Missions is the Work of the Church

This article contains a portion of an address by missionary Bruce Hunt at the opening exercises of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, 1957.  This is the second of three propositions contained in that address.  The first,  The Work of the Church is Missions, and the Third: The Work of Missions is the Church

2. Missions is the work of the church

The second proposition which I wish to present for your consideration is that missions is the work of the church—the church as a whole and of the several members as part of the whole. Missions is not an individual or private matter.

Several passages of Scripture will show this. When the number of the apostles had been reduced to eleven by Judas’s betrayal and suicide, Peter called the attention of the brethren to the need and scriptural grounds for filling his office, and it was the brethren who put forth and cast lots for one who from among them should be a witness with the apostles of the Lord’s resurrection.

When the individual Christians, comprising the persecuted church, were scattered following Stephen’s martyrdom, one individual, Philip, was signally successful in his ministry among the people of Samaria. But his work was not considered or left as an individual matter, for the Word declares, “When the apostles that were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John, who, when they were come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-15).

When certain men from Judea caused questioning and dissension among the younger churches, the brethren appointed Paul and Barnabas to bring the matter before the apostles in Jerusalem. The Word tells us that this delegation from the younger churches was “brought on their way by the church” (Acts 15:3), “and when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church” (Acts 15:4).

Again in Acts 13:1-3 we read, “Now there were at Antioch in the church prophets and teachers…. And as they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Separate for me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”

In these several cases, we see that it was the church which (a) chose and put forth the witnesses, (b) heard reports on new work, kept in contact with it, and strengthened it, (c) separated, in accordance with the command of the Spirit, two of their number for a special work, and (d) sent them forth.

On the mission field, the proposition that missions is the work of the church is not one of mere academic interest, neither should it be for you who are considering missionary work at home or abroad. And it should be more than an academic question to every minister who has the responsibility of advising and directing individuals as to their missionary activities or who, before the congregation, in church courts, and on church committees, has the responsibility of forming and directing missionary policy.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, at its very first Assembly in 1936, accented the proposition that missions is the work of the church when it appointed a Committee on Foreign Missions. At that time, the churches and individuals which formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had already been doing missionary work through the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and some contended that, as the Board was doing a good work, there was no reason to multiply organizations with the formation of a foreign missions committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Others held, however, that while an independent board may—under certain circumstances—have a legitimate right to exist, as far as the church is concerned, it has its own responsibility in regard to missions. The church itself has a responsibility in missions which it dare not shirk by saying that an independent board or some private group is doing it, so we need take no action.

There are many individuals and nondenominational or interdenominational organizations today which are enthusiastically pushing foreign missions. Young people among their ranks are taught to believe that they are doing a fine thing when they can say, “We are unaffiliated, we have no regular backing, we are going out in faith with no regular support, we are nondenominational or interdenominational.” We have seen them come into Korea and Japan and Formosa (Taiwan) in recent years in great numbers. I have heard it stated that over one thousand evangelical missionaries have gone into Japan alone in the last ten years. Their ranks are full of some of the choicest and most enthusiastic of our young American Christians. Many of them are those who, during their years of overseas duty in the armed forces of the nation, saw the great need of the fields white unto harvest, and who, like Paul on the road to Damascus, personally heard and sought to answer the Lord’s call. But they have not been sent by the church! Not only have they had to rustle up their own support, but because they had no church sending them—as Paul was subsequently sent by the Antioch church, and Philip’s work was integrated into the work of the whole church by the apostles at Jerusalem—they have been compelled rather to fend for themselves, each missionary or missionary society of that nature doing that which is right in its own eyes.

