A Letter On Hearing Sermons by John Newton


Notice the bolded comments in this classic letter.

Originally posted on The Protestant Pulpit:


Dear Sir,

I am glad to find that the Lord has at length been pleased to fix you in a favored situation, where you have frequent opportunities of hearing the Gospel. This is a great privilege; but, like all other outward privileges, it requires grace and wisdom to make a due improvement of it; and the great plenty of ordinances you enjoy, though in itself a blessing, is attended with snares, which, unless they are carefully guarded against, may hinder rather than promote your edification. I gladly embrace the occasion you afford me, of offering you my advice upon this subject. A remembrance of the mistakes I have myself formerly committed, and the observations I have made upon the conduct of professors, considered as hearers, will perhaps in some measure qualify me for the task you have assigned me.

The faithful ministers of the Gospel are all the servants and…

View original 2,330 more words

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A Good Furlough Visit Illustrated

We bless God that He has graciously yoked our family with like-minded churches and pastors. With nine supporting churches and about a dozen families, we have been able to spend around a week with each church. I don’t think this is ideal. Probably, 2-3 supporting churches and a month at each one would be the best, but that is an argument for another series of posts.

This post follows the previous one introducing in brief a philosophy of missions regarding furlough. Knowing the way people scroll through blog posts reading just a few sentences of each, I feared this illustration may get lost unless it was published separately.

So, here is a step in the right direction—a brief illustration of the way a great church made a great week for an average missionary.

In Iowa, we arrived at Grace Baptist Church on Saturday afternoon where we were to stay until the next Friday morning. They had a missionary house near the church where we stayed which gave us a little privacy while also keeping us accessible to the church.

Sunday morning, our family went to Sunday school as normal students. Many of the people in a church of 250 or so greeted us before the morning service. The pastor graciously allowed me to preach in the morning and show my slides in the evening. For the evening service I was given 45 minutes to show pictures and talk about our ministry and philosophy.

Sign up lists were placed—at the pastor’s initiative—on the back table so that we could have dinners with the church members throughout the week. There was no spot for lunch so that we could eat by ourselves without exhausting our kids too much. Tuesday-Thursday, I had four chances to speak to the young people at junior camp. They also closed camp with a question answer time between the missionary and the kids. After they asked me questions, the pastor even gave me a chance to ask them questions!

Before arriving, I had asked the pastor if I could meet with him and the church leadership for a time of accountability and prayer. Rather than have a meeting behind closed doors, he asked me to address the entire congregation again on Wednesday night where he set up a little panel of question and answer time for nearly an hour. He also thought to ask Amy to answer questions as well.

The pastor took the initiative to talk and pray with me even though I know he was busy. He was humble enough to listen, but bold enough to say at least once, “You’re wrong. That is sin.” Such friends are rare indeed.

By the end of the week, we felt sad to leave. We had answered (and asked) so many questions about family, homeschool, ministry, and Africa that conversations had naturally and repeatedly been spawned. At the end of time we may see that heartfelt conversations were the greatest tools to engender prayer for missionaries. I certainly doubt that eternity will reveal classy prayer cards, brilliant DVD’s, or a well-polished missionary sermon vying for first place as the greatest impetus to praying for missionaries.

The week was invested in eternity because relationships were built to the glory of God. The only problem was that seven days was too short.

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Furlough to the Glory of God

The last two verses in Acts 14 record the first furlough visit by the first two foreign missionaries of the church. If they are good examples and worthy of imitation (which I believe they are in their missions philosophy) then missionaries should return at intervals to “rehearse all that God has done with them.”

But the last verse of the chapter reads, “And they remained no little time with the disciples.” (Acts 14:28) Why would they do this? Was Paul wasting time? And when it comes to application, how could missionaries today do this when many of them have 30+ churches supporting them, and many churches have just as many missionaries?

Why did they stay a long time?

