The Great Commission in 2023: Being Strategic in Missions, Part 2
In Part 1, I talked about the need for missions in unreached areas and a New Testament missions strategy to reach those areas. Now let’s talk about a second matter for a moment, the matter of call to a mission field. This is a touchy subject because how can I argue with someone’s call? After all, this is a matter between God and the person.
Friesen’s Theory: Permissible Options Instead of Personal Call?
One response to this might be to doubt that there is such a thing as a personal call to a mission field. Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson wrote a book in the 1980s that basically said there is no such thing as a personal call.2 Rather, we have commandments like the Great Commission that we must fulfill in our lives. This should be the focus, and not some subjective revelation that occurs between God and a person. In other words, God’s will is more like a circle of obedience which one should remain in and move around freely, but it is not a point. There is no such thing as “the one person” that you should marry, or “the one vocation” that you should pursue. If you sense that you are good at ministry, and you are walking with the Lord, then you are fine to pursue vocational ministry if you wish. If you are good at missions, and like it, then go ahead and do it. If you meet a girl who exhibits good Christian character and you like her personality, and she is in agreement with your goals for life, then you are fine to marry her. But the same could be said for a thousand other girls who have similar qualifications.
One of the authors’ illustrations may lead one to believe that he has hit upon something good here. If it is God’s will for Joe to marry Sue, and Joe fails to follow the Lord in this, and marries Lori instead, then God’s will is destroyed for many others. For Lori was actually supposed to marry Jeff, and now Jeff can’t possibly complete God’s will for his life. Before long, no one can find the one true mate for his life, and God’s plan is completely overturned. Complicated, right? On this basis (and some other points), Friesen argues that there is a range of permissible options when it comes to following God’s will.
Friesen’s theory has some merit to it. There are some who seem so tied down by concern over whether or not they have the will of God for their lives that they cannot get the nerve to do anything. Friesen would answer that we should follow what we know, and do that. We are commanded to witness, so stop praying about whether or not you should do it, and get out and witness. Good point. I might further add that the first step towards knowing God’s will for your life is to obey Him, striving to please Him every day. But Friesen would not quite say that. He would argue that the first step is the only step.
There are a number of problems with Friesen’s thesis, and I will mention a few.
First, there are a significant number of biblical texts that point to a specific call for your life. In particular, the New Testament talks about the matter of setting a person apart for ministry (See 1 Cor. 9:27; Acts 20:24; 2 Tim. 4:7; and 1 Tim 4:14). In other words, God takes certain people and selects them to be vocational ministers of the Gospel. To say that this happens at the moment that a person surrenders to ministry is not consistent with the experiences of John the Baptist and Paul, not to mention all of the Old Testament prophets.
Second, Friesen’s marriage illustration is not conclusive because it fails to grapple with the mysterious nature of God’s sovereignty. God runs this universe to the smallest detail with such precision and care that He is always glorified, even though the subjects of His universe seek to dishonor Him at every turn. Yet it appears that He allows this rebellion to exist. So how does He maintain His precise will with so many rebellious subjects? I don’t know. He is God, and can do things that defy my thinking. Theologians often speak of God’s permissive will compared to His true will. Perhaps this allows us a way to describe the problem, but in the end, God is sovereign and no man is capable of overturning it.
Friesen’s theory also fails on a very practical level — he assumes that some believers will choose to serve God in vocations like missions. Everyone has the option to choose. Some are more gifted than others, so maybe they will choose. But what if everyone says, “It is totally permissible for me to serve God in America. I will faithfully fulfill His will here.” I would never disparage any vocation where a person faithfully serves God. But I think that you can see the problem here. If there is no “setting apart for ministry,” then it is left to human choice. This simply does not square with what we read in the Bible.
Checks and Balances for Subjective Calls
Regroup: as always, I have wandered far afield of the question. We were discussing the matter of the Lord’s call, and I tried to show some of the weaknesses of Friesen’s model. But I would like to balance this brief critique of Friesen with concern over the subjective nature of what I often hear regarding someone’s call. While a pastor, I listened to a young lady claim that God wanted her to move in with her boyfriend. Of course, I told her that this was not God’s will for her life. Later, I heard a man say that God had called his family into missions to serve in country X. He packed his bags, moved to another state, and began to raise support to go to country X. Things did not work out, so he said God had called him to country Y. This did not work out either. After a while one wonders if God is being impugned when people talk this way. Are there no checks and balances concerning what one says about his or her calling?
I have decided that I should not question someone’s call to a mission field. (But I wonder if the individual’s pastor should question it, or at least discuss whether or not that it is consistent with the person’s qualifications and skills.) Rather, I have decided that I will determine whether I should cast my support behind that individual based on strategy and common sense. If the person is heading to a mission field that is saturated with missions and has numerous national preachers, then I would probably not support him. Others may, but I probably won’t. I have simply decided that I will support new missionary work where the need is greater. I do not suggest that we should bring missionaries home from the fields of lesser need; they should stay and finish the task. But I will not support any new recruits for these fields. I mentioned in one of my classes that even if my son were heading to Baptistville to start a church, I would not support him. I think that my class got the idea.
As discussed by Neal Cushman on The Steve Noble Show on Jan. 5
2 Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2004, revised and updated).