The Mission of the Church
A paper delivered at the Day Conference, October 1999
By Edward Malcolm
The subject we shall look at together has been one I have long wrestled with. Having stepped out of the structures of the C of E, we find ourselves in a mission field situation.
THE AMAZING RESULTS ACHIEVED BY THE APOSTLE PAUL
Our problem is how to multiply. In 1912, a missionary in North China named Roland Allen wrote a very influential book ‘Missionary Methods St. Paul’s or ours?’ His argument was simple: that in AD 47 there were no churches in four provinces of the Roman Empire – Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. A little over ten years later in AD 57 St. Paul, and he alone, had established churches in all four provinces. And could pass on to extensive tours of the Far West without anxiety lest the churches which he had founded might perish in his absence for want of his guidance and support. It is perfectly clear that his work was complete, and whatever disasters befell those churches later, it was not because of any insufficiency or lack of care on his part. He left them because his work was fully accomplished.
“This is a truly astonishing fact. That churches should be founded so rapidly, so securely, seems to us today … almost incredible.” If we are to found churches, we must employ the methods St. Paul used. Like the rest of the Holy Scriptures this is “for our learning,” says Roland Allen. Yet some leaders seem to act on the assumption that all would collapse without them being there. In fact some, if honest, might go so far as not really to want or trust anyone else in on ‘his patch.’
But, it is objected, he was a very remarkable man, and we are not. True, but he was not the only one in the early church who went about establishing churches, and not all the others, using his same methods, were men of exceptional genius. Further, secular reformers outside the Church in every age, have employed the methods he used. It is only because he is set before us by the Holy Spirit as the example par excellence that we turn to him to copy. In fact he used the methods Christ used when on earth. He in turn copied. The acceptance by missionary societies of his method in the last say 75 years has led to the vast increase of Gospel churches world-wide. The older churches in Europe who refuse to follow this method are suffering catastrophic decline, whilst others who are only partly ‘sound’, but who in this are Biblical, prosper. Others copying certain features of his method bring it into disrepute.
Did he not possess other advantages over us? No, for we possess the whole Bible whilst he had only the Old Testament. We have medical and travel facilities which he never enjoyed, power to disseminate our ideas by many means, whilst he had to rely on hand-written letters sent by messengers.
The reason there is a prejudice against adopting his methods is that some are too content with the status quo, which they father upon the Apostle. Speaking more personally, we lack a seriousness of purpose. We are far too easily put-off. Again, we say, ‘but I’ve tried that part of what you say, and it didn’t work’. Incorporating parts of Paul’s methods into alien systems will never work. Others say, ‘but was not Roland Allen once challenged that the important matter was not the method, but being filled with love and the Holy Spirit, and he is reported to have replied with a sigh that he agreed? Yes, but to despise the method is the way to fail, even with faith and love. Acts lays before us a blueprint.
The greatest reason our methods do not work, says Roland Allen, is our outlook. We are accustomed to do things ourselves for ourselves, to find our own way, to rely upon our own exertions, and we naturally tend to be impatient with, even despise, others who are unlike us. Further, we tend to expect converts to adopt not only essentials, but also accidentals, not only the Gospel but law and customs. We do not have Paul’s spirit, which preferred persuasion to authority. Paul did not pass on elaborate systems of worship but grasped fundamental principles with an unhesitating faith in the power of the Holy Ghost to apply them to his hearers and to work out their appropriate external expressions in them. Inevitably these appeared dangerous to the Jewish mind of his day and to such minds today. “The mere fact that they can be made to bear a shallow resemblance to the methods of no method is sufficient to make the ‘apostles of order’ suspicious. In spite of the fact that the Catholic Church was founded by them, they appear uncatholic to those who live in daily terror of schism. Yet the facts are unquestionable. In a very few years, he built the Church on so firm a basis that it could live and grow in faith and in practice, that it could work out its own problems, and overcome all dangers and hindrances both from within and without.” We need to understand how he did this and to do it again.
Before we turn to examine the questions this raises, please do not expect a discussion of Paul’s doctrines. I take it we are agreed on these. Even suppose we were not, say on baptism, our purposes are answered for by the fact of baptism, not by what is meant by baptism. Our argument is unaffected. God keep us from anything against sound doctrine.
1. Questions the Apostle’s method raise.
First, should we deliberately aim at strategic places because of advantages they offer? Since the beginning of our enterprise this has been in my mind. Are we just taking the line of least resistance, or has the Holy Ghost put us in certain towns and villages? Our positions seem far from ideal.
