Pauline Precedent in 19th Century Protestant Mission Thought

Two thirds of the New Testament was written, it appears, by a missionary named Paul.  Furthermore, a large portion of the book of Acts is devoted to chronicling his missionary endeavors.  Thus it should come as no surprise that Protestant missionaries have over the centuries appealed to his model and practices as they shaped and justified their own.  This essay considers how notable Protestant missiologists, including William Carey, William Taylor, John Nevius, and Roland Allen, employed Pauline precedent in their own literature. 

In 1792 William Carey, a Baptist called by many the “Father of Modern Missions,” wrote An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, his best-known publication.   The central concern of Enquiry is the contemporary relevance of Jesus’ Great Commission, but Carey does employ Paul in three distinct ways.  First, Carey cast Paul as one who was sent.   On the human level, Paul was sent, Carey suggested, by the apostles in Jerusalem to preach to the Gentiles, and later, by these churches back to Jerusalem for counsel regarding circumcision (Enquiry 20, 21).  On the spiritual level, Paul was sent by the Holy Spirit through a vision to Macedonia (23).  The sentness of Paul had a great relevance to Carey as he called for Christians to take up a sending and being sent work.

Second, and more importantly, Carey presented Paul as the ideal missionary who overcomes all obstacles.  When Paul’s message was met with hostility and persecution, he persevered.  When he was imprisoned, “even this was over-ruled for the success of the gospel, in that the keeper of the prison, and all his house...were baptized (24)”.  Twice Paul was forbidden by the Spirit to head in one direction and thus he “went elsewhere, and preached to others” (10).  Though they “met obstacles...Paul and Barnabas however went forward; in every city they preached the word of the Lord” (20).  Even when these two were separated, they “continued however each to serve in the cause of Christ, though they could not walk together” (22).  The perseverance of Paul was critical to Carey, as he had to admit the real challenges awaiting prospective missionaries to whom he appealed.

Third, and finally, Carey presented Paul as a model of the risks and rewards of missionary work.  Carey noted that while he and his companions had difficulties, they also had encouragement and that along with persecutions they received strength from God (24, 25).  Paul and Barnabus were not foolish when they “hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” while the timid John Mark earned himself censure for abandoning the work(71).  Carey concluded Enquiry by inviting his readers to imagine “what a treasure, what an harvest must await such characters as PAUL...and others, who have given themselves wholly to the work of the Lord” (87).

William Taylor, an international missionary in the American Revivalist Tradition between 1849-1897 appealed outright to Pauline precedent in Ten Years of Self-Supporting Work in India.   There he presented the Pauline method as consisting of six points: 1) Plant nothing but pure gospel seed; 2) Give full responsibility for church work and government to native converts under native bishops; 3) Keep unity with the home Jerusalem churches without imposing a foreign yoke of bondage; 4) Travel with nothing beyond bare necessities for “the laborer is worthy of his hire”; 5) Preach first to the Jews, and organize them into self-supporting, spiritually aggressive churches; 6) Remain in one location “long enough only to effect a complete organization...[and] to develop the Christian character of each member up to the standard of holiness” (66-69).  The total picture Taylor presented was of a Pauline precedent for missionaries who would quickly establish self-supporting native churches through preaching and entrust them to native leaders and the Holy Spirit.  With this in view, Taylor argued that Pauline methods are “suited to the demands of this age” on the basis of “a remarkable correspondence” between Paul’s day and his own—and many of the differences are advantageous (71).

John L. Nevius, a missionary to China and notable influence on Korean missions, appealed to Paul in The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (1890) in a unique way.   For Nevius, the most applicable wisdom of Paul’s strategy was embedded in his instruction to “Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called” (19).  For Nevius, this was applied directly to the question of whether it was advisable for missionaries to bring converts onto the payroll of the mission: “I believe it is best, at least in the first stage of mission work, for the native evangelist to follow Paul’s example.  Take a man labouring of his ordinary life as an earnest Christian and make him a paid laborer, and you deprive him of half his influence” (22).  Also important to Nevius was Paul’s ten years of preparation, which he interprets to mean that those called to ministry today should avoid undue haste while they received the adequate training which is best accomplished by remaining in their current vocation.  After having made the case for keeping natives in their professions, he then argued that missionaries themselves ought not follow this model of keeping secular employment because it would “defeat the object aimed at” since “our circumstances as foreign missionaries...are different from those of the Apostle Paul in almost every particular” (23).