At least two factors seem to be logical answers to that question even though the text is not explicit. They may have been looking for the next place to minister as they planted churches. Logistical questions like this are valid reasons to spend time on furlough at a supporting church.

Perhaps Paul also saw the need to strengthen the relationships with his brothers and sisters that were so close to him at Antioch. The last chapter of Romans is an extended list of people with whom Paul had formed friendships. Throughout his epistles we read of around 30 other people who at one point or another labored together with Paul in his missionary travels. Could the man who wrote the “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians be disinterested in relationships with those who were holding the ropes for him?

At certain levels, time alone can join hearts. Though all believers enjoy the unity of the Spirit whereby they have a closer bond because their deepest loves are the same, David-and-Jonathan friendships require years of melded experiences and conversations. Thus, the “no little time” of Acts 14:28 provided for Paul and Barnabas to live, minister, grow, and refresh themselves among their friends and peers who could more effectively pray for them not only because the church now knew the missionaries better but also because they now had a more significant heart investment.

How could modern missionaries follow their example?

At this point, let’s try to apply this aspect of missions philosophy. Suppose a missionary wants to spend “no little time” at a supporting church, so he sets his sights at merely a week-long visit with each of his supporters. With over 30 churches, he’ll be on furlough for somewhere around a year. That’s something close to the time frame of the average furlough now, with one key exception: most missionaries do not stay at a church longer than one service. Maybe they’re traveling; maybe they’re not welcome; maybe they’re exhausted from traveling; maybe they don’t agree with the church and if they stayed longer, their disagreements would be brought to light potentially threatening further support; maybe they’ve simply never thought to ask.

Of the pastors who support our family, most of them said it is rare to have missionaries who stay for more than one service and definitely unusual for missionaries to stay longer for accountability and in order to form friendships with the people.

As a missionary, I can only imagine how stressful and tiring it would be to pack and unpack the van for 37 different churches. And with nearly two score independent churches how could you hope to agree with them all? Pragmatically, a lot of missionaries would be afraid to open up if it lengthens their time on deputation, and so the downward spiral continues where both parties kind of quietly agree to work together in a very modern and business-like state. And all the while, relationships wither along with any healthy fruit that could spring from such useful plants.

From the missionary’s standpoint it would be difficult with a plethora of churches, but from the church’s standpoint, it would be a huge weight. If each missionary on furlough plus those coming in for support all wanted to stay for a week or more of meaningful relationships, how could the church get anything done? The pastor would have a week’s schedule interrupted once a month or so from another one of his missionaries hoping to pray with him and talk with him about accountability. The people would wear out of cooking extra meals, cleaning their oft-used guest rooms, signing up yet again after church, and trying to seriously remember how many kids “this one” has now.

I once visited a church of several hundred with nearly one hundred missionaries. How could they possibly allow each of them to spend “no little time” with them? Down the road was a church of less than 50 with about a dozen or so missionaries. Those 12 would probably wear on that little assembly just like 100 wears on an assembly of 450.

If missionaries and churches tried to follow Paul and Barnabas’ example in Acts 14, the week would probably include a public presentation, question and answer times, meals with families, and discussions before and after regular meeting times. However, difficult that may be for churches with a lot of missionaries or for missionaries with the reverse problem, if furloughs are worth doing, then missionaries should find time to forge and strengthen friendships with (and within) their supporting churches.

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Questions to Ask an Old Earth Christian

Not only would I like to hear their answers to these questions, I’d like to hear their best dozen or so questions fired back at our side.