Take, for example, one interdenominational society with the missionaries of which we have had especially happy relations. They have entered a new field within the last five years and already have close to thirty missionaries on that field. In their ranks are people who were or are still connected with churches of the “mainline” Presbyterian, Baptist, and Plymouth Brethren persuasions. They are, of course, drawn together in the common purpose of making Christ known to the people of the land to which they have gone. They are doing many types of work: radio evangelism, orphanage work, tent evangelism, and literary work. But because they were not sent by a church or denomination, they were reluctant to tie up with any existing church on the field lest their supporters in many denominations—including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—might think they were becoming a certain specific kind of denomination. One can quite understand their dilemma, but it is just this kind of dilemma that I personally feel it is our duty to avoid if possible. Such a policy poses many difficulties—to me greater than the ones they seek to avoid—through nondenominationalism or interdenominationalism.

For instance, recently the question of how to baptize converts came up among them. The missionaries on the field decided that they would leave the mode of baptism up to the preference of the individual convert. If a convert preferred sprinkling, the Presbyterian missionaries in their ranks could do it. If they preferred immersion, the Baptists could do it. However confusing this might be to their work as a mission, it at least had the virtue of being consistent in its interdenominationalism or nondenominationalism. But the home board, in the interest of uniformity, ordered that the missionaries should practice only immersion.

Again, the problem arose as to what they were to do with those who were led to the Lord through such mutually independent projects as radio programs, literary work, and tent evangelism. Because, as I see it, they had not squarely faced the church question, and were trying to be nondenominational in their activity, they were led to leave this largely up to the new converts. Of the first three groups started through their tent evangelism, one group chose to go with the Methodists and be shepherded and fed by them in the future. Another group went to what we call the middle-of-the-road Presbyterians. This was a disappointment to those in that mission who had started the work, and they were happy that one group stayed with them. But what of this one group? Is it now a new denomination? Is it Presbyterian, Baptist, or Plymouth Brethren? Or can it really become that which is a contradiction in terms, a nondenominational denomination?

Years ago we saw a group start in Korea on such a nondenominational basis. They were organized in the States as a nondenominational organization for the sole purpose of conducting missions. They solicited support from all denominations, including in recent years even Orthodox Presbyterian church members. Its work has grown to be one of the larger works in Korea. Its converts have become a definite denomination in Korea of the Holiness Methodist type. And it is one of the most active in the Ecumenical Movement.

This policy particularly creates a problem in the matter of Christian fellowship. When an individual’s or a group’s stand is known, it is possible to know how far to enter into fellowship or relationship with them. But when their theological, doctrinal, or ecclesiastical stand is so vaguely defined and so purposefully nondenominational, one wonders how far he should recommend them or extend the hand of fellowship, lest it turn out in the end that he has recommended or entered into a fellowship that he is later caused to regret.

As I said before, this is not merely an academic question. It is a very real one. I mention these practices of other missions not in any spirit of censoriousness. It is with some of the members of these kinds of missions that we have our closest fellowship. Yet it is the fact that they are not sent by a church, but by individuals or individual churches, which creates the greatest problems of fellowship for us. And, as I have talked with them, I find it is this which creates some of the greatest problems among themselves in launching a new work. Theological students should be aware of these problems.

Yes, missions is the work of the church, not of unassociated individuals. The Lord spent forty days after his resurrection making sure that the church had one message, the fact of the resurrection and the kingdom. He commanded them to wait until they had been baptized and were endued with the Holy Spirit. In those days of waiting, the disciples were brought to be of one accord and to a steadfastness in prayer. During those days, the vacancy in the organization, left by the death of Judas, was filled. It was the church that launched out on the task of evangelizing the world. And, as I have already tried to demonstrate from God’s Word, it was as the church that they carried on this task. It is God’s intent that the manifold wisdom of God should be made known through the church (Eph. 3:10).


The son of missionary parents, the Rev. Bruce F. Hunt spent his life chiefly in foreign missions (especially in Korea) beginning in 1928. He was a founding member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936, and retired from active missionary service in 1976, after more than forty years on the mission field. At the onset of World War II he was for a time imprisoned in Manchuria for his open opposition to the government’s attempt to force emperor worship on the Korean-speaking Christians among whom he labored. See his gripping autobiographical volume For a Testimony, available from the Committee for the Historian. This article appeared in New Horizons in three parts beginning March 2002.

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