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Defining what it means to be a missionary

Posted by on Jul 29, 2011 in blog links, missional | 18 comments

Defining what it means to be a missionary

Two bloggers are examining the term “missionary” and trying to put it into its scriptural context. This is difficult to do, since the term is not really a scriptural term. But, their both doing a good job getting people to think about the term “missionary.”

Wes at “a mission-driven life” wrote a post called “Missionary Calling 1.01” which is a follow-up of his previous post “What is God’s calling?

While Wes’ discussion begins with a consideration of the modern concept of “calling” (which follows from his previous post), he turns to another important topic:

The only thing that I want to add to the whole discussion on missionary calling is that I think we need to move beyond the sole focus on individuals, qua individuals, as the primary agents of mission/s. I believe scripture gives us an ecclesial emphasis in mission. Jesus sends the church. As members of a unified and maturing body, individuals gifted and set apart for service are sent in plural teams, as agents of the church. You see this repeatedly throughout the NT.

Also, Miguel at “Pathways International” wrote a post called “God-Directed Deviations in Missions: Defining Terms Part 2 ‘Missionary’.” As you can probably tell from the title, Miguel’s post is also a follow-up to a previous post.

He writes:

For the most part, I believe that there has been given entirely too much weight to the idea of a missionary being an evangelist. As I said yesterday, there is only one version of bible that even uses the word “missionary” and that version has replaced the word evangelist with missionary on two occasions. Christendom, however has developed an entire doctrine about the word and has attached all sorts of connotations, expectations, and qualifications.

If a “Missionary,” is one sent on a “Mission,” (Our next term in this series), what prohibits the other Ephesians 4 characteristics/giftings from being given equal weight. What of those with the characteristics of an apostle, teacher, pastor, or even prophet.

Do you think it’s important to examine terms like “missionary,” to determine how they’re being used, and to try to put them into a scriptural context?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-29-2011

    I think missionary as a title is a misuse and tends to foster the idea that mission work is something reserved for a subclass of the church. I like the idea of an ecclesial identity, we as God’s people are on mission and as such missionary is applicable to all of us. Some people, like Guy Muse, may operate differently than I do but all of us are (or at least should be) are engaged in some way in the community witness of mission.

  2. 7-29-2011

    Thanks for referencing my blog Alan and I will try to develop it as exhaustively as I can. I. like Arthur fear that if we do not reexamine the term Missionary, that we will further divide the body of Christ into two segments. The Missionaries and Non-Missionaries. This will simply not further the cause of Christ.

  3. 7-29-2011


    If we honestly define the whole idea of mission, according to Scripture, we will find that every follower of Christ is expected to fulfill the role we have relegated to “missionaries”.

    This is another area in which traditions have failed the family of God by division into so-called “offices”.

  4. 7-29-2011


    Thanks for the link. I appreciate Miguel’s post as well!

    I still think its okay to create a theological category of a missionary, as long as we are honest its a theological category, not a necessarily scriptural category. And I’m okay with a little pragmatism as well. That being said, scripture should be our primary source for theopraxis.

    I have a million thoughts running through my head, but I just finished reading through a published dissertation by Colleen Mallon, OP, where she investigates the works of Yves Congar in relation to interpretive anthropology. Congar held to a deeply trinitarian ecclesiology and it drove his views of discipleship and mission. The individual, in the modern sense, faded into a spiritual, eschatological view of community. The Spirit binds us into a visible unity in Christ which serves as a sign, a symbol of God’s victory of sin in all creation. This idea is very popular now. I’m still processing what he has to say, but I think, in general, a trinitarian (derived from Scripture of course) view of reality moves us beyond modern (even postmodern) radical individualism.

    I’m writing too much as a comment, I’m sorry for taking so much space. But what do you guys think?


  5. 7-29-2011

    Personally I’ve always understood “missionary” as coming from the Latin. It’s Greek (and Biblical) equivalent is “Apostle.” Makes me wonder, though, why the church more often uses the word “missionary” when the Bible uses the word “apostle.” I don’t pretend to have an answer, but am just wondering. Blessings all.

  6. 7-29-2011


    I agree 100%. I like the Anabaptist idea that we are all ministers and we are all missionaries.


    As one who is considered a missionary, I would love to hear your further thoughts on how we can all be (or we all are) missionaries. So, I’ll definitely follow your posts.

    Aussie John,

    That seems to be the consensus view here. That’s exciting. I hope it become the consensus in our way of life as well.


    Thanks for the post! Moving beyond individualism is going to be important for the church… but also very difficult. What steps do you think we can take to help people move in that direction?


    Yes, “missionary” comes from the Latin term “missio” which refers to being sent. This is similar to the Greek term from which we get the word “apostle.” Today, even though the terms have similar etymologies, “missionary” and “apostle” refer to different things. I think these discussions (like in these blog posts) help us uncover the discrepancies that you’re talking about.


  7. 7-30-2011


    I think you outline so many of the steps in your posts on this blog and how you live it out in community. I appreciate your example. Its the church living in gospel fellowship as gospel fellowship.

    Theologically, its the church being sent, as the Father sent the Son, and as the Father (and Son) sent the Spirit. We (as a we) make disciples of all nations in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit unites us in a temple of God and in a body of Christ. And by the Spirit, we live as under a reigning Lord. Our lives reflect the truth that the Kingdom has come, while its fullness awaits. Our lives, as ambassadors of reconciliation and witnesses in word and deed of the resurrection, point to that fullness.