  1. Do you believe the earth is millions or billions of years old?
  2. Do you believe the Genesis Flood was a localized or earth-wide catastrophe?
  3. Do you believe God used evolution in any way during His creative process?
  4. If God had wanted to communicate that He did not use evolution in any way, what kinds of language could He have used that would have fit with the context and genre of Genesis 1-2?
  5. If there were no theory of evolution would there be any reason for believing the earth is millions or billions of years old?
  6. When Paul says, “the whole creation groans and travails together” waiting for redemption and freedom, isn’t that speaking about freedom from sin’s effect on creation? But if sin brought creation into a terrible condition, then how could there have been animal death, destruction, and disease in Genesis 1 before sin in Genesis 3?
  7. How could God create a world that is designed from the beginning to be carnivorous, dangerous, and riddled with disease and yet call it “very good” in Gen. 1:31?
  8. Why would God create a world with animals evolving over time, but then not use that same mechanism for men?
  9. Were Calvin, Luther, and Wesley exegetically foolish, inconsistent, or lazy when they interpreted Genesis 1 as literal days?
  10. When the Westminster and Baptist Confessions say “in the space of six days, and all very good” did those original authors mean 24 hour days? Is there any evidence to think they would interpret the days as geologic ages? Assuming they actually were young earthers, were they Biblically inept?
  11. How do you know that you are not holding to an old earth position because it is academically and culturally popular today?


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The Evils of Infant Baptism

This list comes from Robert B. C. Howell, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1851-1858, and the entire book is available online.

  1. Infant baptism is an evil because its practice is unsupported by the word of God.
  2. Infant baptism is an evil because its defense leads to most injurious perversions of Scripture.
  3. Infant baptism is an evil because it engrafts Judaism upon the gospel of Christ.
  4. Infant baptism is an evil because it falsifies the doctrine of universal depravity.
  5. Infant baptism is an evil because the doctrines upon which it is predicated contradict the great fundamental principle of justification by faith.
  6. Infant baptism is an evil because it is in direct conflict with the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.
  7. Infant baptism is an evil because it despoils the church of those peculiar qualities which are essential to the church of Christ.
  8. Infant baptism is an evil because its practice perpetuates the superstitions that originally produced it.
  9. Infant baptism is an evil because it subverts the scripture doctrine of infant salvation.
  10. Infant baptism is an evil because it leads its advocates into rebellion against the authority of Christ.
  11. Infant baptism is an evil because of the connection it assumes with the moral and religious training of children.
  12. Infant baptism is an evil because it is the grand foundation upon which rests the union of church and state.
  13. Infant baptism is an evil because it leads to religious persecutions.
  14. Infant baptism is an evil because it is contrary to the principles of civil and religious freedom.
  15. Infant baptism is an evil because it enfeebles the power of the church to combat error.
  16. Infant baptism is an evil because it injures the credit of religion with reflecting men of the world.
  17. Infant baptism is an evil because it is the great barrier to Christian union.
  18. Infant baptism is an evil because it prevents the salutary impression which baptism was designed to make upon the minds both of those who receive it, and of those who witness its administration.
  19. Infant baptism is an evil because it retards the designs of Christ in the conversion of the world.

Of these points, which form the chapters for his book, the ones bolded are those I found most persuasive.

Why did I post this list?

I am to some degree taken with the gospel-centered movement represented by T4G and the Gospel Coalition. There is strong Scriptural support for a gospel-centered kind of ministry. (Gal. 6:14, et. al.)  Yet, I’m also uneasy with the theological ambivalence that can surround “non-essential” issues such as baptism, speaking in tongues, women in ministry, old-earth theories of creation, and views of the millennium. Maybe these are all second tier doctrines because none of them in part or in full is the gospel. Or, maybe they each have one foot in the secondary and one in the primary category.

Is it possible that non-gospel doctrines can actually have a direct and logically necessary effect on God’s plan of salvation? Are all secondary doctrines exclusively secondary? This list might serve to call attention to the important aspect of “unimportant” teachings of Scripture.

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Gay Marriage is Wrong Because Christianity is Right

As I listened to a debate between Doug Wilson and Andrew Sullivan on the question, “Is Civil Marriage for Gay Couples Good for Society?” I began to participate at several levels myself. Already I was evaluating their individual arguments and trying to construct my own answer to the question from a social perspective. We are justified for reaching some conclusions even if we are not able to assemble an air-tight argument (otherwise young children couldn’t justifiably believe anything), but how much better it is if we are able to move step by step to an irrefutable resting place.

