by Charles T. Bennett
Many have sought to discover through Paul “God’s methodology for missions.”
More missionary sermons have probably been preached about the apostle Paul’s journeys and methods than on almost any other theme. Among the many books on this subject, Roland Allen’s are undoubtedly best known. Most of these sermons and books have sought to isolate and define a single, God-given strategy that Paul used and which should presumably be followed by all missionaries of any age. In effect, they have sought to discover through Paul "God’s methodology for missions."
Obviously we can learn much from Paul. Virtually everything we know about first century cross-cultural missions centers around him. Yet it may be a mistake to look for a single grand strategy in his methodology, for he was both very human and extremely pragmatic.
Paul always sought the leading of the Holy Spirit and at times the Spirit did lead him to dramatic ways. But it is easy to overplay those moments of drama and ignore the routine months and years between, just as we may receive a false impression from a television program that compresses a person’s life story into a few dramatic events. In between those relatively few dramatic encounters the Bible records for us, Paul must have stumbled and groped with uncertainty for the Spirit’s leading, just as we do today.
Paul was "all things to all men" — a true pragmatist—as his recorded sermons and speeches well demonstrate. His one great passion was to preach the good news of salvation by grace, "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." The message was all-important. The method could change to fit the circumstances. As one author described his methodology:
For the Jews of Antioch he had traced the prophetic line of the Messiah; for the pagans of Lystra, ignorant and superstitious, he had made nature an expression of God; for the Athenians he offered a tactful, correct, yet courageous exposition of Graeco-Jewish thought.1
Paul used his Roman citizenship whenever it was of benefit, spoke flatteringly to Festus and Agrippa, apologized to the High Priest, and astutely set the Pharisees and Sadducees in the council against one another.
LED BY THE SPIRIT
Direct guidance from the Holy Spirit played a prominent role in Paul’s life. He was commissioned to his work by the leaders of the Antioch Church, under the direction of the Spirit. The Spirit told Paul to bypass Asia and Bithynia, led him to cross over into Macedonia and, six years later, to return to Jerusalem in the face of probable imprisonment or death. Yet Paul was not above making personal plans or seeking to carry out his own desires. He decided to make his second missionary journey with no mention of direct intervention by the Spirit; and he tried for years to fulfill his personal dream of visiting Spain.2
MAN OF CONTRADICTIONS
Paul’s statements about himself did not always square up with his actions. He spoke, for example, of wanting to preach where no one else had preached, yet he spent long periods teaching in Corinth and Ephesus – more time by far than in all of his combined recorded missionary travels. He vowed more- than once to abandon the Jews and preach only to the Gentiles. Yet, after making such a statement in Corinth, he soon sailed off to Ephesus and headed straight for the synagogue.3 He fought tooth and nail against circumcision, then had Timothy circumcised and possibly Titus also. He claimed to have "declared the word without display or fine words of wisdom,"4 yet his speeches on Mars hill and before Agrippa were certainly eloquent by almost any standard. He was proud to have earned his own living and apparently critical of other apostles who traveled about with their wives and received support from the churches,5 yet obviously accepted food, shelter and other gifts from the brethren. In Corinth, after only a brief stint at tentmaking, "Paul devoted himself entirely to preaching."6
APOSTLE TO THE GOD-FEARERS
Jewish missionary activity reached its climax during the lifetime of Jesus and the apostles. It waned after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and especially after Jerusalem was sacked and circumcision outlawed in A.D. 135.7 Most of the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean had a Jewish community with one or more synagogues. Each synagogue included, a number of Greek proselytes among its members and maintained relations with a larger number of "God-fearers," including relatives of proselytes and Jews who had married Greeks.
These people on the fringe of the synagogue must have sensed the haughty attitude of the Jews toward them in a hundred ways. Certainly those Jews who dared to marry Gentiles felt the full scorn of the synagogue. The fact that so many Greeks were willing to associate themselves with Jews and put up with their racist attitudes indicates the degree of their dissatisfaction with the paganism and their searching after God. Yet the price of openly renouncing their own culture to become Jewish proselytes was more than most could pay. Then along came Paul announcing that they need not become Jews after all; that God through Christ would take them just as they were! Even the women, too! The "God-fearers" listened eagerly. In Antioch of Pisidia, for example, "when the Gentiles heard this, they were overjoyed and thankfully acclaimed the word of the Lord."8
Jews also accepted Paul’s message, of course, as did Gentiles not previously associated with the synagogue. But most of his converts, especially in his initial visits, came from among this Gentile fringe of "God-fearers."
"CHURCH GROWTH" STRATEGIST?
Paul had a general plan for each of his journeys, but no specific itinerary or schedule. Travel was too unpredictable and his reception in each city too uncertain. Roland Allen points out that:
All the cities, or towns, in which he planted churches were centres of Roman administration, of Greek civilization, of Jewish influence, or of some commercial importance . . . he passed through native provincial towns like Misthia and Vasada in order to preach in Lys a an Derbe- military posts in which there was a strong Roman element.9
Allen neglected to point out that Lystra and Derbe were not on a major trade route and had almost no claim to fame except as military outposts. Perhaps Paul and Barnabas would not have gone there at all if they had not been forced out of Antioch and Iconium. It has been conjectured that they may have planned to cross the mountains southeast of Derbe and returned to Tarsus, but found the passes closed by winter and had to retrace their steps through Iconium and Antioch in order to reach the coast.
