Dr. Neal Cushman, Projects Coordinator
This week, let’s return to Mr. Smuchie heading to Baptistville and talk about the matter of call.
This is a touchy subject because how can I argue with someone’s call? After all, this is a matter between God and the person.
One response to this might be to doubt that there is such a thing as a personal call. Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson wrote a book in the 1980’s that basically said that there is no such thing as a personal call. Rather, we have commandments like the Great Commission that we must fulfill in our lives. This should be the focus, and not some subjective revelation that occurs between God and a person.
In other words, God’s will is more like a circle of obedience which one should remain in and move around freely, but it is not a single point. There is no such thing as “the one person” that you should marry, or “the one vocation” that you should pursue. If you sense that you are good at ministry, and you are walking with the Lord, then you are fine to pursue vocational ministry if you wish. If you are good at missions, and like it, then go ahead and do it. If you meet a young lady who exhibits good Christian character, and you like her personality, and she is in agreement with your goals for life, then you are fine to marry her. But the same could be said for a thousand other young ladies who have similar qualifications.
One of the authors’ illustrations may lead one to believe that he has hit upon something good here. If it is God’s will for Joe to marry Sue, and Joe fails to follow the Lord in this, and marries Lori instead, then God’s will is destroyed for many others. For Lori was actually supposed to marry Jeff, and now Jeff can’t possibly complete God’s will for his life. Before long, no one can find the one true mate for his life, and God’s plan is completely overturned. Complicated, right? On this basis (and some other points), Friesen argues there is a range of permissible options when it comes to following God’s will.
Friesen’s theory has some merit to it. There are some who seem so tied down by concern over whether or not they have the will of God for their lives that they cannot get the nerve to do anything. Friesen would answer that we should follow what we know, and do that.
We are commanded to witness, so stop praying about whether or not you should do it, and get out and witness. Good point. I might further add that the first step towards knowing God’s will for your life is to obey Him, striving to please Him every day. But Friesen would not quite say that. He would argue that the first step is the only step.
There are a number of problems with Friesen’s thesis, and I will mention a few. First, there are a significant number of biblical texts that point to a specific call for your life. In particular, the New Testament talks about the matter of setting a person apart for ministry (See 1 Cor. 9:27; Acts 20:24; 2 Tim. 4:7; and 1 Tim. 4:14).
In other words, God takes certain people and selects them to be vocational ministers of the Gospel. To say that this happens at the moment that a person surrenders to ministry is not consistent with the experiences of John the Baptist and Paul, not to mention all of the Old Testament prophets. Second, Friesen’s marriage illustration is not conclusive because it fails to grapple with the mysterious nature of God’s sovereignty.
God runs this universe to the smallest detail with such precision and care that He is always glorified, even though the subjects of his universe seek to dishonor Him at every turn. Yet it appears He allows this rebellion to exist.
So how does He maintain His precise will with so many rebellious subjects? I don’t know. He is God, and can do things that defy my thinking. Theologians often speak of God’s permissive will compared to His true will. Perhaps this allows us a way to describe the problem, but in the end, God is sovereign, and no man is capable of overturning it.
Friesen’s theory also fails on a very practical level. He assumes some believers will choose to serve God in vocations like missions. Everyone has the option to choose. Some are more gifted than others, so maybe they will choose. But what if everyone says, “It is totally permissible for me to serve God in America. I will faithfully fulfill His will here.”
I would never disparage any vocation where a person faithfully serves God. But I think that you can see the problem here. If there is no “setting apart for ministry,” then it is left to human choice. This simply does not square with what we read in the Bible.
Let’s regroup – as always, I have wandered far afield of the question. We were discussing the matter of the Lord’s call, and I tried to show some of the weaknesses of Friesen’s model.
But I would like to balance this brief critique of Friesen with concern over the subjective nature of what I often hear regarding someone’s call. While a pastor, I listened to a young lady claim that God wanted her to move in with her boyfriend. Of course, I told her that this was not God’s will for her life.
Later, I heard a man say that God had called his family into missions to serve in country X. He packed his bags, moved to another state, and began to raise support to go to country X. Things did not work out, so he said God had called him to country Y. This did not work out either.
After a while one wonders if God is being impugned when people talk this way. Are there no checks and balances concerning what one says about his or her calling?
I have decided that I should not question someone’s call (but I wonder if the individual’s pastor should question it, or at least discuss whether or not it is consistent with the person’s qualifications and skills).
Rather, I have decided that I will determine whether or not I should cast my support behind that individual based on strategy and common sense. If the person is heading to a mission field that is saturated with missions, that has numerous national preachers, then I would probably not support him. Others may, but I probably won’t.
I have simply decided that I will support new missionary work where the need is greater. I do not suggest that we should bring missionaries home from the fields of lesser need; they should stay and finish the task. But I will not support any new recruits for these fields.
Even if my son were heading to Baptistville to start a church, I would not support him.
Dr. Neal Cushman, Projects Coordinator
Let’s suppose that there is a town in Canada (let’s just call this town Baptistville) that has approximately 10,000 people in it. In the past 50 years, four independent Baptist churches have been started in that town.
A young church planter named George Smuchie comes to your church to present the idea of going to Baptistville to start a church there. He says that God has called him to do this. Would you support him? Why, or why not?
The issues in these questions are two-fold and tightly related.
First, is George endeavoring to do something that is strategic? Second, does a person’s “calling” ever override common sense (or the first consideration)? After all, if I want to start a pizza shop in a little town, it makes sense to see how many pizza shops are already there. If there are five there already, then perhaps I should reconsider whether or not another is needed.