Sullivan opened the debate with the argument that:

  1. Denying homosexual marriage is not fair.
  2. Fairness is good for society.
  3. Therefore, homosexual marriage is good for society.

Wilson argued against the proposition with something like the following:

  1. If homosexuals can marry, then there is no reason to exclude those who want polygamous, incestuous, or open marriages.
  2. These other options are bad for society.
  3. Therefore, homosexual marriage must also be bad for society.

I could see Sullivan’s reasoning being persuasive with an important voting bloc because of the love affair that the post-modern has with all things purportedly fair. And while I think Wilson’s argument was valid, my hunch is that it would not be compelling outside that group that was already on his side.

So, what is a good answer to the proposition?

A good answer will necessarily be a Christian answer because Jesus Christ is wisdom. (1 Cor. 1:24, 30) Furthermore, in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:3) If there is a thorny question to be answered, the right way to think about the puzzle is the way Jesus would think. In order to deny this, you must first deny the basic premise that Jesus Christ’s thoughts represent the highest pinnacle of right reasoning.

Now, of course there are those who will debate that very point, and then we can begin to discuss what is really the dividing line between the two sides in the spiritual war: the Lordship of Christ. But if that point is established between two who profess to be Christians, or even granted for sake of discussion, then the debate takes on a new tone. So, I don’t expect this argument to be persuasive to anyone who does not agree with me on the fundamental cornerstone of all right thinking, namely absolute surrender to King Jesus. However, if they don’t agree with that principle, then do we really think they will accept any other reasons we could offer in opposition to any moral claim?

At what points does the contemporary issue of homosexual marriage touch the nature and mission of Jesus Christ? One way to view the gospel is through the lens of marriage. That is, marriage was designed to illustrate who Jesus is and what He came to do. This was not always clear at certain points in redemptive history which is why the Apostle Paul calls marriage a “great mystery.” (Eph. 5:32)

Built into the sexes by their Creator is a message that is only communicated when one man and one woman make a covenant together. The union of Christ with His (singular) people whereby they are loved supremely and unchangeably is pictured beautifully in monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Polygamy breaks the picture as if Aslan really would accept followers of Tash. Divorce breaks the picture as if something actually could separate us from our unconquerable Lover. However, homosexual marriage also breaks the picture because a homosexual marriage cannot fulfill christian roles.

In Ephesians 5, the husband loves his wife in the same way that Christ loves the Church. He is the leader and initiator. Jesus pays for His bride with His blood (5:25-27) in a way that implies the breadwinning responsibility of the man.

In a distinctly different way, the wife fulfills her covenant duty in this great parable of the gospel by obeying her husband. By responding to the husband’s mission and following his guidance, the wife thereby pictures the church’s submission to the Lordship of Christ. (5:22-23) In this sense, the debate between egalitarianism and complementarianism carries the potential to affect the gospel.

Are there homosexual complementarians? That’s an impossibility. Their whole position is built on the idea that we should all be free to live in mutual equality regardless of physiological, neurological, or spiritual differences. Several times during the debate, Sullivan played the “That’s-not-fair” card to explain why he should be allowed to follow his desires. What could be more unfair than having the role of one partner in the marriage characterized as constant submission? That’s about as fair as grace.

When Paul teaches that the gospel is embedded in our collective conscience through the mystery of marriage, he assumes a distinction between the roles of male and female. But what if, for sake of argument, two men could work out between themselves who is going to submit and who is going to lead, would that solve the problem? Could these two men enter a covenant that could do what Paul says marriage is designed to do?

No, for two reasons.

