by Kenneth G. Donald
The author claims “indigenous” is a bad word if it prevents Christians in one country from sharing with fellow believers in another country. Writing from the perspective of India, he says traditional self-support policies hurt and hinder the churches there.
The author claims "indigenous" is a bad word if it prevents Christians in one country from sharing with fellow believers in another country. Writing from the perspective of India, he says traditional self-support policies hurt and hinder the churches there.
Missionaries, church leaders and mission executives concerned about the development of strong, spiritual churches overseas continually debate the question of foreign aid. Various appeals have been presented in favor of self-support. Missionaries have been influenced by situations on particular fields, by papers given at seminars, and by numerous books on the subject. Some opinions tend to create more problems than they solve, partly because of economic and cultural differences in the various countries.
For the most part, the arguments for self-support and the indigenous church are based on the conviction that this is what the Bible teaches. God’s plan is supposed to be for every church to be fully indigenous, supporting its own pastor and its own programs.
I would like to question whether this emphasis on self-support is actually Christian at all. Note, I use the term "Christian" as against "Scriptural" deliberately to underline New Testament teaching that the basic law, or principle, that activates Christians is the law of love, the law of sharing (Gal. 5:14) Even an adoption of a Scriptural law, as such, can end up as the "letter that killeth" and tend to be hard and legalistic (2 Cor. 3:6). The "law of the Spirit" changes man from being self-centered, self-seeking and self-contained, to one who moves out to another in love, bearing his burdens (Gal. 6:2).
An integral part of Christian living is the "faith that worketh by love" (Gal. 5:6), especially in the context of James 2:15, 16. This surely implies that some believers are going to be in the position of not being able to support themselves and will stand in need of help, while others are to exercise the principle of love in that "freely ye have received, freely give."
Many missionaries broadly endorse the principles brought out in Roland Allen’s classic work, "Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?" But can we actually base our blueprint for success solely on the activities of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s day, with the reservation that he cannot and should not, work in any other way? Do not the various revivals that have taken place in the history of the church indicate how unpredictable can be the moving of the Spirit?
We must also face the fact, as Eugene Nida points out in "Customs, Culture and Christianity," that "neither in Scripture nor in the historical development of the church does the Gospel include the details of social structure or church organization."1 There are obvious limitations in trying to draw too many conclusions from St. Paul’s methods. For example, we do not have any record of the apostle trying to evangelize a country like India.
One must admit and deplore the fact that in many instances overseas churches have been too closely linked with foreign or Western culture. In earlier days in India ‘it was not uncommon to meet Indian Christians who proudly proclaimed they were Canadian Presbyterians, Welsh Baptists or members of the Church of Scotland. This attitude, fortunately, has mostly changed, although there are still signs of Western traditions in some places that are jealously guarded as part of a "sacred heritage."
It must be conceded that a good bit of the tie-up with Western traditions resulted from financial support from the home churches. It would not be fair to imply that this was the only factor, but in some cases it was a strong one.
Much has been done to fade out foreign support for national pastors, and many churches have brought in what they call indigenous church principles. This has not been done without problems. In some parts of India, while the pastors are under Indian discipline, their salaries are paid out of a central fund that is subsidized from abroad. Other pastors must oversee twelve or more churches in order to receive an adequate salary. This means the churches do not receive the benefit of that pastor’s preaching ministry, since the conducting of the weekly service is turned over to a local school teacher or catechist. Other churches, seeing that the local school teacher seems able to conduct services, have dispensed with the idea of having a full-time pastor at all, and allow the government to pay their spiritual leader.
Such situations are more prevalent in rural areas, because of the low economic level of the people. Town and city churches do not have quite the same problem, because many of the members are regular wage-earners. This is not the case in the Indian villages, and over 75 percent of India’s people still live in the villages.
Melvin Hodges, in his book "Build My Church" makes the statement, "In the New Testament, the supporting of the pastors with funds from other lands is not so much as mentioned." However, if we are going to build missionary practices on things not mentioned in the Bible, we could have a real contest. Actually, it would be very hard to prove from the New Testament that every church even had a pastor. Take, for example, the situation that arose in Corinth over errors in the communion service (1 Cor. 11). Paul did not write to the pastor, he wrote to the whole church. This would seem to indicate that any among the elders of the church was free to administer this sacrament.
Our problem in India is that we do have full-time pastors and these pastors need support. Perhaps the Lord wants to show us the error of having built up traditional organizations that are now hard to maintain, when his purpose never was for a full-time paid ministry, but that is another subject.
It is true that many churches in different parts of the world have no problem and are able, quite happily, to support their pastors. On the other hand, it is surprising to find some pastors – and this i’s particularly true of those in the West – who, although adequately supported by their churches, still take outside jobs to supplement their income! In India, spare-time jobs of this nature are not available.
Through personal interviews with pastors, I have learned that some of the smaller rural churches are able to give full support to their pastors. Usually, these churches have members who are teachers, government workers and those receiving regular salaries. In one case, the church had nurses and doctors attending from the local mission hospital. The pastor was fully supported by this congregation, but the doctors and nurses were giving offerings from salaries paid from abroad.
The whole question of "foreign aid" for national pastors is a complex one. The frequently used argument against, the practice is that the tithes of ten families give the pastor a salary comparable to that of the people in his congregation. Hodges puts it, "The church should be self-supporting by means of the tithes of the congregation, because tithing provides a logical and equitable plan for the support of the ministry. Ten or more families that tithe faithfully are able to support their worker on about the same economic level they enjoy themselves."3 Note the phrase, "the same economic level they enjoy themselves. " A good three-quarters of Indian village Christians do not enjoy their economic level, unless anyone can enjoy always being in debt.
