This article is about financing missions. It argues against receiving support from (home-based) churches and argues for a missionary supporting himself or getting support from a mission-church.

Source: New Horizons, 1990. 4 pages.

Missions Without Money The Biblical Basis

If you are like many people I have met while visiting churches, you may have some nagging questions and doubts about how missions are financed today. Perhaps you never dared raise these questions lest they be interpreted as a lack of commitment to missions on your part. You may be pleasantly surprised to realize what the Bible says about financing missions. I invite you to re-examine your assumptions in the light of Scripture.

In this article, I plan to sketch briefly,

  • first, what I understand the Bible has to say about financing missions;

  • second, what are the practical advantages of the Bible's view;

  • and finally, what are some possible problems which might be encountered in trying to implement this biblical vision. Let's begin by asking the only really important question: what do the Scriptures teach?

According to the Bible, there are three legitimate sources of support for missions. By far, the most emphasized and most important source is recipient support. From the start, those who receive the gospel are expected to support those who bring it to them – even in what are clearly missionary situations. The second legitimate source is self-support. In the Bible this source never overlooks or undermines recipient support. Nevertheless, it fills a very useful and important place in the Bible's total picture of the economic aspect of missions. The final legitimate source of support for missions is occasional, unsolicited love gifts. This source is the least emphasized of the three, and is surrounded in Scripture by important limitations and qualifications.

In modern missions we have almost completely ignored source one, recipient support. We have paid only passing, pragmatic attention to source two, self-support. And we have placed almost exclusive emphasis on source three, institutionalizing it in a way that distorts it beyond recognition. We have thus exactly reversed the biblical order and emphasis – and we wonder why our efforts seem to bear so little fruit and are beset by so many difficulties!

The missionary mandate of the church is given in the Great Commission, but this says nothing about missionary support. There are two main instances in the New Testament where we see missionaries being commissioned and sent out – one prior to the Great Commission (preparing for it) and the other after it (the major instance of its actual fulfillment). The instance prior to the Great Commission is Jesus' sending, first, of the twelve and then, later, of the seventy. Jesus has a lot to say about the support of these missionaries as he sends them out (see Luke 9:1-6). Their support does not come from the sender – in this case, Jesus himself! (At least it does not come from him directly). Nor does it come from the disciples' own resources as they go out. They are not even to take two coats. Jesus makes it very clear that their support is to come from those who receive their ministry. Jesus ‘disciples are performing a very valuable ministry – preaching the gospel, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead – and the recipients of that ministry are to value and support it from the outset. In a parallel passage Jesus adds, "For the laborer is worthy of his wages" (Luke 10:7). This first missionary venture of the disciples is not cross-cultural in the modern sense; they are sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Yet Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, both taught and practiced this principle of recipient support even in cross-cultural situations – supplementing it with self-support for reasons below.

The other major instance in the New Testament where we see missionaries commissioned and sent out occurs after the Great Commission: the church at Antioch commissioned and sent out Saul and Barnabas (Acts 13). Here we see the beginning of Paul's famous missionary journeys that make up the rest of the history recorded in the book of Acts. However, this passage also says nothing about the support of these missionaries. Let us look at a very significant passage that does – 1 Corinthians 9:1-15. This is the exception that proves the rule! The right for which Paul argues so eloquently here is not his right of support from the sending church (Antioch), but rather his right to support from the Corinthian Christians while ministering in their midst. Even in a missionary situation the normal practice of Paul and Barnabas, as well as Peter and all the other apostles (cf. w. 4-6), was to receive support from those in whose midst they were ministering.

Paul goes on to argue that the recipient support for which he is contending accords with both the Old Testament practice of priests serving in the temple and that of shepherds, farmers and soldiers (cf. his series of vivid metaphors in w. 7-11). When Paul says in verse 14 that the Lord commands those who preach the gospel to get their living from the gospel, he is referring to the instructions Jesus gave the twelve and the seventy. As we have observed above, this command was given in a specifically missionary setting. Jesus' command is that missionaries should receive support from those to whom they minister, rather than from those who send them out.

Paul is saying that he made an exception to his normal practice for a time while he was in Corinth in that he neither supported himself nor received any support from the Corinthians (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:13 and 11:7-9). Rather, he robbed other churches (2 Corinthians 11:8– strong language!), accepting support from them, so that he could serve Corinth full time free of charge. What Paul did as an exception and described as robbery we have institutionalized in modern missions and made the norm! Christ not only taught this principle of recipient support for missionaries, but practiced it himself. The apostles also both practiced and taught it regularly, even in cross-cultural situations.

Let us now look briefly at a passage that speaks of the second legitimate source of money for missions – self-support (Acts 20:32-35). In this finale to Paul's moving farewell to the Ephesians elders, he says that he supported himself in their midst to teach them by his own example two very important financial principles. The first is that Christians, by their own hard work, should provide for their own needs and those of their families (vs. 34). The second is that Christians should be generous diaconally and "help the weak" (vs. 35). Paul was not a tentmaker for pragmatic reasons, or because his sending church was not coming through with the funds. Rather, he was a tentmaker in order to teach by his own example (which is always the best way to teach new Christians as well as churches essential financial lessons of self-support and generosity).

Philippians 4:10-19 speaks most clearly of the third source of money for missions: occasional, unsolicited love gifts. Note that Paul very clearly says that he is neither "looking for a gift" (vs. 17) nor "in need" (vs. 11). Paul appeals eloquently to the churches to give sacrificially, but never for "missions." Rather, his appeals are for the urgent diaconal needs of the Body. Such passages as 2 Corinthians 9 are often misapplied to ''missionary giving" today.