First, the grammar of Eph. 5 is specifically masculine and feminine. The gender-specific words for wife and husband are used throughout the passage, and indeed throughout the whole Bible. The Song of Songs employs terms for male and female. (Not to mention that a contrasting pair is required as part of the poetic beauty.) Genesis 1 shows that God created two kinds of human, and gave them to each other. Jesus quotes Moses and affirms the same thing. (Matt. 19:4-5) Scripture repeatedly uses precise terms to affirm heterosexual relationships, not homosexual.

Two homosexuals do not picture the gospel secondly because Paul’s words in Eph. 5 are freighted with centuries of meaning dating back to Genesis 2. The purpose of femininity is clearly defined when God creates Eve. Her unique complementary role starts from her first appearance on the scene. If that role can effectively be handled by a man, then women really are devalued. The great earthly end for which God created 50% of the human race—so argues the homosexual position—is really a piece of cake. Anybody can do it. Even a man. May all feminists join me in righteous anger at yet another degrading attack on women.

Only marriage between one man and one woman pictures the union of Christ and His people whereby He purchases, loves, and leads them, and whereby they joyfully obey Him. This is the central message of the gospel. This statement leans on many other support beams such as the deity of Christ and the inerrancy of Scripture, but at the core of Christianity is submission to the Lordship of Jesus. Traditional marriage alone pictures these glorious realities leading us to the conclusion that if Christianity is right, then homosexual unions must be wrong.

Or, to cast the argument into a stylistically comfortable syllogism:

  1. If marriage is not between one man and one woman, then the central message of Christianity is denied, ignored, or altered.
  2. Homosexual marriage is not that kind of marriage.
  3. Therefore, homosexual marriage is wrong because Christianity is right.


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What is Culture?

Tim Keller’s praise for D. A. Carson’s new book on culture demonstrates the importance of the term in question:

“There is no more crucial issue facing us today than the relationship of the church and the gospel to contemporary culture.”

Defining culture is like defining love. It’s an abstract term that can potentially cover so many aspects of life that it nearly loses its meaning by referring to everything. Carson confirms that on page one with a “fairly plastic” definition that could be paraphrased as the likes and dislikes of any group.

Many conservative evangelicals agree with Carson’s plasticity. A few weeks back I had the privilege of eating lunch with a president of a conservative evangelical seminary, and he agreed that culture should be defined by default as a neutral term for an ethnic group’s basic actions.

But then another group of observers would prefer to define culture something like, an ethnic group’s highest ideals; a collective expression of transcendent beauty. These glasses would be worn by writers such as Roger Kimball, Roger Scruton, and Kevin Bauder. Recently, David de Bruyn has written a helpful book for pastors arguing implicitly for this definition of culture.

The difference between the two definitions is that one categorizes and the other cuts. One is sterile and the other is loaded. The first is like a neutral zone in the culture wars, “No weapons here.” The second takes a definite stand by claiming that a group’s basic actions and beliefs are either moving us nearer to orthopathy, inhibiting us from reaching orthopathy, or even prohibiting any concourse with the category of orthopathy.

If culture is whatever a group likes then it is not necessarily always positive or negative. Cultural expressions could in theory be neutral. The post-modern mood then steps in swaying us to think that any given aesthetic choice is actually positive simply because it is not immediately clear that it is negative. Based on and at the same time supporting this conclusion, evangelicals may now cling to a kind of Sola Scriptura that practically has little authority over cultural forms.

The first definition has the inherent problem of allowing for a denuded principle of the authority of Scripture whereby cultural forms such as music, art, and architecture are given nearly free passes. I say “free” because, from this perspective, any artistic expression can at least be a statement about man’s depravity and thus become a worthy cultural demonstration.

But the second definition raises problems too since it leaves us with no word to describe the daily practices of any given group. Does the song “Happy Birthday” really communicate transcendent beauty? We need terms to talk about the day-to-day activities of life, and “culture” seems like a pretty good word. Ken Myers used high, low, and folk culture as three categories in his excellent book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Those categories allow us to still keep the edge on the blade of “culture” so that it may cut into musical style, etc. What may not be allowed is a definition of culture that removes an objective basis for critiquing cultural forms.

