What is a Missionary?

June 8, 2011

It´s like asking, “What is a church?”

The average person thinks of a building down on the corner. Mature Christians know better. The Word of God defines a church as a gathering of believers who have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus, and thus with one another as members of His body.

So what is a missionary?

The traditional concept, carried over from denominational colonialism of the 19th Century, is someone who leaves his homeland and goes out to serve in a foreign country. It doesn´t always matter what he does over there on the “mission field.” The emphasis has been mainly on going.

I met a Methodist missionary in Korea who spent all of her time teaching people how to raise rabbits. A Presbyterian missionary was showing them how to grow apples. Dozens of missionaries overseas spend their time taking care of five or six kids which must be shuttled back and forth to classes and activities at private English language schools. I met an independent missionary in Japan who spent all of his work time—and I mean all of it—writing letters to gullible Christians back home who would send him money.

Going to live and work in a foreign country never made anyone a missionary. The 19th Century definition won´t do, even though it is still a cherished church tradition.

To know what a missionary is we should search the Scriptures. The term occurs 82 times in the original Greek New Testament as the word apostolos, which has been transliterated as apostle in most English versions. But when the N.T. was translated into Latin, apostolos became missio. And centuries later missio was transliterated into English to become missionary. So apostle and missionary are exactly the same word.

What did apostles do in the beginning? They did not go to work in foreign countries where they wouldn´t know the language. The original 11 reached many nations without ever leaving Jerusalem. All of the 3000 converts on the Day of Pentecost were foreign visitors. They were the ones who took the gospel back to their respective nations. When Paul and Barnabas came to Christ in Palestine, God did not send them to India or Ethiopia. Rather, he sent them back to reach their own people in Greek speaking areas.

There is no record anywhere in the N.T. of missionaries being sent to places where they could not speak the language. Thus there is no biblical basis to define a missionary as one who works in a “cross-cultural” manner by leaving his homeland to live among people of a totally different culture and language.

The original apostles evangelized people from foreign cultures by reaching them away from home (Acts 2:5-11). It was the foreign visitors, converted while visiting Jerusalem, who spread the gospel message to every area of the Roman empire (Acts 8:1-4, 26-39, 11:19-26). Paul and Barnabas were called “missionaries” (Acts 14:14) after they went home. Andronicus and Junius were called “notable missionaries,” but never worked cross-culturally. They obviously turned to Christ in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost and started house churches after they returned to Rome (Romans 16:7).

Christian Aid has made contact with over 4000 indigenous ministries that deploy about 400,000 native missionaries. Most have no promise of financial support.

Is it smart to send some Japanese Christian to work in Brazil if he doesn´t know Portuguese? Or to send a Brazilian to Japan who knows nothing of Japanese culture or language? Let´s urge Japanese apostles to concentrate on Japan, Brazilians on Brazil, Nigerians on Nigeria and so on for every major nation.

Our part should be to provide financial support for indigenous missions that send out native missionaries in poorer countries, and where they are persecuted for preaching the gospel of Christ.