What is a Missionary?
By Walter J. Chantry

The great missionary movement—of preaching and teaching the gospel to all Gentile nations had its beginning just after Jesus’ resurrection. Paul said that it “pleased God to reveal his Son in me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:16). Acts 13 records the formal start of churches sending out missionaries (men the Lord has called to preach, teach, and evangelize among the Gentile nations). Paul and Barnabas were ordained and sent.


Through the centuries since Jesus’ resurrection, multitudes of men have been called and sent to be missionaries to follow in the footsteps of Paul and Barnabas. Names like Brainerd, Carey and Judson are among early missionaries from English-speaking nations. The movement continues sending such men throughout the world.


However, confusion has also arisen from this movement. It is not unusual for a local church to have a bulletin board identifying their “missionaries;” it is common to find among those called “missionaries” a secretary, a nurse, a school teacher, a carpenter, an occupational trainer, or an engineer. Few, if any, “missionaries” are men devoted to the central task of preaching/teaching/evangelizing.


Furthermore ministers have thought it “effective” to call every Christian a “missionary.” Of course every Christian should witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, if every witnessing Christian is “a missionary”, what were Paul and Barnabas? Is there no distinction between them and all other Christians? Well then, are all witnesses to be ordained and supported financially by their churches?


In the U. S. this confusion has caused major changes in church order. For years women have been sent as “missionaries”. If they might preach and teach the gospel overseas, why could they not do so at home? Thus arose a major argument for women clergy which the Bible does not allow. Permitting women to preach at home was a natural consequence to having them do so elsewhere.


Barnabas and Paul assembled helpers for their missionary journeys. In the same way churches at home hire secretaries, custodians and skilled technicians. But they are not ministers of the gospel. There is a distinction between “missionary” (preacher, teacher, evangelist), and support staff.


Individual congregations, associations of churches and denominations must be careful that they are primarily supporting the central workers of missions, men who preach and teach the gospel, and who evangelize the unconverted, building congregations of believers. We must beware of being overwhelmed with the support of medical and agricultural workers so as to neglect the assistance of gospel ministers.


These men who are to take the gospel to unreached millions should be expected to have made a serious, systematic study of Scripture and of the Bible’s system of doctrine. Ordinarily (with rare exceptions) this requires (especially in young men) a formal course of instruction on the Bible, theology and church history.  There are many Bible schools, seminaries, and correspondence courses available in our world.  I believe that it is difficult to justify sending prechers/teachers/evangelists who have not made this effort at a systematic study of the Word.  Even the world recognizes that after years of self-teaching and experience, there are “general equivalency” attainments.  But these should be exceptions, not the pattern. 

It is to be feared that what we often have, instead of equivalency attainment, is much zeal and sincerity not systematic preparation in the Word.  Small churches with a biblical vision for missions must carefully examine the formal preparations of candidates.