If culture is a positive term—an expression of transcendent beauty—then it is also rooted in the character of God which means our artistic demonstrations (as expressions of our highest ideals) should be evaluated in terms of the relationship to the divine attributes.

So, I agree with Keller that the relationship of the church to culture is one of vital importance. Vital because our culture is the most visible illustration of our conception of God.

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Pentecost Was the Nicest Non-Essential the Church Ever Received

From the perspective of Covenant Theology (CT), the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit including all the unique ministries He executes on behalf of new covenant believers was a very nice, yet non-essential addition to an already-functioning old covenant church. That line is not intended to be incendiary, yet it must follow from two theological premises that CT holds dear.

As a disclaimer, theological language must be chosen here with care and I welcome others to sharpen my chosen words in this discussion. Yet even amidst the mine field of tricky terms like people of God, church, change, new [covenant], fulfill, complete, replace, etc. there still lies certain differences and similarities between the realities displayed in the first 39 books and those of the latter 27. But if we emphasize difference, or discontinuity, then we are within the purview of one general system; if we opt for continuity as a guiding motif, then we have landed on the other side of the continental divide ultimately to be shed into distinct theological oceans.

Previously, I introduced this issue as one of CT’s inconsistencies, and in the future, a few more installments will follow (DV) treating other concerns in this category. But immediately, the significance of Pentecost carries serious ramifications for the question of unity of the covenants. The line of thought in this article will deal with the nature of the church in the OT, the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and a conclusion that logical consistency requires of these two premises.

Premise 1: The church began in the Old Testament.

According to CT the church must have existed in the OT because of the overall unity of God’s plan expressed as a single people throughout redemptive history. So then, Abraham was most certainly a Christian since the gospel was preached to him (Gal. 3:8). But why stop with Father Abraham? What about Noah, Seth, and Adam? They were all in the covenant as well since they found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8). If they were in the covenant, then they were members of God’s people. If they were God’s people, then they were church members albeit under a slightly different “administration of the covenant.”

If the church is an entirely new entity in the NT, then CT has lost its most critical distinctive: the unity of the covenant of grace and the singularity of the people of God throughout redemptive history. However, there are ample references to demonstrate that, in fact, theologians of this persuasion do see the church as an OT body. It would surprise me if anyone denied this premise, but if it was doubted, it would not be hard to supply quotations from numerous theologians with impeccable credentials affirming that historically CT has held to an organically unified church finding its genesis in Genesis.

Premise 2: Pentecost represents a vital change.

I will be surprised if anyone questions the first proposition, but also if they denied the second. After the ascension, Christ sent His Spirit to animate the church and permanently dwell within believers in a unique way. The uniqueness of this ministry was owing to the Spirit’s universal coming to all believers, His permanent residency with each of Christ’s sheep, His special gifts of virtue and miracles, and the overwhelming nature of His presence resulting in unprecedented church growth. Furthermore, He testifies to the risen Christ (John 16:13-14) in a way that He previously had not done. The content of His ministry and its goals were thus distinct from a more general God-centered ministry under the OT.

In each of these five areas, the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost in an essentially different role from that which He had ever occupied in the history of redemption to that point. In other words, the narrative of Acts 2 reveals an essential change in the manner with which God was dealing with those who were in covenant with Him.

To change something essentially is to change it in its foundational attribute. That which is the essence of an idea is the idea in its most basic form. Yet, it is precisely the most basic, foundational, vital attribute of God’s new covenant people that they are all permanently indwelt by His Spirit and specially taught by Him to love the second person of the Godhead. Is this not what it means to enjoy union with Christ? Union with Christ may be helpfully described in other ways, but those descriptions must amount to the same meaning as that which has been presented above.

Whatever the Holy Spirit was doing in the OT, it had to be different from the NT because that is the point of Pentecost: a new era of the Spirit’s ministry began.