Nevius made less important appeals to Paul in several other matters.  He noted Paul’s concern for setting bad precedents, which led him to denounce “idlers, busybodies [and] disorderly unsparing terms” (22).  Nevius felt this provided him warrant for church discipline, something which he exercised extensively through excommunication (22).  In a related way, Nevius invoked Paul’s practice of appointing elders as license for his own hierarchical relationship to the missionary churches.  In surprising contrast is his affirmation of Pauls’ practices of not leaving behind associates as resident ministers, noting that to leave behind associates leads to the stunting of a church’s development of gifts, self-reliance and zeal (29).

Roland Allen was an Anglican missionary who spent several years in China, and authored the fullest appeal to Paul’s missionary precedents.  In Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (1912), Allen addressed the objections to application of Pauline methodology head on, concluding that whatever advantages Paul may have had were minimal and certainly no grounds for dismissing the genius of his methods.   With this settled, Allen mined Paul’s example for guidance regarding a wide range of questions including whether missionaries ought to target certain classes, how to negotiate financial matters, what to preach, the training of converts and candidates and how to relate to established churches.  In Paul’s practice with regard to each of these concerns, Allen detected a common principle that he considered to be the secret of his success:  “the trust which begets trustworthiness” (152).  This Spirit-rooted faith was evident in Paul’s persuasive—rather than authoritarian—writings to churches in apparent moral disarray, as well as most powerfully in the way that he moved on from a new church as soon as possible.  Allen concluded that his contemporaries ought to echo Paul’s principles by preparing for retirement without succession by 1) always referring all church business regarding finance, baptism, appointment or ministers and discipline to the congregation itself and by 2) leaving things more and more in the hands of the congregation through increasing missionary tours and absences.  

This very select look at Pauline precedent in Protestant mission thought yields three noteworthy insights.  First, appeals to Paul method are moderated by the concomitant account of the differences and similarities between Paul’s context and the present one.  Allen and Taylor worked hardest to establish a valid correlation between the two and as a result called for a more-or-less wholesale application of Paul’s method as they understood it.  Nevius, on the other hand, admitted deep incongruities between Paul’s missionary situation and his own that he felt permitted him to do some picking and choosing regarding application of Paul’s methods.  Even Carey, who did not directly address this dynamic, spent a considerable portion of Enquiry responding to similar objections against the application of Jesus’ Great Commission to his contemporary scene.  Establishing the connections between the biblical world and the present is critical groundwork for those seeking to transport biblical teaching or models into a contemporary context.

Second, the context and prior commitments of these missiologists has clearly shaped what they have seen in Paul.  Paul, for each, functioned as an idealized contrast to the inadequacies that each missiologist observed in his own time.  While this flexibility of interpretation served to give coherence and authority to the missionary strategies each was promoting, it also opened the possibility that Paul could be used to justify contradictory practices.  This is most apparent in the contrast between Nevius and Allen on matters of church discipline and oversight.  Both noted Paul’s writings in response to sin in the churches, but Nevius read Paul as a disciplinarian rectifying the situation while Allen testified to Paul’s restraint, persuasion and trust.

Third, and in conclusion, this look at Protestant missionary use of Pauline precedent has given a composite picture of Paul as a missionary who overcame the obstacles inherent in the work and, through great faith in the Spirit at work in the churches, held these new congregations loosely.  This Pauline portrait presses up against a tension that every missionary and sending agency must face—and which every parent faces with a child: how to let go, so that what has been born may grow to full maturity.  In this regard, a missionary named Paul is a matchless conversation partner.

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