It seems impossible to maintain that the Apostle first selected certain strategic points beforehand at which to plant churches, and then actually carried out his designs. Take the first missionary journey. When the Apostle afterwards wrote to the churches in south Galatia, he distinctly states in Galatians 4:13 that he preached to them either because he was driven to them or detained amongst them by an infirmity of the flesh. He did not design to preach to them when he started out originally from Syria.
In his second missionary journey it is plain that the Apostle was not following any pre-determined route. His original aim, as far as it existed, was to go through Cilicia and south Galatia to Ephesus. It is stated that he tried to preach in Asia and was forbidden by the Holy Ghost (Acts 16:6,7). Thus he found himself at Troas not knowing where to go and was directed by a vision to Macedonia. Later, expelled from Athens he went to Corinth, either because it was near Macedonia, or he was directed thither by the Spirit. There is little sign of deliberate design. The only other place where he established a church before his first imprisonment was Ephesus, and from Acts 18:19 it would appear that he called whilst on his way to Jerusalem, and finding a willingness to listen, promised to return again.
On his third journey he appears to have laid his plans and carried them out as far as Ephesus, but after that he was so uncertain of his movements as to lay himself open to the charge of vacillation (2 Cor. 1:15,18). Only during this journey do we find express plans for future work (Acts 19:21). Paul purposed in the spirit when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia to go to Jerusalem saying: ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’
Roland Allen notes first, both Luke and Paul speak constantly of provinces rather than cities, suggesting that in Paul’s view the unit was rather a province than a city.
Second, he confined his work to the limits of Roman administration. In going to south Galatia he is clearly evangelising the next Roman province to his own Cilicia wherein was Tarsus, and already-founded churches. He must have passed through Lycaonia Antiochi from Tarsus to reach Lystra and Iconium. Yet no record is preserved of any attempt to preach in that region. His strategy was to preach in Roman provinces.
Third, he never attempted to evangelise whole provinces, but confined himself to establishing centres of Christianity in two or three important places. That would be pointless unless the church possessed sufficient life to be a source of light to the region around. That meant in turn that the people who came and went learned the Gospel and in such a way that they could propagate it. The surrounding countryside was affected. The convert receiving the Gospel learned that it was entrusted to him for that purpose. So by establishing churches in two or three centres, Paul claimed to have evangelised the whole region. Thus ten years after setting out Paul told the Romans in 15:19, 23 that he had fully preached the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem and round about Illyricum, and that he had no more place in these parts. This is of importance to us, with our severely limited resources.
Fourth, these towns were centres of Roman administration, of Greek civilisation, of Jewish influence and of some commercial importance, so he missed out many places lacking certain of these key features. It seems that he wanted Roman peace and protection under strong government, being himself a Roman citizen, thus benefiting from toleration and an open field for preaching. The world-wide nature of Rome, with many countries, races and cultures having in common that they were Roman subjects, broke down national exclusiveness and prepared hearts for the kingdom of Christ. Greek culture gave him a language for communicating the Gospel, and people educated enough to be taught.
Jewish centres gave him, as a Jew, a standing in that community, privileges under Roman government, and freedom from many disadvantages. His right to enter the Synagogue on the Sabbath Day gave him an audience possessed of the Scriptures, and able to follow his arguments. When he was ejected, that gave him acceptance with the rest of the town, and the advantage of not being expected to join in idolatry or immorality.
Centres of commerce gave him towns which were of importance, leaders of thought and policy, not merely narrowly provincial but outward looking to the wider world and its currents of thought. Its leaders felt it their duty to lead, to maintain unity, and to spread Roman civilisation. Their whole existence was bound up with the exchange of goods and of ideas. They were on the great sea and road routes. We know of one Phrygian who during his lifetime travelled to Rome at least 72 times.
All that said, the great reason Paul missed out some places and established churches in places which to us would appear very much the same, was that the Holy Ghost moved him to do so. And the reason was that God had in his hand a man capable of seizing the place and making it a centre of evangelistic life. A strategic centre may be a prison for the Gospel, or give liberty and impetus to the Gospel, either shut it up, or let it out. Fortifying strategic points may be our aim, or making them centres of Christian activity. St. Paul was less dependent on positions of natural advantage than we might suppose.