Conclusion: Those two premises cannot both be consistently maintained.

If the church began in the OT, then Pentecost had to be something other than essential to its makeup. If it could exist and even thrive (at times) for millennia without the graces ministered so efficiently by the Holy Spirit, then Pentecost was something other than vital. Or, to come in the back door, if the Holy Spirit’s special coming was absolutely critical for the people of God and their union with Christ, then average believers under the old “administration” (we daren’t say dispensation) were lacking something critical for their religion.

Apparently, Pentecost was not the drive train, transmission, engine, or even fuel pump of the vehicle, but something like the air conditioner, a nice, added benefit that really increases the value while not substantially differing from other automobiles in the industry.

If this argument is air-tight, then the classic Covenantal position does not honor the Holy Spirit’s present ministry among the people of God, or if they do, they do so in the face of a necessary contradiction, borrowing capital from another theological system in order to support a high regard for Pentecost and its ongoing effects. CT in debt to dispensationalism? Now, that’s an amusing piece of irony.

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Between Two Cultures

By providing a platform for all people including those who have not proven their ability to string two logical thoughts together, blogs carry the potential to increase the cacophony of voices vying for our attention in the information age.

But in that age, how grateful we are when a worthy voice is amplified. A voice is worthy if it can collocate facts into insightful categories, if it can see connections that others had missed, if it can choose and really latch onto critical areas of thought, if it can penetrate to the joints and marrow of a discussion. When it comes to missions, theology, and books I am pleased that my teammate, Paul Schlehlein has begun to publish some of this thoughts on a great new blog.

Review and follow this worthy voice at http://betweentwocultures.com/. And if nothing else, it has a great photo as a banner.

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Salary Caps for Missionaries

In the village in which I live, a Tsonga earning $300 (R3,000) per month would be taking home an enviable paycheck. When I originally set out to raise the funds for my departure, passage, and family back in 2004 I was pointed by some missionaries and mission board directors to raise $4,000-5,000 per month. No one counseled me to see how I could save money from what appeared to be the industry standard. Though we still sing “For Christ count everything but loss…,” over the last ten years the numbers seem to be marching on so that it is not uncommon to hear that missionaries need to raise $1,000 more per month than in 2004.

A few years ago, a friend in ministry emailed me about the financial scenario a single-woman missionary found herself in. She was heading to a central African country, but was told by her mission board to raise over $5,000 per month. This pastor wanted an opinion as to whether that salary was really necessary. Tonight, a pastor told me about a missionary raising $9,000 for service in Africa.

Studies vary depending on which sets of data are being examined, but in general, lists of the poorest countries in the world are dominated by African nations. With that as an introduction, the question deserves attention: What is a God-honoring, economically viable, appropriately commensurate salary for an African missionary? Or more crudely, but probably more memorable: Should missionaries have salary caps?

Foiled by Japan

When I have questioned the need for missionaries to receive so much monthly support, I have heard on more than one occasion about the rising costs of living in Japan. Other modern countries could be inserted there as well, but Japan’s a good one since last year the average salary was around $40,000 per year. If a missionary wants to go there, how could he live and minister with a paltry $2,500 per month? A friend of mine who plants churches in Cambodia surveyed over 2,500 cross-cultural church planters in 2007 and discovered a number of interesting facts not the least of which is that less than 2% of those missionaries were serving in Japan. (The survey is not online, but I can send it to you if you’d like it: sethmeyers@odbm.org.)

I would suggest therefore, that the question of missionary salaries is still valid for the great number of missionaries going to the developing countries of the world as well as—though possibly with a little less pinch—those going to the richer nations. Holland’s standard of living (for example) does not alleviate the responsibility that a missionary going to Zambia should feel.

Distinction between salary and ministry funds

The next most ready response has to do with the expenses that missionaries incur which other professions do not. It will be argued that missionaries have to save for furlough, renting church facilities, printing, paying salaries of nationals, and other unique ministry expenses. These funds, the reasoning goes, are needed not only for salaries, but for the tools of the trade.

