When Paul acknowledged to the Corinthians his inadequacy as a minister of the gospel (2 Cor. 2:16), he wasn’t making an argument for incompetent missionaries. But sometimes Western Christians speak as if what qualifies someone for ministry is the recognition he or she isn’t really qualified. We’ve equated the admission of inability with the virtue of humility.
Similarly, I’ve seen churches eagerly encourage all who feel called to missions but hesitate to place any requirements of education or experience upon them. We easily affirm their willingness to sacrifice without considering their ability to serve. Even more concerning, some Christians exult in their neediness and brokenness as if those attributes are what make them most useful in the kingdom.
To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required
But while Paul boasted in weakness, recognizing his insufficiency for the missionary task and his utter dependence on the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:4–6), he could also boast in the quality of his efforts, his diligent hard work, and the results that were produced through God’s Spirit in him (1 Cor. 15:10). Paul didn’t assume that human inability or inefficiency automatically led to God’s blessing.
Local churches must regain their responsibility to prove, affirm, and send qualified missionaries.
Most importantly, he didn’t equate repeated struggles and moral failure with physical inadequacy or weakness. Paul could talk about God using weak jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7). But to be useful, those same vessels needed to be honorable, holy, and fit for the Master’s use (2 Tim. 2:21). This is the pattern we see repeated throughout Scripture. God has high expectations for the shepherds of his people and the stewards of his Word. To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).
Affirmation of Paul and Barnabas
Those whom we send should be competent in the Scriptures and of good character. And when it comes to identifying and sending the right kind of people, the onus is on the local church. They must do the work of affirming missionaries who qualify.
Let’s look at Paul and Barnabas as an example. When the gospel initially spread through Jews scattered by persecution, Barnabas was sent by the church in Jerusalem to Antioch to observe what was happening. He was undoubtedly chosen for his character, as someone filled with the Spirit and knowledgeable in the Scriptures (Acts 11:24). But as Barnabas observed Gentiles coming to faith, he felt the need to find Paul in Tarsus. Having already spent almost 10 years serving in Syria and Cilicia, Paul and his faithful ministry and calling to the Gentiles were known to Barnabas (Acts 9:26–30; 11:25–26; Gal. 1:21). Together, they returned to Antioch, where they taught the growing group of believers for a full year.
It’s in this context that the Spirit led the church to set apart these two men to be sent out (Acts 13:1–2). Paul wasn’t commissioned by the church officially until he’d spent 14 years proving himself through evangelism, teaching, and faithful ministry (Gal. 2:1). If we consider his lifetime of training in the Hebrew Scriptures even before his Damascus Road experience, then our calculation of Paul’s ministry preparedness increases significantly. Paul was anything but an amateur. For the church in Antioch, sending Paul meant the sacrifice of sending their best.
Prove and Affirm Those Who Are Sent
But today, churches will send almost anyone. David Hesselgrave sees this as a direct result of missionary “volunteerism”—of widespread and urgent calls for workers to go into the harvest. These impassioned pleas are often punctuated with stories of great need and reinforced by the idea that we’re all called to be missionaries. But this represents a confusion of categories. We’re not all called to be missionaries. In fact, such a general call to arms is a relatively recent phenomenon and conspicuously absent from the pages of Scripture. According to Hesselgrave, “All New Testament missionaries were personally conscripted by Christ, his apostles and their representatives, or by Holy Spirit–directed churches.”
This is essential. Local churches must regain their responsibility to prove, affirm, and send qualified missionaries. In the Bible, churches are the ones called upon to have the knowledge and discernment necessary to assess missionaries and their ministries. Churches must test and approve what is good (Phil. 1:9–10; 1 Thess. 5:21). Paul’s pattern was to employ workers in ministry who had already been examined and demonstrated themselves as faithful (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:22; 1 Tim. 3:10; 2 Tim. 2:2). This assumes some will not pass the test. Some teachers and some ministries should not be approved. Some are not even from God (1 John 4:1). In such cases, churches are instructed to neither receive them nor support their work (2 John 10).
Churches are called to test missionaries because God will one day test each of us.
This responsibility to test supported workers isn’t a license to be judgmental. Nor should procuring a church’s financial provision be a grueling process, with missionaries regularly running the gauntlet to be vetted and maintained. Christians should gladly and generously supply the needs of fellow workers for the faith (3 John 5–8).
However, when Paul defended himself and commended his ministry to the Corinthians, he reminded them that he did so in view of God’s judgment and commendation (2 Cor. 12:19). Churches are called to test missionaries because God will one day test each of us; we will all give an account for our stewardship. So, churches must be careful how, and in whom, they invest. We must seek to approve and send those whom God will ultimately approve.