Power for Missions Restored

Philip DeHart

Since the early 19th Century the American church has largely taken for granted the necessity and legitimacy of mission agencies, both church and para-church. By the mid 20th Century they were as firmly entrenched as any feature of American church life.

But a surprising deja-vu moment occurred during the 1973 formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The voices of the Boards Controversy, dead for 100 years, briefly came back to life. And, in establishing her missions program, it was Thornwell's voice that was heard.

Charles Hodge and James H. Thornwell represent the two corners in The Boards Controversy (1840-1860). Never before or since have American Presbyterians - or possibly Christians anywhere - wrestled so carefully with questions concerning how the Church's mission should be organized and executed.

Hodge argued that Foreign Mission Boards could belong to the Church without being part of the Church. It was the best of both worlds: Church access (for funds and recruits) and a general oversight, without the attendant risk of churches controlling a work they didn't understand.

Thornwell argued that, in order for the Church to properly bring all of its resources to bear upon the Great Commission, Foreign Mission Boards would need to be part of the Church, under the Church's authority.

A fundamental question was beginning to emerge: Where does vitality for missions come from?

Gospel Government?

Thornwell believed Presbyterianism held the answer. It is a faith revealed in Holy Scripture with Spiritual energy. Any alternative is a man-made construct with human energies. It was that simple.

Hodge seemed to view Christ as an absentee King. In the work of kingdom expansion the Church was left to labor as best she can according to her own devices. Like Lewis' Aslan who would send emissaries from time to time to his tortured Narnia, Christ reserves his own reign for the Last Battle. Thornwell's reading of Scripture allowed for no such absenteeism. Such a Christ cannot save now. Rather, Christ reigns in the present from Zion, the visible Church, and he does so directly by his own Word and Spirit. It is by His own power and His own authority that His own kingdom is to grow to the ends of the earth. Nothing and no-one comes between Christ and His kingdom reign. Christ is REALLY present. The administration of this present and active Spiritual authority, organically resident in the Church as a whole, is required of men by ordination and in the courts of the Church. The Church is positively constituted by direct orders. Any interference by man in this Spiritual authority is an affront to Christ and His work. Man's interference disempowers.

Hodge accused Thornwell of hair-splitting, a nuisance to a well-oiled and proven mission machine. Thornwell saw a machine that was swiftly on its way to a nuclear meltdown. Not only was it destructive to the real power for missions but it would take the whole Church down with it.

Gaining and Losing

In 1861 the first General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian church issued the declaration: "obedience to the Great Commission is the great end of our Church's organization and the indispensable condition of her Lord's promised presence." Thornwell was appointed to chair the committee that was to organize this supreme obedience. The Board structure of the prior church was replaced with "strictly defined and limited Executive Committees."[1] But how "strictly defined and limited" did they turn out to be?

"The Executive Committee for Foreign Missions began "to initiate and conclude many things which, when reported to the Assembly, might be approved or disapproved but could not be undone."[2]

Reaching for the Past

Thornwell's voice was heard from the grave in 1973 when the PCA published its own "Message to all the churches of Jesus Christ throughout the world." The letter was modeled after the one Thornwell wrote in 1861. Quoting Thornwell's letter, the Church "has no right to utter a single syllable upon any subject except as the Lord puts words in her mouth."

With the benefit of a century of accumulated experience and wisdom, our PCA founding fathers tried their own hand at putting into place "strictly defined and limited Executive Committees." For the supremely important work of foreign missions they had a Manual written which deliberately followed Thornwell. It recognized two mutually reinforcing but differentiated bonds: Between General Assembly and missions there is what I will call the "bond of unity". But the indispensable bond is between the lower courts and missions, what I will call the "bond of power".

The Bond of Power

The bond between missionary and Sending Body is the "bond of power". The commissioning of the missionary by the sending body invests the power of that body in the missionary for a particular assignment. Unlike the local pastor who is installed or local church worker who is assigned, the missionary is commissioned to extend the ministry of the Sending Body.

"The book of Acts sets forth the scriptural role of the church -- the local church -- as the sending authority and as the prayer and financial base for world evangelism. In our Presbyterian system, the proper sending bodies, therefore, are the session of the local church for laymen and the presbytery for ministers."[3]

Without being commissioned (which includes the sustained bond which the act of commissioning entails) the missionary is not in possession of any vocational Spiritual authority to evangelize, disciple, preach, or teach towards establishing/strengthening churches. Commissioning is not an isolated task but rather entails a complex of responsibilities:

"The responsibilities of these sending bodies, in consultation with the General Assembly's Committee on Mission to the World, include recruitment, examining, training, support, commissioning, contact, and furlough."

The Manual fills in more detail concerning the nature of the bond of missionary to Sending Body:

"[The missionary] came from them; he is supported by them; in a real sense his work is an extension overseas of their own local or presbytery ministry. There should be maintained a vital contact between the missionary and the sending body. The session or presbytery should arrange to receive regular reports from its missionary on the field. It should evaluate his work and seek to offer advice and encouragement. It must take seriously its basic oversight for his doctrine and morals."

The Bond of Unity

The bond of missionary with General Assembly (through its committee) is the "bond of unity" within the PCA. GA is "the bond of union, peace and correspondence among all its congregations and courts." (BCO 14.1) The Manual begins with a statement of order:

"Relationship of the Committee to the Presbyteries and Sessions of the denomination is defined by the duties assigned to the Committee by the General Assembly. Its role is to serve and offer coordinating facilities to these church courts."

Commissioned PCA missionaries are coordinated by GA through its permanent committee. Coordination is thus MTW's principle function with regards to church power.

What are the boundaries of this coordination? When the consultant becomes the boss. To the extent that specialized centralized coordination slips into perceived Spiritual authority there is real danger.[4]  

The MTW Committee (including its staff), as an institution, is not invested with church power. As a committee it neither has commissioned power nor is it a commissioning body. Herein is the distinction between the "bond of power" and the "bond of unity".

Yet the work cannot be other than one organic work.

"The Mission to the World Committee serves as an "enabling" committee. It was created by the General Assembly to encourage and enable the Presbyterian Church in America at every level to function as a missionary church. . . The Book of Church Order sets forth the role of the committees as that of important but limited servants of the whole church."

MTW Manual Completed

The completed Manual claimed to offer peace and purity in an organic continuity:

"It presents a program of missions which is in the best Reformed tradition and one that all our churches can accept and support. Because of the insistence on the scriptural role of the church and presbytery as the sending bodies and because of the variety of models, the conscience of no individual church member, minister, session or presbytery is violated. This program can maintain the peace and purity of our church and it can unite us in the great work of world missions."

Its greater achievement was restored power.

*See also the extended version of this post here

[1] Samuel H. Chester, Behind the Scenes; an Administrative History of the Foreign Work of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, (Austin, Tex.: Press of Von Boeckmann-Jones Co., 1928), 12.

[2] Chester, Behind the Scenes; an Administrative History of the Foreign Work of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, 13.

[3] This and subsequent quotes are from the "Manual for Mission to the World Committee" in the form most recently reviewed by GA (Minutes of the 7th GA, pp. 241-251).

[4] See Philip DeHart, "Staying Tied to Foreign Missions," ByFaith, 16 January 2019. https://byfaithonline.com/staying-tied-to-foreign-missions/