This objection encapsulates several different philosophical questions that deserve their own turn at the microphone. First, what makes a purchase a legitimate ministry expense? If the use of money could discourage personal responsibility, that potential line item in a budget takes on a decidedly moral flavor that should not be overlooked. In the context of the developing world, Western missionaries need to think very carefully about money’s power amidst those who so rarely wield it.

Second, if an expense is determined to be legitimate, are there ways to reduce those costs so as to cut the overall budget? Mission board fees, mailing hard copies of prayer letters, mandatory group healthcare policies, and travel costs that multiply due to year-long furloughs all could be examined by an efficiency expert to run a tighter ship.

Salaries as a means of staying missionary attrition

However, I suspect one of the reasons for missionary salaries being set as they are has to do with the fear mission boards have of losing their investment. It is rare to have this voiced explicitly, though I have participated in conversations where the door has been cracked open for this potential reason. More study needs to be done here to ascertain more clearly the rate of attrition during deputation, the first term of service, and the fifth year onward, but it didn’t take me long to think of four families who left their field of service before four years was over.

If a family is struggling financially while also adapting to a new culture, language, and form of ministry, the combined strain may be too great. Mission boards then set their expectations at a certain level so that at least that one category of concern, their standard of living, won’t cause them to come home early and thus lose the investment of years without anything to show for it.

Several years ago, Mission Frontiers posted excerpts from the book Too Valuable To Lose by William Taylor discussing the issue of missionary attrition. Though I haven’t read the book, the copyright is from 1997, so he is definitely writing in the modern era of missions when boards typically influence their missionaries’ levels of support. The recommended salaries may ultimately reflect boardroom discussions about how to get more return on their investment. But if that is so, is that a Biblical or even pragmatically effective way to increase missionary effectiveness?

A gospel-centered approach to missionary finances

Complex questions can rarely be answered wisely without nuanced responses self-consciously settled on the most rock solid presuppositions. Of course for the missionary, the gospel is one of his most basic beliefs and should inform every corner of his missiological philosophy.

So From the swirling discussion of each of these categories with all their complex minor premises, does a gospel-centered perspective have anything to offer this question? I think so. Missionaries, mission boards, and pastors need to acknowledge that a missionary’s money can have a direct impact on the way in which his audience receives the message. The gospel is at stake to the degree that our use of money has the ability to manipulate certain non-verbal assumptions within our hearers.

What I am arguing for, is for everyone involved to actively discuss, before choosing a salary for any missionary in a particular context, what kinds of effects may be produced in his target audience by the use of money. Let’s be willing to forego any use of money—any category in a budget—that may distract the hearers (or the preachers) from the gospel regardless of whether or not it is an assumed part of a contemporary American standard of living.

Practically what does that look like in the context of the developing world?

  1. Don’t buy the product just because you can. If a missionary sells his US house and with the money is able to buy a mansion overseas, he should think through the grid of the gospel rather than saying, “I can. Therefore, I should.” Many times we automatically do this like birds naturally take to the air, but we need to accustom ourselves to the pain of introspection.
  2. Scale your living to a median within the spectrum of those you are trying to reach. Make home improvements gradually like an average man in your village might have to if he had a job and saved carefully.
  3. Strive to save money on the invisible portion of your support. Consider if your local church could do the same things or near enough to the same things that your sending agency is doing for a significantly cheaper price. Use email rather than printing letters. Look at some diverse options for overseas healthcare.

Numerous other issues are vying for attention either directly or indirectly related to this topic, but if we will at least recognize that missionary salaries are sometimes dramatically higher than the salaries of the nationals, and if we will admit that the gospel is potentially affected by our use of money, then the already huge linguistic, cultural, and spiritual giants facing the missionary may not be joined by the massive juggernaut of the economic giant as well.

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