But what about this: what happens then if I say that God told me to start the pizza shop in that town? That settles the matter. You should be supportive because God told me to do it, right?
You might think at this point that this is borderline ridiculous, but it happens with great frequency in missions. Someone surrenders to missionary work, and then in no time he or she announces that he or she is being directed, or called, to a particular field. In some instances this decision is not based on careful research, but rather on a previous missions trip, a missions presentation, or perhaps on someone’s advice.
These sources of information may be helpful, but they also may not provide understanding regarding the places where the need is greatest. This may be the reason why we have so many places in the world where there are no missionaries at all.
Although I would not agree with many of the premises of the World Christian Encyclopedia, (Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson), the authors contribute some helpful information regarding the presence of the Gospel message in three different sections of the world. World A is described as unreached because people who live in this region have practically no opportunity to hear the Gospel. They could and probably would go through their entire lives without hearing this wonderful message of salvation.
Roughly one-third of the human population live in World A, yet only 2.5 percent of our missionaries serve here. So the question is how the God who authored the Great Commission could “call” so few to parts of the world like Indonesia, Central Asia, and North Africa (all in World A)?
On the other hand, there are some countries that have had a solid missionary presence for over one hundred years. And the missionaries there have done an outstanding job of planting churches, training nationals, translating the Scriptures and Christian books, starting camps, and even national mission boards. So do we really need more missionaries on these fields?
One friend of mine began in a Latin American country, learned the language, started a church, and then realized that he was not really needed there. Native church planters and pastors were available to do the job. So he switched to a North African nation where the need was much greater.
It is difficult whenever we begin to talk about need. How needy must it be for a field to be considered “strategic?” If you are asking this right now, that is a great question. I am quite sure that wherever you are at this time, whether in the USA or outside of it, it is pagan. Last time I checked, every country is.
However, next we need to examine the strength of the church. I recently spoke at a missions conference in Ukraine. What I saw there was over one hundred churches with solid pastors who were trying to create a missionary sending agency among their Baptist fellowship. Most of them would say that they no longer needed new missionaries in Ukraine. Not my words—theirs!
So what does the New Testament say about this? I would like to mention two New Testament texts that relate to the matter of targeting areas of the world that do not have the Gospel. The first is Acts 1:8:
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Jesus restates his Great Commission in terms of how the commission will be accomplished. Since the disciples had little success up to this point in impacting the Jewish world for Christ, how could they make a difference when the target was now to be widened to the entire world? This thought had to be foremost in their minds. They were not bold, nor did they possess exceptional abilities. Rather, they were ordinary men.
The answer to this disparity between the person’s abilities and the extent of the task is God’s power.
God would empower them personally through His Spirit. This would be how the message would be mediated throughout the Gentile world. So what does this have to do with the idea of extending into unreached areas? The way that the areas of the world are arranged is in ever-widening circles: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth.
The final level of outreach is the “ends of the earth.” Who knows how far this is from Jerusalem, but the point is that the church is supposed to go to the very edges of the planet to reach others with the Gospel. Implicit in this command is the idea of pushing out into new territories where the Gospel has not been preached.
The church is never to be content with the progress of the Gospel; rather, it is to research what the need is, and direct its resources towards meeting that need.
A second text actually expresses the personal missionary strategy of Paul; this is the rule by which he lived. Although we may not be constrained by the Lord regarding the details of Paul’s personal Great Commission strategy since he was an apostle, should we not give some level of thought to pushing out to places where people have no Gospel message?
Let’s consider Romans 15:18-24. Here are the key elements that we see in this text:
So we see that Paul had made incredible progress in fulfilling his calling. He was God’s apostle to the Gentiles. He had already evangelized and discipled people in the key cities of four provinces, and now he sees his mission as extending into Spain. Since this new area was probably a Latin-speaking region, it makes sense that he might need some support personnel to accompany him to Spain, given his lack of knowledge of this language.
Paul’s reason for this sort of pioneering strategy seems to be solidly grounded upon the idea that the church is to be built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20). So Paul diligently applies this rule to his church-planting ministry everywhere. If someone else planted the church in Rome, then he would not go to minister there; rather, he would look for a region that had no Gospel witness. So why did Paul go to Rome? This was exceptional; he went to seek assistance from the churches in Rome for the Spanish venture.
If we say that we should adopt this rule, then we should all practice pioneer missions like Paul did. But there are several problems with this. First, this rule belongs to the apostolic band of men. It was their mandate to lay the foundation of the church. Since you and I are not apostles, we need not adopt this as a rule of practice.
Second, since others during Paul’s day like Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, and many others, did not practice this rule, I think that we can see that it was not considered normative even in that day.
I guess that we are off the hook.
Not hardly! Although I would say that we need not adopt this as a rule for all of our missionary work, we should consider it as a principle to be applied to the church to some extent.
So let’s begin with World A. As I already mentioned, we only have two and one-half percent of our missionary force in this world. I would venture to say that if we were to evaluate who we support in our churches, we would find that few work in World A.
Why is this? We don’t strategize on the big picture in missions. And since we don’t strategize, we don’t bring the neediest parts of the world before our people’s eyes.
Why do we have many missionaries in Brazil, but hardly anyone in Turkey? Why do we have many in the Philippines, but almost no one in Indonesia? Turkey and Indonesia have such low percentages of believers that they are considered “unreached.”
So my question is, when was the last time that you heard someone talk about these needy places?
Next week, we will shift gears and consider the matter of a call.
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.