Foundation of the Call

Biblical Roles in Missions Part One

November 27, 2023 David S

Faith missions can sometimes resemble the untamed frontier of the Wild West in early America. Mission fields are like rugged frontiers, and missionaries take on the roles of pioneers. They must make swift and challenging decisions, living with the consequences, or reaping the rewards. Often far from family and friends, they must rely on themselves to make crucial choices. But is this aligned with the biblical model?

Every local church operates as an independent body of believers accountable to Christ, regardless of whether they are part of a larger denomination or free from denominational hierarchy. Christ has granted His church the authority to carry out God's work in the world, and this authority predominantly resides within each autonomous local church.

"Missions" is the church's ministry that crosses cultural, geographical, and linguistic boundaries to make disciples and strengthen existing ones for Christ. The ultimate goal is to establish, expand, or fortify churches within the specific culture and region of ministry. I am mainly focused on faith missions, where missionaries must raise their support, trusting God to provide the necessary resources through like-minded and compassionate donors.

I have encountered evangelical faith missionaries who assert that they don't work for any church or mission agency, boldly stating that the Holy Spirit is their ultimate authority, answering only to God. They claim to have been called, sent, and directed by God. In some cases, when church leadership expressed disagreements with these missionaries' assertions, they sought sponsorship or commissioning from other churches solely based on their testimony of being called by God for the specific work. The new supporting church often had limited knowledge of the missionaries' spiritual maturity, qualifications, or their gifts and abilities.

In one instance, a missionary commissioned by a church adopted a doctrinal position that contradicted the beliefs of both the commissioning church and his mission agency. He publicly declared this shift in beliefs without prior communication with his church or mission agency. When he refused to reconcile with either, his commission was withdrawn by the church, and the mission agency dismissed him. The primary reason for this action was not the doctrinal difference but rather his prideful attitude, refusing to reconcile theologically and claiming that the Holy Spirit was his sole guide, thus negating the need to submit to the church that had initially authorized his missionary work.

Within a short period, one of the churches supporting him decided to commission him without consulting the church or mission agency that had dismissed him. They based their decision solely on the missionary's claim of following the Holy Spirit's guidance and the dispute over a particular doctrine.

This scenario is common in evangelical faith missions, prompting several important questions: Is this how God intended missions to function? Is a missionary solely accountable to God and not to any human or group? How does God call individuals to serve as missionaries, and are there biblical qualifications for them? When someone claims the Holy Spirit's calling to serve in a specific capacity and place, does anyone have the responsibility or authority to challenge or confirm that call? Is missionary service a divine call or simply a professional occupation? What role should the church play in missions? In our quest to answer these questions, we will explore a biblical example of a missionary's calling, the biblical qualifications of a missionary, and the roles of the Holy Spirit and the church in the missionary call. We will delve into Acts 13:1-3 for answers in my next post.

If we seek answers to questions about God's call to missionary service and the role of the local church, we should turn to the Bible for guidance. The book of Acts provides a historical account of the early development of the church and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, making it a valuable source for addressing these inquiries. In the narrative of the early church, we find that the question of mission takes center stage, as it illustrates how the mandate of spreading the message of Christ and His salvation to the world is to be fulfilled. The rest of the New Testament supplements these details, explaining how believers should function both in the world and within the church.

The Bible does not provide precise rules and procedures for selecting and sending missionaries, nor does it explicitly define the concept of missionary work; the term "missionary" is not found in the Scriptures. Furthermore, there is no universally established norm in the New Testament regarding missionary work. However, we discover a clear and concise example in Acts 13:1-4 of the calling and sending of individuals in a role that we now call "missionary." Since this example is the only one of its kind in the New Testament, let us glean valuable insights from the narrative. In the absence of specific commands and directions in the Scriptures, I believe it is reasonable to extrapolate the principles from this example to apply them to the modern church.

This passage describes the Holy Spirit's call to ministry for Barnabas and Saul, outlining the roles of the one making the call (the Holy Spirit), those being called (Barnabas and Saul), and the local church in this call to ministry. Luke has provided us with an account of the calling and commissioning of individuals as missionaries from the local church in Antioch. There is no indication that the Antioch church consulted with other churches or leaders from different locations, including the church in Jerusalem, concerning the commissioning of Saul and Barnabas for missionary service. The passage suggests that this decision was entirely localized, from start to finish. Given this apparent local process and determination, it's worthwhile to consider some contextual details about the city and the church.

Antioch was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, surpassed only by Rome and Alexandria. It boasted a population estimated as high as 600,000 people. The city was a melting pot of various ethnicities, with residents hailing from different parts of the Empire, each contributing their cultural influences on the fabric of Antioch's society. The local church in Antioch was well-established and reflected the ethnic diversity of the city (Acts 11:19-20). The church's growth and ministry were significant enough to attract the attention of the church in Jerusalem, which was some 300 miles away, and Barnabas's ministry there led to substantial numerical growth (Acts 11:21-24). In Acts 13, the Antioch church was likely around 8-10 years old.

The ethnic and cultural diversity of the society and the church was represented even among the church leadership (Acts 13:1). As these diverse leaders were ministering to the Lord, He called Saul and Barnabas to serve Him as missionaries. Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us an example of God’s call to missionary work in Acts 13:1-4. In this passage, he tells us who does the calling, something of the candidates’ qualifications, and who does the sending.

Next time, we will look at the calling of God in this marvelous passage.

Read other articles in this series: Biblical Roles in Missions
Affirming the Missionary Call: The Vital Role of the Local Church – Biblical Roles, Part IV
Affirming the Missionary Call: The Vital Role of the Local Church – Biblical Roles, Part IV
Apr 22, 2024 1 min · David S In the grand tapestry of missions, the Holy Spirit's call is not solitary but communal; affirmed or negated through the lens of the local church. Misconceptions abound, with suggestions that financial… Read More
What it means to Send, Part I
What it means to Send, Part I
Apr 01, 2024 4 min · Brian W Before we can define a sending church, we need to see how Scripture looks at it, especially in terms of the “setting apart” and the sending forth functions the Holy Spirit has empowered the church to do.… Read More
The Holy Spirit Calls – Biblical Roles, Part II
The Holy Spirit Calls – Biblical Roles, Part II
Mar 25, 2024 3 min · David S In the intricate tapestry of Luke’s narrative, Acts 13:2 illuminates a profound truth: the divine call to mission emanates not from mere human ambition, but from the sovereign will of God, facilitated… Read More
A Partnership of Giving and Receiving [Philippians 4:15]
A Partnership of Giving and Receiving [Philippians 4:15]
Mar 08, 2024 2 min · Brian W "And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only." [Philippians 4:15… Read More


David S
Dr. Selvey is a global missions coach with Missioserve Alliance. He offers workshops and coaching opportunities to help churches be better missionary senders. He helps pastors and missions leadership develop and articulate their theology, philosophy, and strategy for global missions.