WMLTblog — Who Is A Missionary?

Found on Witness, Mercy, Life Together blog:


Pastor Naether and Family 1894, LCMS Missionary to India

NOTE: Because different church bodies have different definitions of what a missionary is, the LCMS frequently receives questions from partner and sister churches regarding who the LCMS considers to be a missionary. The article below is an attempt to help answer that question for partner and sister churches, but also may serve to be helpful for others as well.

Who is a missionary? It seems at first glance to be a simple question to answer. Yet upon more thought, the answer becomes more difficult. One of the dictionary definitions of a missionary is “a person who undertakes a mission”—not the most helpful of definitions. While there are some secular usages of the term, the word “missionary” is most frequently associated with the work of Christians in spreading the Gospel of Jesus. In a sense, every Christian is a missionary in their vocation, but there is a more specialized usage that the church generally recognizes. The word “missionary” first appeared in English around the 17th century. It comes from the Latin missio which means “to send.” Missio is a translation of the Greek apostéll?, from which we get the word “apostle.” The Apostles were sent out by Jesus. One of the keys to understanding both the Biblical and churchly use of “missionary” is that it is a person under orders and sent out by the Lord through the church.

In The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the 2010 Handbook refers to missionaries as “ordained” or “commissioned.” (2010 Handbook, Bylaw 4.4.3b, pg. 193.) This would seem to imply that “missionaries” of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are either pastors or teachers. Indeed, since the beginning of the Synod’s foreign mission work at the very end of the 19th century, both pastors and teachers were the primary workers sent into the mission field. This is appropriate as the Witness (Martyria) task of the church in a public way is carried out by pastors through preaching and teaching, and in other pastoral care settings. Teachers who provide religious instruction and an example of the Christian life to their students also carry it out. The establishment of Lutheran schools on the mission field has assisted and supported the church’s task of Witness (Martyria). However, even in the early days of the Synod’s foreign mission work, the people “sent” were not limited to pastors and teachers, but included other professionals who provided assistance and support to the work done by the pastors and teachers.

For instance, in the Synod’s mission work to India (1890s) and Nigeria (1930s) the pastors and teachers who were sent quickly saw the need to show Mercy (Diakonia) to the people they were serving. Within a year of arrival, the pastors in Nigeria requested the services of a physician and a nurse to provide care for the body. In India, the missionaries established hospitals that are still in use today! Just as the Lord Jesus cared for the body by feeding and healing, so, too, does His Church. Yet these physicians and nurses sent to the mission field were not necessarily ordained or commissioned. Nonetheless, the church considered them missionaries because they were sent with the authorization of the church to support the Witness (Martyria) of the church by providing Mercy (Diakonia). The care of the body also provided the physicians and nurses the opportunity to share the faith with others as they carried out their primary task of Mercy (Diakonia).

With the development of modern jet aircraft in the 1960s and a greater discretionary income, it became easier for people to travel to once distant lands. This development afforded the possibility of incorporating other people onto the mission field who could further support the work of gospel proclamation. To alleviate the missionaries (now pastors, teachers, doctors and nurses) of the burden of financial matters and administration, business managers were sent onto the field to support the work of the church’s Witness (Martyria) and Mercy (Diakonia). Eventually, other needs and opportunities presented themselves, such as the desire for instruction in the English language. While not always a direct witness to the Gospel, teaching English as a Foreign Language with Christian materials permitted the opportunity to enter otherwise closed countries. In some cases, this allowed for the later formation of a church in a closed country. It also provided the opportunity for nearly any English-speaking Lutheran to serve overseas. Once again, the teaching of English is in service to the church’s Witness (Martyria), and not a replacement. Again, a mark of distinction for these other workers is that they were sent by the church.

So back to the question, “Who is a missionary?” The key is that missionaries are sent by the Lord through the mediation of His Church. While the names and position titles have changed over the years, this is how the church has always done mission, even back to the time of the Apostles when Saint Paul first brought along Luke as a physician. A missionary for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is a person called, that is, ordained or commissioned, or appointed (medical personnel, business, administrative, or other worker) by the appropriate sending agency (the Board for International Mission) who is sent to bear Witness (Martyria) to the Gospel of Jesus, to show Mercy (Diakonia), or to support those who do as we have a Life Together (koinonia).

– Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver, Director of Church Relations

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.


WMLTblog — Who Is A Missionary? — 12 Comments

  1. Question:
    What is an LCMSer called who has been sent by God’s direction to work with those in fellowship with LCMS, but who have not been sent by the Board of Missions? (Those folks aren’t teaching or preaching, but doing humanitarian and support work.)

    (The folks I know who have done so by God’s direction don’t really care what name they are given. . .but I’m just curious.)

