for righteousness and not for financial reasons.

2. Paul knew that he was under divine constraint in relation to how he conducted his ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9:15-18, he makes it clear that he would rather die than receive remuneration for his labour in the gospel. To Paul, being self-sufficient was a matter of obedience of God. If he could work, he needed to do so. Otherwise, he was being disobedient to the Lord.

3. His approach prevented Paul from placing obstacles in the path of the gospel. Paul knew that money speaks. By working, he was able to connect with anyone as an equal, nor could he be accused for preaching for profit. The gospel was, therefore, protected from being misinterpreted as a means to financial gain.

I have already referred to the increased danger that financial compensation places on persecuted believers. This cannot be stated too strongly. Aid is one thing, but long term, regular support is inevitably disastrous, leading to such things as anti-conversion legislation in places like India and Sri Lanka.

4. Paul's modus operandi permitted him to achieve self-sufficiency. This was not easy, as 1 Thessalonians 2:9 makes plain. Paul worked from early in the morning to late at night. But somehow, this did not impact his ability to spread the gospel. So, why is it that we automatically assume that providing for one's own upkeep and that of one's family must, of necessity, limit the spread of the gospel? Paul made no such assumption. Indeed, he seems to hold to the opposite view.

5. By combining mission with his trade, Paul successfully adapted to the first-century Graeco-Roman world. It was not uncommon for traveling philosophers to work and propagate their message at the same time. Indeed, the more credible ones did exactly that. Paul's practice was an ideal way of contextualizing himself and the gospel to the pedagogical techniques of the first century. This is also true in Islamic countries where religious leaders are not paid.

6. Paul saw his policy of working for a living as a strategic means of evangelism. Besides the synagogue and private homes, the workshop was a place in which Paul shared the gospel. This is seen in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 as well. Working alongside of industrious people like Aquila and Priscilla, Paul was able to convert them to Christ. Paul is best understood as a person busy at leatherworking while busy at preaching the gospel. The two complimented each other rather than competed.

Instead, what do we do? We buy motorcycles and technological gadgets that make developing world pastors and evangelists "more effective" (just like us!).

7. Paul's life as a self-sustaining worker in service to the church was meant to be an example to others to emulate (2 Thess. 3:9). Paul clearly saw that he was a model worth following.

The support of national workers by churches and individuals in the West is one of the most celebrated forms of "partnership" being promoted today. Rarely, however, does anyone take the time to seriously consider the first question that should have been asked, "Is it biblical?" I think it is obvious how Paul would have answered.


Anonymous said...

Glenn, I came upon your blog today and appreciated what you wrote about the problem of creating dependency in missions. I also have a blog which you may be interested to visit < > and I also wrote a number of posts with the same topic.
Although I agree with a lot that you write there, in my experience as missionary in Swaziland (Africa) for the past 23 years, I am not convinced that your remarks are universally true. I was just thinking about the Levites in the Old Testament who were not allowed to own ground and the rest of the Israelites were then ordered to take care of them (eg. Numbers 35).
Where I have feeling of discomfort is not in your argument that you are against creating dependency. With that I fully agree. But it may sound as if all help from outside is wrong. I have had some experience of missions in Russia over the past seven years, and the situation in many persecuted countries may not be quite the same as in Africa. In my congregation I would guess that at least half of my congregation could be described as "extremely poor" which according to the World Bank are people receiving US$1 or less per day. Helping people to get a small business going sounds like a good idea, but they have to sell their products and if the people around them are equally poor, who do they sell it to? Also, I have long propagated the idea of so-called tent-makers in the church myself and I still believe that this is a good policy, providing that the person has a reasonable income. I have, for example a teacher who works in this way. He has a regular income and gives time to serve the Lord, amongst others by leading a branch of our church on Sundays.
Where this does NOT seem to work is when someone wants to serve the Lord full-time and we then tell him that he can do this, but that he will have to provide his own income. Our experience about this has been quite negative, usually resulting in the person starting some kind of business but then, realising that his income is dependent upon the business, starts putting in more and more time into this business and failing to do his work in the church.
I don't have the final answer and I doubt whether I will find the final answer. What I am attempting to find is the ideal solution in an imperfect world, which at this point means that we must encourage people to give without creating dependency.

Glenn Penner said...

Thanks for your comments. I understand what you are saying and I am certainly not saying that we should not provide any assistance; merely that we need to be careful what and how we give.

I should say that equating professional clergy with the Levites is not really legitimate in my opinion. We are all called to be priests before God according to the New Testament; all of us are set aside for God's purposes. I think we may say that this is one of the aspects of the OT that has been fulfilled in Christ and His Church