“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”– Matthew 28:19
“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”– II Timothy 2:2
“Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.”– I Timothy 5:22
Thus far, we have learned that the local church and its elders are responsible for the training and oversight of those in their ranks who demonstrate a calling to the mission field. Now we will turn our attention toward the approval or ordination of those who are called.
The first thing that we must establish is that the ordination of missionaries has been given to the local church. Thus, the missionary should be ordained and sent out by the local church that has overseen his training and will hold him accountable on the field. This truth is beautifully illustrated in the “sending out” of Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey by the church in Antioch. In Acts 13:3, we read, “Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
The second thing that we must establish is that the ordination of a missionary is a very serious or solemn event for the church and its elders. In I Timothy 5:22, Paul gave Timothy the following warning:
“Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.”
In the immediate context, Paul is referring to the ordination of elders, but the same principle applies to the ordination of missionaries. The rule to remember is that the sending church and its elders will not only be reckoned in the reward of the good fruit that will come from the missionary’s life and ministry, but to some degree will also be responsible for the missionary’s sins, doctrinal errors, and mishandling of the church. Only those who are dull of hearing or without the fear of the Lord could read such a warning and not be impacted by the solemnity of it. And yet, far too many are far too hasty to ordain or be ordained, not fully understanding the dangerous predicament in which they have placed themselves.
In light of Paul’s solemn warning to Timothy, elders would do well to study and strictly adhere to the biblical standard by which a missionary candidate should be approved or disapproved. This standard is found in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. From both letters, it is obvious that the Apostle Paul had sent Timothy to Ephesus1 and Titus to Crete2 for the purpose of “setting in order” the churches and “appointing elders in every city.” Therefore, it should be of no surprise that in both letters, Paul’s sets forth a lengthy list of non-negotiable qualifications for an elder.3
At this point, the reader may wonder how the qualifications of an elder may appropriately be applied to a missionary. However, the confusion clears when we understand the following. First, in these lists of qualifications, Paul is simply describing a mature Christian. It is as though he was saying to Timothy and Titus, “An elder must be a mature Christian and this is what a mature Christian looks like.” Secondly, do we really think that a missionary ought to be judged by a standard that is doctrinally and morally inferior to that of an elder? The missionary may be sent out to a region where he will be the only Christian voice or influence, and the church that he plants may be the only Christian community. In such a case, his doctrine and ethic may influence an entire people group or nation for good or evil. Do we really think it is wise to send a man to carry out such a task who would not qualify to be an elder in the church from which he is sent!
It is encouraging and praiseworthy that so many churches, missionary conferences, and websites are calling people to consider the mission field. But in the midst of so much talk about “passion”, we would do well to remember “caution.”4 In chapter three of Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he wrote, “If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work that he desires to do.”5 But then he followed with a list of non-negotiable character qualities that a man must meet before he can enter into the role of an elder. The same may be said regarding the aspiring missionary. It is a noble thing to desire to be a missionary, but desire is not enough. A person must bear the character traits of a mature Christian! This is one of the reasons why the missionary’s preparation must be under the watchful eye of the elders and in the midst of the congregation. Top grades in the seminary do not ensure qualification for eldership or the mission field, but rather sound doctrine and Christ-like character.
- I Timothy 1:3
- Titus 1:5
- I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9
- I borrow this warning from a conversation with my friend and co-laborer John Snyder of Christ Church New Albany
- 1 Timothy 3:1
Paul is the founder of HeartCry Missionary Society and currently serves as its missions director. He also ministered as a missionary in Peru for ten years. He has preached hundreds of sermons and has authored a dozen published works. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia, with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.More By Paul David Washer