  2. Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver, Director of Church Relations:

    So back to the question, “Who is a missionary?” The key is that missionaries are sent by the Lord through the mediation of His Church… A missionary for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is a person called, that is, ordained or commissioned, or appointed (medical personnel, business, administrative, or other worker) by the appropriate sending agency (the Board for International Mission)

    Such a claim adds to the confusion that the Synod is a church. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is not a church, but instead a synod of churches who are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is these churches “walking together” through whom the various missionaries are called and ordained, commissioned, or appointed, sometimes through the synodical or district structure, sometimes through an individual church, which by itself has the authority to call, ordain, commission, appoint, and send missionaries.

  3. I have no problem with Collver’s piece except for its title. It should read “Who is a Missionary for LCMS Inc.’s Official Purposes?”

    Every pastor is a missionary. But that doesn’t fit the “called, ordained or commissioned, or appointed …by the appropriate sending agency (the Board for International Mission)” definition.

    Boards may make missionaries for LCMS, Inc.’s official purposes, but in the real world, boards don’t call or ordain. Only congregations do.

    Of course, parish pastors aren’t considered missionaries for LCMS, Inc.’s official purposes. And, that’s fine. It just shows that a church’s corporate structure must think in corporate terms and definitions, not theological terms and definitions.


  4. Here is one example of a missionary who is a member of the LCMS. Rev. James May was Lutheran Heritage Foundation translation project coordinator for Africa until he resigned from LHF in March, 2010, rather than return to the U.S. because of budget cuts. With his family, Rev. May is now a missionary in Africa supported by Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Parma, OH and others. Eagle eyes should spot a familiar face helping Rev. May at around the 2m20s mark in this Lutheran hymn seminar video from the French-speaking Congo.

  5. The caption on the photo accompanying this post reads, “Pastor Naether and Family 1894, LCMS Missionary to India.” Missionary. Singular.

    Using recent methodology for counting, it would use the plural, referring to all four “missionaries” in the shot.

    Using today’s, it would still use the plural, if the wife taught school or nursed or administered…

  6. Don’t bring the name Rev James May. He is not liked by synod. But, I know of no one more qualified in the field and doing the work if which every missionary (ordained pastors) should be doing. Teaching the true faith in lands abroad and trusting in God for results not being caught up in methods and other things.

    God bless James May and his work under God’s name

  7. @Nathan Raddatz #6 : “Don’t bring the name Rev James May. He is not liked by synod.”

    Mr. Raddatz,

    Are you referring to a majority of the 9,000 individual members and 6,000 congregational members of the Missouri Synod not liking Rev. May, or are you speaking about a few executives or administrators in synodical offices?

    And what could Rev. May have said or done that would bring such disliking? Could it have something to do with the restraining order issued by a Kenyan court against ELCK General Secretary John Halakhe communicating a defamatory letter against Rev. May pending a lawsuit filed by Rev. May against Halakhe? Or what about another lawsuit and restraining order against Halakhe, ELCK Archbishop Obare, and the Central ELCK Diocese, especially after Halakhe and Obare failed to appear in court (being, at the time, visiting friends in St. Louis)?

  8. I graduated a year after James. He is a man of integrity and conviction. The theology he confesses, teaches and practices is flawless.

    I should have said the issue lies with just a few synodical officials. Actually, I could pinpoint the issue to one in particular who has also seen fit to make a threat against me for sticking up for James.

    I do not know all the facts, but I do know the way of which the leadership has handled it stinks to high heaven. They are on the losing end right now. They have made this matter far worse then it ever should have been.

    The “bishop” of Kenya also preached at the installation of our synodical president, which means a loyalty exists there as well.

    All said and done, the Rev James May needs to be encouraged in the work he is doing as a missionary (ordained pastor) not persecuted by our leaders on both the district and synod levels.

  9. This post is very helpful for understanding how synod defines its missionaries. I thank Dr. Collver for making this more clear for laymen like myself. The only question I have is: “Does synod require doctrinal training and subscription for all of the missionaries it commissions?”

  10. The situation of Rev. May, a missionary in Kenya, and problems in the ELCK can be seen from the following:

    From Rev. May’s Lutherans in Africa July 2010 Newsletter:

    [In late June, 2010] I returned to Kenya to host a seminar on “Eschatology” lead by Dr. Phil Giessler. Three days before the start we received a letter from a leader of the church saying that we must stop teaching the bible because we were “not authorized” to do so. To be honest I did not know how to respond to this. We are registered as a legal society in Kenya and there is freedom to assemble and freedom of religion in Kenya. The wisdom from my church fathers was to show the participants the letter and let them decide if they wanted to stay. To my surprise they all told me they already knew about the letter. They had met with their bishop before the conference and were told that no such decree was made. They were all sent with the bishop’s blessings and instruction to study and learn the Word of God in truth and purity so that they could better equip the flock.