Second, should we aim to draw in outsiders, or dissatisfied C of E members as a class? It would appear that St. Paul did aim at a class, in the Jews and their proselytes, but is this actually so? In fact Judaism quickly rejected Christianity. Jews and God-fearers did not provide the Apostle with a class of men whose gifts and influence could be enrolled. Not very many Jews followed him. Any cursory reading of the story shows that the majority of his converts were Greeks, whose eagerness to accept his teaching is sharply contrasted with the attitude of the Jews in rejecting it. St. Paul refers to his converts as men who knew idolatry by experience.
Further, many disadvantages arose from the Synagogue. Not only was the appeal largely unsuccessful there, but severe opposition and physical attacks on his person and a calling in question of his authority and teachings resulted in sudden suspension of his work. Entering as a Jew and teaching a form of Judaism, the moment the Jews heard his message, they rose up and expelled him and tried to kill him as a blasphemer. Rejected teachings are questioned on all sides. To both Paul and us, our own people and others find this a great stumblingblock, and a sufficient reason for rejecting our message.
However his converts from the Synagogue were of the greatest importance. They understood Gospel issues in a way which converted raw heathens did not, and lived in a way which did not bring disrepute on the Gospel.
He did not just appeal to the disadvantaged, as is so common in the C of E today, and there is little emphasis on street or open air preaching. There were open air occasions as in Lystra, but it seems Paul’s settled practice when put out of the Synagogue was to move into the home of a man of good repute, and it is often carefully recorded in whose he taught and with whom he stayed. He took care to provide for things honest in the sight of all men. Neither did he spend his time appealing to intellectuals, philosophers and officials. Lightfoot holds it was from the middle classes the majority of his converts came. They had enough education and enlightenment to be open to new ideas. Converts were from the lower middle classes, commercial, labouring, freed-men, and slaves, for some slaves were educated. We therefore have as many good and capable converts as he had. He had no advantage over us there. And as for the illiterate, who are now said to be many in today’s Britain, the Gospel soon opened their minds to progress. In a very few years an amazing change came over their mental and moral outlook. Plainly we are not yet trying St Paul’s methods, if we use these things as arguments to bolster up our dread of loss of control of our work.
Third, do we face moral and spiritual conditions harder than those faced by St. Paul? When speaking of Roman civilisation we often think of great principles, high ideals and philosophies. In fact the Empire was home to a vast array of ideas and religions, from barbarians to the highly civilised. Idolatry was free from doubt and subtlety amongst the poor, but a philosophy amongst the better educated who claimed only to honour the gods behind the representations. Agnosticism also prevailed amongst the educated upper class, with Pilate’s question ‘What is truth?’ Four elements of this apply to any comparison with today.
First, the prevalence of belief in magic, demons, and devil worship. They ruled life from the cradle to the grave. ‘The whole world lieth in wickedness’ (the Evil One) 1 John 5:19. All, even the highly educated and the Jews believed in them. Pliny the Elder believed in foul magic. Human sacrifice was not unknown and witchcraft was universal. Plutarch was a good and a serious man, but believed in horrid magic associated with lucky and unlucky days. The result was the same as always, physical and psychical disease, cruelty, bondage and vice. The magic books worth 50,000 pieces of silver publicly burned at Ephesus were probably filled with incantations, spells and rites to keep off demons. The operative religion of the masses was demon worship. These people were Paul’s converts, and were delivered from their demons by the power of the Lord Jesus, not by a denial of the existence of demons.
Second, the moral character of the religious rites. There were mystery religions with moral interpretations, but to the vast majority all they saw in the temples were acted indecencies, quite unfit to be repeated. The temple at Ephesus was not a home of virtue, and Eph. 4:17 – 19 exactly describes the background from which the converts came.
Third, Paul had even greater evils to contend with, slavery and the amphitheatre. The important thing is not to discuss what we all know went on in gladiatorial bouts and criminals thrown to the wild beasts, but the attitude of the best men towards the shows. Only about three ancient writers outright condemn these inhuman shows which were the delight of the populace. Most speak of them with utter indifference, whilst Pliny and Cicero defend them as ‘splendid training for the eye’. Read the account of Augustine’s friend Alypius as proof of the extraordinary fascination which they exercised over the minds of those who considered themselves to be superior to such temptation. Tertullian says ‘No one partakes of such pleasures without their strong excitements, no one comes under their excitement without their natural lapses.’ One result was that they made all other entertainments insipid, so theatre became sensuous, crudely indecent and violent in order to compete. Society became vile.