    Quick excursus: How much does the loss of the plural you in english translations of the inhibit us here? I think emphasizing the one another’s is a helpful aspect, but we often read scripture as if its written directly to us as individuals (only). I don’t want to take that too far, but the scripture as written to the church (in its plurality), in how its read by individuals and how it is read publicly. Sometimes thinking about that helps me personally to see beyond myself.

    Some of the most precious times of worship in my life have been during times of singing where people from differing ethnicities were present. It wasn’t just that there were there, the Spirit was moving in ways I can’t describe, but seriously, I’ve balled my eyes out for half an hour in worship just thinking of how the diversity of that gathering was just a small picture, a symbol if you will, of worship in heaven. I was convicted of my pride and self exaltation and I praised God for the opportunity just to be a participant.

    Also, having people in my home, praying for my neighbors’ salvation and seeking their general good, confessing my sins to dear brothers, are just a few small ways God has helped me to see beyond myself, that life aint all about me and my feelings and my religion. Life is about Jesus, in whom we have been crucified, died, buried, raised, exalted, glorified and hidden to one day be revealed.

    But I think a church, as a community of people gathered for communal worship and mutual encouragement, has to embrace a structure that is biblical, reflecting its radical position as a sign of the kingdom, including elders who share this same mindset, who recognize the only senior pastor in the Scriptures is Jesus and thus who are open to learning from their flock even as they guide them by modeling kingdom living and teaching kingdom truths. It would be difficult to pursue this with a bottleneck at leadership, not impossible, but a brother or sister would have to patiently and prayerfully model and encourage this lifestyle, almost in a subversive way, but humbly.

    But as a family, within a church that I believe is well on its way to this point, much further than we are, I think we nurture and model this through openness and transparency, as well as through service, in using our gifts as well as being there for people, lending them a hand, both for believers and for unbelievers.

    Are we the best examples, no, but I believe by God’s grace we are progressing.

    I would love to have practical tips from you or others.


  8. 7-30-2011

    This is an interesting topic and I resonate with the views presented.

    The one true picture we get of a “missionary” in the Bible is Paul – and he was an apostle. I think its a misnomer today to call everybody who is sent by a church to perform full-time ministry in some other place a missionary. Let’s rather call them full-time cross-cultural Christian workers, if indeed they are crossing cultures, and reserve the term “missionary” for those who sepcifically have the gift of apostleship and who go to establish or expand the church. Also, going back to the Acts 13 model, the church should be recognizing these people and sending them. I think the modern practice is for this who sense some kind of “calling” to put themselves forward and the church then “rubber stamps” their decision by “commissioning” them.

  9. 7-30-2011


    Would appreciate connecting with you. Are you on any of the social networks?

  10. 7-30-2011


    You should publish that comment as a post… it’s very good.

    Yes, even the “one anothers” take on an individualistic aspect today. “One another” is not about me doing something for others, but about all of us helping one another together.


    I would suggest that even Paul was not a “missionary” in the way the term is used today. “Missionary” is a term that doesn’t really have any scriptural parallel.


    I see you and Wes both accepted my “suggestion”. 🙂


  11. 7-31-2011


    If “missionary” is taken from the Latin which means “sent” then Paul was certainly a missionary – I agree, not in the sense that the word is used today, but certainly the clearest picture we have in the Bible of “one sent” to do the work of an apostle.

  12. 7-31-2011


    Yes, and I think that’s what the bloggers are trying to do: get back to the scriptural understanding. In that sense of “apostle” (one who is sent), there are those who are specifically sent away from there homes to travel around in order to proclaim the gospel and strengthen churches. Some are specifically gifted by the Spirit for this kind of service. However, I still think it is correct to say that we are all “sent” by God, even if we are not gifted to travel around from place to place… much like we are all called to give and to encourage, even if we are not specifically gifted as givers and encouragers.


  13. 7-31-2011


    Yes, we’re all “sent” by God, but we’re not all “missionaries”. Paul was a “missionary”, “sent” by the church to go and plant new churches. I think the term “missionary” today is used too widely and its a label stuck on people too easily – everyone is a “missionary”. I am calling for a more limited use of the word. I am a “missionary” in Thailand. The reality as I perceive it, is that many of my “missionary” colleagues are not church planters, don’t have the gift of apostleship and were commissioned by their “sending churches”, but not really sent in the way that Paul and Barnabas were sent (myself included). As I said in my earlier comment, we should rather call people involved in that kind of ministry, “full-time cross cultural workers”.


  14. 8-1-2011


    I agree with your comment. We are all “sent” by God, thus we are all “sent ones” … “apostles” or “missionaries” in a sense. But, we are all “sent” in different ways.


  15. 8-1-2011

    Alan and Nick,

    I touched on that in today’s post:

  16. 8-1-2011


    Thanks for the link. I enjoyed your post.

    As I see it, saying that everyone is a “missionary” (or “apostle”) while only some are spiritually gifted as “apostles” is similar to saying that all are supposed to teach even though only some are spiritually gifted as teachers.


  17. 5-16-2012

    I think all believers are called to be missionaries in different ways, and there is an organization that makes it possible to reach out as a missionary in your own community. Check out Hungry International Network at


  18. 5-17-2012


    Thanks for the comment. I agree that we are all “sent” by God into the world. There are many ways that God uses us to impact the world for his kingdom’s sake. Thanks for offering one possible method.



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