    It was reported on November 25, 2010, that, pending a lawsuit brought by Rev. May, a Kenyan High Court judge issued a restraining order against ELCK General Secretary John Halakhe from issuing any defamatory communications against Rev. May after a letter written by Rev. Halakhe was circulated earlier.

    The reference in Rev. May’s Newsletter to “their bishop” is Bishop Thomas Asiago, who at the time was the bishop of the South West Diocese, the largest in Kenya, with about 25,000 members. According to a March 30, 2011, news report, in the Kenyan newspaper, The Star, Bishop Asiago was suspended last year by the ELCK’s head office and has challenged that decision in a case to be heard in court.

    According to an August 15, 2011, Star news report, there is another Kenyan court case with Archbishop Walter Obare and John Halakhe among the defendents, related to problems in the Central Diocese. A restraining order was issued against Archbishop Obare, who later snubbed a September 7th court appearance, from installing Bakari Kea as bishop of the ELCK Central Diocese. A November 9, 2011, Star news report notes that a court magistrate has issued orders barring the ELCK’s archbishop from signing cheques or making payments on behalf of the church, at least until a lawsuit brought by the Secretary General of the ELCK Central Diocese against Archbishop Obare, Rev. Halakhe, and others, comes to trial in court.

  11. @LW #9 ,

    On the second page the “Rite of Commissioning for a Volunteer Missionary” for Dr. Giessler’s trip to Africa is printed. The commissioning was conducted at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, a member of the LCMS.

  12. @Nathan Raddatz #8: “I should have said the issue lies with just a few synodical officials.”

    Let’s see if we can narrow that down a little. Excerpted from a May 28, 2008, LQ post is some of a May 13th letter from Rev. James May:

    I was sent to Ouagadougou to learn French. There are no Lutheran churches here. I was directed to take my family and worship at non-Lutheran churches. I was forbidden to plant Lutheran churches in Ouagadougou.

    In my daily life I was often encountered by locals asking who I am and what I am doing in Burkina Faso. I explained that I am a Lutheran pastor and am learning French. Many people wanted to know more. In a country that is 80% Muslim and animistic, I was happy to confess my faith in the savior Jesus Christ. People wanted to know more.

    I was insubordinate and started Bible studies, and the area facilitator said that the regional director would not be happy, and therefore, even though he was informed, he said that he would turn a blind eye. Later while in the language learning process a friend of mine named his first born son after me.

    My regional director had expressly told me that if someone wanted to be baptized I should send them to the Baptist church and NOT baptize them. Again I was insubordinate and preferred to disobey that order rather than break a relationship by insulting him and refusing to baptize his son. The father, Etienne Sam, has used his tailor shop to publicize and distribute Good News magazines.

    A second time a man came from Cote d’Ivoire and was very poor. He couldn’t afford to send his kids to school which costs about $4 per child. His youngest son became very sick with dysentery. During a two week span he ceased eating and we feared for his life. His father was a Catholic but had been attending our Good News classes. I asked him if his son was baptized and he said the Catholic Church demanded $15 per baptism and he didn’t have the money. The Baptist Church was not going to baptize the child. Again I was insubordinate and baptized him so that his parents would have the assurance that even if dysentery won, the devil would not because Jesus would make Victorien His child. Miraculously the day after his baptism he also began eating and the dysentery left.

    Finally, Rev. Dr. Anssi Simojoki, the Vice President of LHF and director for the Africa region, was making a trip through West Africa and contacted me. His son is the godfather of two of our children. I offered our house for him to stay in. I received an email from Rev. Dr. Paul Mueller in which he stated that he had not given me permission to have Anssi stay in my house. I was not aware that my personal home is ruled by World Mission. Again I was insubordinate and allowed Anssi to stay at our house.

    In my most recent conversation with Rev. Dr. Paul Mueller in Conakry, Guinea, he said it is due to these acts of insubordination that he has determined I am a detriment to the LCMS WM team in Africa and that I was directed to seek another call. He would not put this in writing, rather he stated that I am unwilling to live in a primitive village, and therefore should leave Africa. This is untrue. I was unwilling to move to a village where access to emergency care is unattainable during rainy season. I have a pregnant wife and four children, one of which already had a medical emergency and nearly lost her fingers. Planting of churches and visiting of those remote congregations could have been done from cities with hospitals. This request was denied.

    God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

    By His Grace alone,
    Pr. James May

    This year Dr. Paul Mueller became the executive director of the Art & Carol Wahlers Center for Applied Lutheran Leadership (CALL) at Concordia University in Portland, Ore. Before that Mueller was Administrative Pastor at Family of Christ Lutheran Church in Ham Lake, MN.

    More details from Rev. May are provided in this May 8, 2008, LQ post, especially about where the mission money from Missouri Synod congregations goes… or didn’t.

    Another question for this thread on “Who’s a missionary?” is, in a Lutheran view, whether anything has changed for the better. Check Rev. May’s Lutherans in Africa website to find out.

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