Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.
Have you ever thought it strange that we never hear of the missionary journeys of Peter? There are no books written about the missionary work of James. When we talk about missions in the Bible, the one name mentioned is that of Paul. Missionary work in the Bible is always related to the travels of Paul and his team. God commissioned Paul and Barnabas to go the Gentiles. They went to the surrounding nations that were composed primarily of non-Jewish people. That is missions. Mission work is cross-cultural evangelism to create disciples. Mission work is not local evangelism except in cases where one is evangelizing people of another culture. This could occur in refugee camps or in a major English-speaking city where a group of immigrants are living together (such as “China Town,” “Little Mexico,” etc.). When a person brings the Gospel to people of their own community who are like them, this is evangelism. When the Gospel crosses cultural lines, it is missions. This distinction is important. If we fail to make the distinction, we will never do mission work.
So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. Galatians 6:10
Your light must shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16
We could find numerous verses in the New Testament to support giving to the poor, helping others, and especially giving aid to fellow believers. There is no question regarding the Christian’s duties in these areas. We have already seen that the Great Commission is making believers through Gospel preaching. Discipleship occurs in the Church through preaching and teaching. The Great Commission is fulfilled when the Gospel goes to another culture and churches are planted.
While the Church can, and arguably should, be doing good in the world, benevolence is not mission work. Benevolence is benevolence. Benevolence is good and necessary but it no substitute for Gospel ministry. The definition of missions now refers to any and everything under the sun. Evangelism has been replaced with discipleship and missions have been replaced with all manner of things. When benevolence is labeled as “missions” then missions will not happen.
Some might argue that Jesus used benevolence to “meet physical needs before He met spiritual needs.” They might point to the feeding of the 5000 or various other miracles to justify benevolence as a replacement or at least, an introduction to the Gospel. The feeding of the 5000 fails to prove the point at the outset. People came to hear Jesus and they stayed a long time. Jesus did not offer them something in exchange for their attention. Rather, after hearing Jesus, He feared that they would be too weak to travel to find food and He provided food for them. Neither does Jesus set up shop as a healer and compel people to be healed on the condition that they hear Him speak.
We must understand the purpose of the miracles in the ministry of Jesus. They were not performed to attract a crowd, nor primarily to meet the physical needs. Rather the purpose of the miracles was to confirm to Israel that her Messiah had come.
Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a Man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know. Acts 2:22
We err when we use the Gospels to support the methodology of missions. The Gospels give us the account of Jesus as the rejected Messiah of Israel. It is not until the resurrection of Chris and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that we have a Church. We do see the Disciples sent into surrounding areas to call people to repentance and they perform miracles. But, we do not have mission work proper until the commission of Paul and Barnabas. In the book of Acts and in the Epistles is where we find missions and therefore directions for missions.
Mission work is the Gospel ministry to disciple the nations. Benevolence is required of the Christian and brings glory to God. Benevolence is not mission work. In a future article, I will address hybrid or “holistic” missions (those who combine benevolence and Gospel work across cultural bounds). We must see that the Church can and should be involved in benevolence, however, benevolence work will not produce a Church and is not the prescribed method for making disciples.