We will begin this article with a statement that will be indisputable to some and controversial to others:
“The Great Commission is about biblical churches training and sending forth elder-qualified missionaries to plant and nurture churches of like faith and practice regardless of culture.”
There are two reasons why this statement will be controversial to some. First, there have been many mistakes made in the near two thousand years of Christian missions. One of the greatest has been when “missionaries” have sought to impose more than the Scriptures upon the people among whom they were laboring. We even find an example of this kind of abuse in the early church. From Acts 15, we discover that some of the Jewish converts came to Antioch and sought to impose more than the Scriptures upon the Gentile converts. They taught that in order to be saved the Gentiles had to adopt the culture and customs of the Jews.1 As a result, Paul and Barnabas “had great dissension and debate with them,” and it was decided that the apostles and elders in Jerusalem should resolve the matter.2 After much discussion, the leaders made their decision. It is recorded in Acts 15:28-29:
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
It is very easy for us to look back at Acts 15 and see the dangerous error of those who sought to impose Jewish customs upon the Gentiles. However, it is not so easy to see when we do something similar in our contemporary ministries among other people groups.
The second reason our initial statement will be controversial to some is the erroneous belief that the church needs to be “redesigned” or “tailor-made” for each and every culture. Such an opinion is oftentimes an overreaction to the abuses mentioned in the preceding paragraph. It may also be the result of a low view of Scripture, of giving higher priority to cultural sensitivity than to biblical fidelity, of seeking to make the gospel message less offensive, or of a desire to avoid persecution. Whatever the reason, the opinion that we can redesign the church to fit a culture is a denial of the Scripture and the power of the gospel. For a missionary to adapt or modify the church in order to suit a certain unreached people group and its culture is to do the very thing that has weaken the church in North America and Europe. Whether we “westernize” or “easternize” the church, the result is the same—We are disobeying the Word of God and deforming the church. God has revealed His will to us in the Scriptures so that we will “know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God.”3 We would do well to obey.
It is true, that churches in different people groups and cultures will have unique characteristics, but all must obey the same commands and order themselves according to what is written in the Scriptures. It is, for this reason, the planting of a church by a cross-cultural missionary requires the greatest fear of God, love for the people, and discernment of God’s will. The establishment and maintenance of a biblical church is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit and the missionary being saturated in the Scriptures.
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