In churches I am associated with, the principle of tithing is taught. When a person has a regular salary, as in the case of the town or city dweller, he can be taught to tithe. However, it does not seem as hard for a man with a salary of Rs600,($80) to pay his Rs60 ($8) as it does for a villager to pay his Rs6 (80cents) -out of a fluctuating income that may or may not average Rs60 ($8) a month.
Also, all who could tithe and should, do not. This is true anywhere. Dr. Henry H. Pressler of the Leonard Theological College, Jubbulpore, M.P., India, has made a careful study of the financial situation of the churches of North India in his book, "Self Support Plans for Churches – An Invitation to Debate. " In the foreword, he makes this point, "The best way to achieve church self-support is to make all Christians, Christian."4
Dr. Pressler shows some of the discrepancies in giving between rural and town Christians. He suggests bringing all offerings into a central fund and paying the pastors from it. Thereby, the somewhat wealthier churches could help the poorer churches.5
This, of course, is the biblical principle of sharing and, provided it is not legislated as a policy – which would immediately destroy the principle of the "law of love" – is the Christian response to a needier brother. To share must be a Holy Spirit-prompted reaction to a need. With due respect to what some writers would like the Bible to say, there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that help should not be sent from one church to another. In fact, there are various Scriptures indicating that such help was sent (1 Cor. 16:1-3; Phil. 4:15, 16; 2 Cor. 11:7-9, to quote just three.)
But while churches in the homeland find no problem helping one another, where the wealthier church is, say, only 50 miles from the poorer one, they question sending help to a struggling church 2,000 miles away, even though they are both in the same communion. Why should a stretch of water between the churches change the principle of sharing?
Another problem arising in India between the town church – often the wealthier one – and the village church, is the tendency of the pastors to politic to get the wealthier churches, a not uncommon situation in the West also.
Should a pastor find himself in one of the poorer churches, he is liable to focus his attention on the few good givers and neglect the nongivers or low givers. Dr. Pressler illustrates the contrast between the poorer/richer churches in his survey: "Big City Central (a generalization of city churches found in his book), one of the 18 churches in our sample, has approximately 700 members and pays 100 percent of the pastor’s salary. . . . The village congregation has approximately 4,000 members and pays 1 percent of the pastor’s salary. The Demon of Neglect mutters, ‘What’s the use? Chuck them!’ The survey says that if you chuck them, you may lose 64 percent of your sample membership."6
This need to share must be brought into correct focus. Sharing was characteristic of the early Christians as we see from Acts and Paul’s epistles. One way to develop a spirit of sharing is to encourage pastors to give money away, that is, to send large offerings to outside needs. The big hurdle in India is for the pastor to see money going out of his church that he badly needs himself. Once he is able to accept this in the right spirit, it is remarkable how the giving in his church increases.
If it is scripturally – sound to encourage churches to send to their more needy brethren, why is it questionable when one church is in the home country and the other overseas? There is much confusion about the "home" church and the "mission field church." "The church is the church of the world," is a phrase quoted by Prof. J. C. Hoekendijk, who, in his book, "The Church Inside Out," states: "One who wants to speak authentically about a ‘missionary’ situation has to know that he speaks about the whole world, and the whole of history, qualified as they both are by the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ."7 He further points out, "That which cannot serve as an order of missions has no right to exist as an order of the church."
Once we start to make special rules and policies for the church overseas, that we do not impose on the church at home, then, he says, we are in danger of "double dealing." This he calls, "One rule for the church in the middle of the nations and one for the church at the spectrum of the denominations."8
It is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit to lay claims upon people and their resources. So when people give under divine compulsion, to what use must their offering be assigned? Is it correct to say, "The church overseas must support itself, so no foreign money must be sent?" Where is the "home" church’s money to be sent? Will the time come when offerings raised by a church will no longer need to be sent to any other church, overseas or not, and the money simply used by the donor church?
It seems questionable to me whether the word "indigenous pp should be in the Christian’s vocabulary at all. There is a real danger that this concept can become a means of escaping one’s true responsibility to help others.
The principle of sharing, giving and receiving help (the latter is sometimes harder for some people), is the New Testament basis of real fellowship. The warning of Revelation 3:17 could be applied to those churches that want to be self-sufficient, independent: "I have need of nothing, or I don’t need you. " Is there not a danger of forcing some of these new churches into a closed, independent spirit that quickly breeds a nationalistic or "missionary- get-out" syndrome?
Offerings are given to God, by his church, to his church, for his church. His church knows no boundaries; his kingdom stretches from shore to shore. Then how can some giving be wrong because it is "foreign money"?
Can we really justify some new palatial "home" church buildings in the West, while we stipulate that a poor, illiterate villager, heavily in debt, must give out of his meager earnings, just to keep his own little mud and thatch church going? We need to get our priorities and perspectives right. We are demanding a far more mature and spiritual response from the villagers in India than we get from the more enlightened, more affluent people of the West.
The answer does not lie in any set policy. The answer lies in being sensitive to what the Holy Spirit says in any given situation’. The initiative must always be with God, and in each situation we must take time out to listen to what he has to say. This is not as easy as having a cut and dried policy, but that is not New Testament Christianity. We must have ears to hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
1. Eugene Nida, Customs, Culture and Christianity (Tyndale), p. 133.
2. Melvin Hodges, Build My Church (Moody), p. 83.
3. Ibid, p. 85
4. Henry H. Pressler, Self-Support Plans for Churches: An Invitation to Debate (Lucknow), p. ix.
5. Ibid., pp. 90, 91.
6. Ibid., p. 36. Pressler here deals with the question of support, not statistics. The point he makes is that in the village congregation, which includes second and third generation and nominal Christians, totally, shall we say 4,000 members – between them all they only raise one percent of the pastor’s support.
7. J. C. Hoekendijk, The Church Inside Out (SCM), p. 155.
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