At one point in the history of missions, it was rather difficult to get approved for missionary service unless you were an ordained pastor (or married to one). There were exceptions, of course, for those who were going to serve as school teachers, doctors, and other types of ministries that did not primarily involve Bible teaching. However, where we find ourselves today, in many cases, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Churches and mission organizations vary in their requirements, from very stringent to very lax, but since I got involved with missions about twelve years ago on a short-term trip to Poland, I have heard many times over, from various places, something along the following lines, “If you love Jesus and are willing, then you’re ready to be a missionary.” Granted, loving Jesus and being willing are very important but is that all that is needed? I was reading the book of Ezra today and came across this verse:
“For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)
I am not convinced that every single person who wants to be a missionary should go to seminary and get a Masters of Divinity, but at the same time, every missionary candidate should have a desire to really study the Word of God, and DO IT. I think that those who say that all you need to do in order to be a missionary is love Jesus are perhaps reacting to a perceived over emphasis on academic head knowledge in the missionary preparation process. There are lots of things that are studied in seminaries and Bible schools that don’t “seem” to be applicable to life on the mission field where people are ignorant of even the basics of the Gospel (I will return to this point in a moment). To return to the verse in Ezra, Ezra’s fundamental purpose in studying the Law of God was not to gather head knowledge that could then be spoon-fed to his fellow Israelites so that they could also have lots of head knowledge. Ezra studied God’s word because he desperately wanted to know want God wanted him to DO. God is the awesome and mighty God who had called his people out of bondage in Egypt and was now calling them back from exile in Babylon. Ezra loved God, and he wanted to obey God because he loved God. He wanted to live as God wanted him to live, not in a desperate attempt to earn God’s favor, but to thankfully honor, exalt, and glorify this God who had done much more for Ezra and his people than they could ever do for Him.
Anyone who wants to be a missionary needs to love God enough to search out in God’s Word what it is that God requires of him or her. If someone says, “I love Jesus” but does not have a hunger to know God’s word and obey what they find there, then there is something tragically wrong. This should be the fundamental attitude of the heart: “I want to know how God wants me to live. I hunger to know God and to live in humble submission and devotion to Him because he is my great King and Savior. To desire anything less would be unworthy of my God.” The missionary must love Jesus and that love must be defined as devotion to, and adoration of God that results in eager seeking to know Him in His Word, and to obey Him. An emotional experience in a worship service or a warm feeling after reading a Christian devotional book neither proves nor disproves whether a person loves Jesus. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). Obedience to Jesus is a good indicator as to whether you love Jesus (read the book of 1 John for more on this).
A second point to be garnered from Ezra 7:10 is this: Before you are ready to teach God’s word to others, you must study it and learn to obey it first. I am convinced that there is no shortage of professing Christians who have truly been converted and love Jesus but do not really understand their Bibles and have not sufficiently worked out some of the very basic implications of God’s Word in their lives. Granted, there is not one single person alive who has FULLY worked out all the implications of God’s Word for every area of their life. However, if someone wants to be a missionary, are they actively studying God’s word and seeking to put it in to practice? Is this person’s life changing in conformity to the Bible in ways that are observable by both the person themselves and those around them? Nobody is perfect, of course, but over a protracted period of time (perhaps 6 months, a year, five years) is there discernable forward progress? If not, then that person is not ready for missionary service and (dare I say it?) may not even be a Christian to begin with.
If you are not making observable progress in putting God’s commandments into practice in your life, then how are you ever going to teach others to do it? Remember, Bible teaching is not about transferring head knowledge but rather explaining and applying Scripture to people’s lives in such away that they develop a love for God expressed in joyful obedience to God. Depending upon the type of missionary service that one is headed for, either more or less formal Bible training may be advisable. I myself only had informal training through InterVarsity and my local church when I went to the mission field in Thailand for the first time as an associate (1-3 year term) with OMF. At that time I was doing some language study and English teaching, with the aim of being a witness and helping the long term OMF church planting in our city. As time went on, I realized that I really wanted to be in more direct church ministry (including teaching and preaching) rather than English teaching, and in order to do that, I would need to get some more formal training. So, I went back to the U.S. and went to seminary. Going to seminary and going through the ordination process were a great help in forming my understanding of Scripture and firming up my convictions in a variety of areas, but all of it was built on the fundamental desire to study God’s Word because I want to know God, and express my love for Him through obeying Him. Also, I was concerned that unless I really knew God’s Word well, I would not be properly prepared to help people understand and apply Scripture like I needed to. I wanted to do all that I could to be a good shepherd to people’s souls and not just try to scrape by with the minimum of Scriptural understanding.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned things that are studied in seminaries and Bible schools that don’t “seem” to be applicable to life on the mission field. After all, who needs to know the intricacies of theology when people don’t even know the Gospel? There is a story that someone once came to famed evangelist D.L. Moody and asked him what he thought about the higher critical theory on the book of Isaiah which claimed that there were two or perhaps three authors writing in the name of Isaiah instead of just one. D.L. Moody replied something along the lines of, “Why should I be concerned about second and third Isaiah when most people don’t know there is even one Isaiah?” There is some truth to Moody’s flippant response, however here’s my case for learning ALL that stuff in seminary, especially the ancient heresies and finer points of theology: All the bad theology and in-house controversies make their way to the mission field eventually. You’ll meet fellow missionaries who imbibed the poison Kool-Aid and are now teaching it on the mission field. If you don’t meet the missionary themselves, then maybe you’ll run into some heretical Christian literature that someone thought it would be a great idea to translate. Or maybe you meet a local believer who read that book that should never have been translated. Besides that, missionaries need to be somewhat knowledgeable about what is going on in the church back home so that they can interact with both other missionaries on the field and also churches back home when they go on home assignment (furlough) eventually. In the mid-19th century, the tiny missionary community in Bangkok had a split because of disagreement over Charles Finney’s teaching that a Christian could achieve perfect obedience to God in this lifetime. Even 150 years ago when communication was much less advanced than now, the big trends in the church at home made it out to the mission field eventually. And when it lands on your doorstep, you can no longer ignore it.
Postively speaking though, one really great reason to soak yourself in the Word of God and learn as much as you can at seminary or Bible school is for the nourishment of your own soul and your ability to persevere in ministry over the long haul. My study of Scripture, both informally and formally in seminary, has helped me to think through and process the experiences (both good and bad) that I experience on the mission field. Also, my wife and I are much more alone on the mission field in Thailand than when we were part of a good healthy church back home, receiving good Bible teaching and encouraging fellowship. There are other missionaries within a half an hour of us but we don’t see them regularly, and due to a variety of issues, our ministry situation is many times not very enjoyable, encouraging, or edifying. There are joys and things to give thanks for, but the struggles and frustrations are just as many. In those times, we are glad to have that deep well of Scripture to draw from - both what we have learned in the past and what we learn afresh as we come expectantly to God’s Word to discover what God wants to speak to us today.