In a short article such as this, I can only sketch what the Bible says about missions and money. I realize I have perhaps raised more questions than I have answered, but I have set out to stir and challenge the reader to reconsider traditional notions in the light of Scripture. I am deeply concerned to see the gospel proclaimed throughout the world in our day. May God give us all wisdom to know his will and strength to do it!

The next source of support for missions, also an important one in its own way, is the tentmaking efforts of missionaries to support themselves. The third source of support, least mentioned and most qualified, is occasional, unsolicited love gifts, such as those the Philippians gave to Paul.

I further argued that in modern missions we have exactly reversed this order, almost entirely overlooking source one, paying only passing attention to source two, and aggressively working source three to an extent that distorts it almost beyond recognition. While I rejoice at what God has done in the 200-year history of modern missions, there is no comparison between the fruitfulness of missions in the early church and that of missions today. And the places where the New Testament pattern has been most closely approximated, such as in Korea, have been the most fruitful modern mission fields.

God's ways are always perfect both theoretically and practically. If the Bible indeed teaches the above view of mission support, one would expect to find practical advantages flowing from obedience to God's instructions. The practical advantages are so numerous and significant that they are compelling when considered by themselves.

I will briefly discuss the advantages to the missionary himself, then suggest those to the national church, and conclude with a very important advantage to the home church.

The tentmaker evangelist has an abundance of natural contacts and opportunities for friendships and ministry. My first term in Taiwan (fully supported from abroad) – though I tried very diligently to reach out to those around me – cannot be compared to my second term (during which I taught in a Chinese university) in terms of either the depth or the extent of opportunities to share Christ. Even our relationship with our neighbors was enhanced after they saw me adopt a more visible means of support.

A biblical pattern of support will also help the missionary live more simply and learn the local language better. The problem of "affluent missionaries" is a very real one. Living on a local income compels you to adopt a local lifestyle, enabling you to identify with and minister to local people more effectively. It also gives you more opportunities to practice your new language, as you are more fully immersed in the local community.

The early church had an abundance of leaders. The church in Taiwan suffers from a dearth of leadership. This has arisen, in part at least, from the way in which that church was planted. The Bible's pattern encourages local initiative, laying the emphasis not on what the developing church does not have (this paralyzes it), but on what it does have (this frees it).

The tentmaking missionary is more readily perceived by his host country as making a constructive contribution to that country. As many countries struggle to develop, they watch their brightest and best-trained people emigrate to the U.S.A. in what has been called the "brain drain." Christians have the motivation to reverse this flow and sacrificially take a cut in pay and a less prestigious job to help a struggling country develop. Any country's deepest need is for the gospel, but their attention is often on more practical matters. If we can bring the gospel in the context of their immediate, felt needs, our efforts are often both more effective and more appreciated.

A missionary supported from abroad often encounters tensions, misunderstandings and problems in relating to the national church and national pastors. A recipient and/or self-supported missionary avoids these by becoming as fully a part of local churches as are the local pastors and people themselves.

Accountability, time use and fuzzy job descriptions pose serious problems in modern missions. We pay a missionary's salary, but how do we evaluate his work when he is so far away? Accountability is a necessary and normal part of life, and falls into place very readily when God's plan is followed. If a pastor is negligent, his flock suffers and giving falls off. If an employee is productive he is rewarded with increased pay. A modern mission is based on an unnatural financial foundation, and so is beset with problems Paul never had.

The biblically supported missionary is free to serve short term and free to fail. So much money has been invested in a donor-supported missionary, even by the time he finishes two years of fulltime language study, that he may well feel he has failed the church if he finds that he simply does not have the gifts to serve in a cross-cultural situation.

Tentmaking also offers advantages in terms of crisis management and contingency planning. A tentmaker can often weather governmental changes because he is perceived as making a contribution to the country (witness Daniel in the Old Testament!). Also, a church planted along these lines has learned to depend on God alone and not on foreign funds and so is better prepared to survive any eventuality.

Finally, a biblically supported missionary need not concern himself with deputation and support raising. This is often both difficult and discouraging, and many prospective missionaries do not survive the process. Such a missionary is also free to enjoy a relationship with one single home church where he is known intimately. This is much more like the kind of relationship Paul had with the church in Antioch. Missionaries are often so busy visiting a hundred churches when they are home that they are unable to really develop a meaningful relationship with any of them. Both missionaries and churches suffer as a result.

In an article of this length I can only suggest, not develop, the practical advantages that biblical principles of missionary support offer the national and the home church. I've already hinted at some above. National churches would again enjoy the blessings that come to us when we ''share all good things with those who teach us" (Galatians 6:6). They would see from the start that evangelism is something not simply for professionals, but for all God's people. They would see that they all have an important part to play in the Body of Christ, since no one person has the time to do everything. They would see that it doesn't require large sums of money (which they don't necessarily have) to plant and grow churches at home and abroad. They would also be less apt to think of Christianity as a "foreign religion.''

One of the biggest advantages to the home church is freedom from the stranglehold that money has come to have on missions today. It has become virtually axiomatic that our commitment to missions is measured by dollars and cents. Jesus did not say, "The harvest is great, but the shekels are few…." The only bottleneck recognized by the Bible is a shortage of laborers, not dollars. And note the immediate context of Jesus' remarks (Luke 10:2). In the same breath that he urges us to pray the Father to thrust forth laborers into the harvest he teaches us the biblical principles of missionary support discussed above. Perhaps he did so precisely because he didn't want money to be a bottleneck restricting the spread of the gospel. We need men, not money, to bring in God's abundant harvest. May God raise them up and thrust them forth!

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.