McGavran believes that Paul chose to visit those places, "where his advance information, purified by prayer and guided by the Holy Spirit led him to believe that a church could be planted."10 He assumes that Paul’s time in the cultural crossroads of Antioch had given him contacts all over the Mediterranean world. For example, he greeted 26 people personally in his letter to the Romans, including someone who had been like a mother to him and three relatives or countrymen.11
Paul preached to anyone who would listen but he stopped and concentrated his efforts where he saw results. When few responded in Athens and he was not authorized to speak in the marketplace, he moved on to Corinth.
The quick, shallow, philosophic life of Athens had long since ceased to have any meaning for hungry, tired and sick men. Paul belonged with them.12
Latourette agrees that Paul sought out those who were best prepared to hear his message. i.e., the Jews and "God-fearers."13
At least six instances are recorded in Acts where Paul withdrew from those who opposed his preaching.14 J. I. Packer states that Paul’s "avowed aim was not just to spread information but to save sinners."15 And Michael Green asserts that Paul and other early apostles "Preached a person, proclaimed a gift and looked for a response (italics mine)."16
BIG CITY PREACHER
The time of strategic retreat to Lystra and Derbe is the only record we have where Paul preached in the "surrounding country."17 He normally concentrated on cities and sought, through them, to influence the countryside. In Ephesus, for example, he lectured for two years in the hall of Tyrannus during the daily eleven-to-four siesta period and "all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks."18
STRATEGY OR LINGUISTICS?
Watchman Nee and others have tried to turn Paul’s emphasis on cities into a God-ordained pattern for all missions everywhere.19 In actual fact, Paul may have avoided rural areas and native towns (like Misthia and Vasada) simply because he would not have been understood there. Greek was by no means universally spoken in Asia Minor. A hodge-podge of widely differing languages survived tenaciously in some areas. (A full 300 years afterwards, Jerome was reportedly able to recognize a language of Galatia as Celtic because of his earlier experience among the Celts of Gaul. Could Paul’s reference to "barbarians" refer to bearded Celts in north Galatia?)
Paul may have had direct contact with other cultures than is recorded. He was certainly aware that the gospel was for all men and not just for Jews, Greeks and Romans.
Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Sythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.20
Roland Allen probably overstated his case when he wrote,
St. Paul preached in Greek and wrote in Greek, and all his converts who read at all were expected to read the Scriptures in Greek. For St. Paul, the one language was as important as the one government.21
Yet Paul apparently chose to concentrate his efforts on the two cultures he understood and with which he could effectively communicate.
HOUSEHOLDS OR INDIVIDUALS?
Latourette claims that "conversion at the outset seems to have been by individuals rather than by groups."22 Yet he goes on to say that old social forms and hereditary groupings we’re breaking down in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century, but the household "often retained its traditional strength and it was reasonable to expect it to come into the faith as a unit."23 Scriptural examples abound to confirm this.24 Paul certainly sensed this and he must have repeated the statement he made to the Philippian jailer25 on scores of occasions.
Paul was no super strategist but he was quick to adapt to circumstances and to learn from his experiences. He made use of social ties, sought out those who could most easily understand his message, moved on when his message was rejected, and stayed (if allowed) where he was making converts or meeting some other vital need.26 When mature local leaders had been trainedwhether after one month or eighteen-he moved on. His methods were well suited to his day and his environment, but they may not always be the best for every cultural situation today.
Our western minds, influenced by Greek logic and schooled in scientific method, instinctively attempt to reduce everything to a few basic, unvarying "laws" and principles. In our study of missionary methods, as in theology, we sometimes "discover" laws and principles in the Scriptures where none, in fact, exist.
Paul’s basic message was unchanging, but his presentation of that message and the pattern of his missionary work was adaptedusually on the spot-to each specific situation. We might even say that his strategy was to have no strategy.
1. Henrietta Buckmaster, Paul, a Man who Changed the World (New York: McGraw Hill, 1965), p. 133.
2. The Epistle to the Romans was not only a theological treatise but also an attempt to prepare the church at Rome for his planned visit so they would back him and lend him helpers for his missionary venture to Spain, as the church in Antioch had done for his initial journeys. Antioch, or even Ephesus or Corinth, were too far away to serve as a base of operations for Spain.
3. Acts 18:6, 18, 19.
4. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.
5. 1 Corinthians 9:5-6.
6. Acts 18:5, NEB.
7. Joachim Jeremias, Jesus’ Promise To The Nations (London: SCM Press, 1958), p. 11
8. Acts 13:48, NEB.
9. Roland Allen, Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), P. 13.
10. Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God(New York: Friendship Press, 1955), p. 29.
11. Romans 16, especially verses 6, 7 and 13.
12. Buckmaster, op. cit., p. 133.
13. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. I. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), p. 115. See also Acts 14:1 and 17:1-4.
14. Acts 13:46, 14:5, 18:1, 18:6, 19:9 and 28:26-28.
15. J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 50.
16. Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp 150-151.
17. Acts 14:6.
18. Acts 19: 10.
19. Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life (Washington: International Student Press, 1962), p. 48 and elsewhere.
20. Colossians 3: 11.
21. Allen, op. cit., p. 14.
22 Latourette, op. cit., p. 118.
24. Acts 16:15 and 18:8, 1 Corinthians 1: 16 and 16:15.
25. Acts 16:31.
26. Corinth, for example, was the notoriously corrupt center of worship to Aphrodite. There were perhaps fewer Greek "God-fearers" there to serve as base for the church and temptations were great for new believers, thus Paul may have needed more time there (he stayed 18 months) to prepare local leaders.
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