Slavery was connected with the amphitheatre, as gladiators were slaves. Slaves were of one race and colour with their masters, the vast majority being men, their numbers almost unimaginably great. They were educated, often well treated, but utterly without rights. Only their master’s will stood between them and the lash. A normal convert would have grown up with slaves, as a toddler absorbing from them gross superstition and as a child pandered to by them. His education inculcated paganism, and not in the sense of a fairy story, but as the explanation of life. The better educated then attended rhetoric schools, where evil things were taught as matters of indifference. Growing up, attending the games, the theatre and the circus, visiting temples, attended to by slaves who answered their every wish, was bad enough in Greece. However at least marriage was the ideal. Not so in Asia Minor where it was held that marriage was an outrage to the free, unfettered divine nature reflected in the gods and wild animals. Roman and Greek law only accepted as citizens legitimate children of marriages. But in Phrygia marriage did not exist.
Today TV gratifies as much audience participation blood lust excitement as the circus did, and as much indecency as the temple and theatre together. The clock has been turned back almost 2000 years as we approach the second millennium, but we face the same as the Apostle. He had no advantage over us.
2. How much of his success was due to his presentation?
Since he could do miracles and we cannot, it is held that his methods can have little or no bearing on our work today. In fact they show us some things of constant value in common with us today. Miracles took place, we are told, in five towns in the Four Provinces. In Iconium ‘the Lord bare witness unto the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.’ At Lystra a cripple was healed. At Philippi a spirit of divination was expelled, and at Ephesus ‘God wrought special miracles by the hand of Paul insomuch that to the sick were carried away from his body handkerchiefs or aprons and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out.’ At Troas, Eutychus was taken up alive. At Antioch, Derbe, Thessalonica, Beroea and Corinth, no mention is made in Acts of miracles in connection with the preaching of the Gospel. Only in Ephesus are we told that miracles led to a great increase of disciples, whilst at Philippi it stopped the work. In Acts miracles are shown as furthering the cause of the Gospel. Not all Paul’s miracles are recorded in the Acts (see 2 Cor. 12. 12).
Miracles were not used to convert people, or even to get a hearing from them. No one healed by St. Paul is said to have believed, except the cripple at Lystra who in one sense was already a believer. He did not attract people to Christianity by offering inducements like healing. Yet they helped his mission by attracting hearers and attesting his preaching. All could see no man could do these miracles unless God was with him, and even the Council at Jerusalem accepted the attestation of miracles, what signs and wonders God had wrought amongst the Gentiles by Barnabas and Paul. Miracles showed that Christ’s name brought love, and saved the oppressed from the bondage of the devil and sin. Tertullian wrote two centuries later ‘It is mainly the deeds of love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us.’ Organised care for widows, orphans, the sick and disabled, gentle consideration for slaves, prisoners and those suffering calamities, led to the conversion of the world. As for salvation, Celsus the heathen intellectual who hated Christianity and mocked it, typified many pagans when he wrote ‘ Every one, they say, who is a sinner, who is devoid of understanding, who is a child, and, to speak generally, whoever is unfortunate, him will the kingdom of heaven receive. Do you not call him a sinner, then, who is unjust, and a thief, and a housebreaker, and a poisoner, and a committer of sacrilege, and a robber of the dead? What others would a man invite, if he were issuing a proclamation for an assembly of robbers?’ All other religions by contrast invited the clean and pure, excluding the sick, ignorant and underprivileged.
There is no doubt of the value of miracles to Paul’s success, yet Paul does not give them the highest place amongst the gifts of the Spirit. It is the Spirit, not the working of miracles which is of the greater importance in his eyes. He does not speak as if his best workers possessed powers to do miracles. The best gift is love. The miracle is of value as a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. And we possess the Spirit.
Did he have a financial advantage over us? The answer must be no, if we mean amount. However three rules guided his practice and helped him succeed, and will similarly help us if followed. First he sought no financial help for himself. Second, He took no financial help from those to whom he preached, and third, he did not administer local church funds.
He did receive unsolicited gifts from his converts, but not from those to whom he was preaching. He avoided giving the impression he was out to make money. In this he was in stark contrast to heathen teachers. He also gave no financial aid to his converts. Each church was financially independent, not subservient to some richer one. He collected for the distressed poor in Jerusalem, but though the collection had a serious and important place, he had nothing to do with ordinary church finance. What each church needed, its members provided.
Did he preach differently to us? The substance of his preaching is found in three examples given in the Acts. In Pisidian Antioch, Acts 13:16 – 41; at Lystra, Acts 14:15 – 17; and in Athens, Acts 17:22 – 31. Also we have five incidental references to its substance. The description by the soothsaying girl at Philippi, Acts 16:17. A summary of his teaching in the synagogue at Thessalonica, Acts 17:2,3. A note of the points which struck the Athenians as strange on Mars Hill, Acts 17:18. The characterisation of his teaching in Ephesus by the Town Clerk, Acts 19:37. And the summary of the main points of his own teaching made by Paul to the Ephesian elders, Acts 20:21. Finally his own summary of his preaching to the Corinthians in 1 Cor:2. 2. These divide naturally into what he preached in the Synagogue to the Jews and what he said when preaching to the Gentiles.
In the Synagogue. Luke gives us the account of the preaching in the synagogue at Thessalonica, and it agrees with that earlier in the synagogue at Antioch, so we may take it as typical. The sermon
1] deals with the Old Testament and shows how the Gospel is rooted there, and is not a denial of the Old Scripture, but rather shows that it prepares for Messiah.
2] He sets forth the Lord Jesus and his rejection and crucifixion. It is startling with what unhesitating directness Paul deals with the great question troubling all missionary work, not least ours. That is, the rejection of the missionary’s message by his own people. He neither shrinks from it nor apologises for it or conceals its importance. He sets it out definitely, clearly, boldly, as part of the argument for the truth of his message. It is the fulfilment of prophecy. Then he produces conclusive proof, the Resurrection, witnessed by the apostles, foretold by the prophets. In section
3] he proclaims the message of pardon for all who will receive it, and solemnly warns of the consequences of rejection.
The five elements making this up:
1] Appeal to the past to gain a sympathetic ear and approval and to prepare hearts to receive a new truth from it and in harmony with it. He does not contradict all the past.
2] Facts are stated in a homely way, as a story easily grasped about life and death. It is divine, but moves among the familiar things of earth, unjust rulers, crowd passions, the marvellous recovery and the divine act of God in raising the dead.
3] He answers the inevitable objection, that the elders of the Jews have decided against these things. So trustworthy witnesses and proof are carefully presented. Here is a new truth but in agreement with the old.
4] He appeals to the spiritual needs of his hearers, the craving for pardon, the need for peace and confidence.
5] He concludes with a grave warning.
The four characteristics are:
1] Sympathy and a readiness to recognise the good in his hearers, put over simply.
2] Courage in facing the objections and difficulties but directly asserting unpalatable truth. No attempt to keep the door open by pleasing men and compromise or concealment of the real issue to make difficult things appear easy.
3] Respect for his hearers.
4] An unhesitating confidence in the truth and power of his message to meet his hearers’ needs.
Amongst the Gentiles there is much more similarity than is sometimes allowed, to synagogue preaching. The main differences are in obliging a clean break with their old religion, and a greater emphasis upon the imminence of judgement. The two examples given at some length are in Lystra and Athens, which are very different to his sermons to the Jews. However, these are not typical, but can compare to his ‘sermon on the stairs’ to the Jews, which is also untypical of his synagogue preaching. He answers the obvious objections and shows adaptability. Some today attempt to found on these two the idea that Paul gradually led Gentiles into the light. That is not so, for his emphasis is upon the Cross, or as the soothsaying girl put it, the Most High God and the Way of Salvation, or as Paul summarised it, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
He does not attack the things venerated by his hearers. When Paul attacked idolatry, he was only taking a position commonly taken by thoughtful men. He does not rail upon their religion. Thessalonians gives the elements of his Gentile preaching: God is One, idolatry is sinful and must be forsaken. God’s wrath is ready to be revealed against the impure heathen and the rejecting, opposing Jews, and will come suddenly, unexpectedly. Jesus is the Son of God, appointed of God to die, raised from the dead, who saves from the wrath to come. The kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ is now set up and all men are invited to enter it. Those who believe and turn to God now expect the return from heaven of the Saviour to receive them. So they must now live pure, useful, watchful lives, and for this purpose have received the Holy Spirit. He does not minimise the break with the past that obedience to the Gospel brings, the offence of the Cross, sudden, near and catastrophic judgement, and that the whole world is either saved or perishing. Paul expected the power of God to move his hearers, and always brought his hearers to this point. Roland Allen says, “It is a question which needs serious consideration whether we ought to plant ourselves in a town or village and continue for years teaching people who refuse to give us a moral hearing.”