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Reflections on the words ‘missionary,’ and ‘call’


In the rhetoric of today’s church, clarity is greatly lacking.  Confusion abounds, often due to sloppy language (of which I am also guilty).  Technical language is left to academics, while words in the non-academic world are thrown around left and right and can mean anything and everything under the sun.

Missionary

Take the word missionary, for example.  Today, without hesitation, men and women are called ‘missionaries,’ even with the LCMS.  Historically, the word missionary was reserved for the man only (like the pastor), for only the man was the called and ordained servant of the Word ‘called’ to preach and teach.  Missionary used to refer to one who proclaimed the Gospel to a foreign people, baptized, catechized, and even distributed the Lord’s Supper to those who were united in the same confession of faith.

Today, the word missionary has additional meanings.  It sometimes means the above, but more often than not, it refers to a person who serves (often in another country, but not necessarily so) the physical needs of the people and not primarily the Gospel proclamation.  Thus, missionary today has a broader definition, which is not a little confusing.

Churches now call husbands and wives missionaries, though according to Scripture, only men are to preach publicly (1 Timothy 2:12).  This is not in the least consistent with proper theology.

Certainly, needs exist for humanitarian aid.  But why call them ‘missionaries,’ esp. since that word implies public proclamation of the Word?  It wouldn’t hurt to refer to those who help others simply as Christians, or even servants.  It at least would keep the distinctions clearer.  Perhaps such terms might sound less ‘godly’ or pious to our human ego.  But they are according to Holy Scripture.

By the way, in the dictionary, missionary is someone who is sent on a mission.  One might ask, then, what kind of mission is the missionary sent on?  Maybe this would help clarify.  For some reason, we in the church seem to have guilt if somehow we only help others in their physical need, as if we shouldn’t take joy in this, or as if this is ‘not enough’.  Certainly, the Gospel is to be proclaimed.  But I find it interesting that few, it seem, rejoice in simply helping others, and in alone helping others.  Guilt seems to pervade among Christians if only physical help is given.  Maybe that’s why that word missionary is used today.  We don’t want to imply that we only help people in their physical needs and nothing more.  Would it be so wrong, however, simply to do so, and give thanks to the Lord for doing so, rejoicing even in it? (Luke 10:37).

Call

“Call” in the church historically meant a solemn call from God to serve in a particular service (i.e. A pastor is “called” to serve a congregation as pastor).  St. Paul also talks about “callings,” with the sense of vocation (i.e. parent, spouse, child, teacher, etc.; 1 Corinthians 7).

In the LCMS, call in the past has referred exclusively to pastors “called” to congregations.   This kind of call is non-durative.  It is a call with no established time limits (Today there is debate about this in  our circles, for missionaries, interim pastors, and others, though “called,” are given a certain time frame for their service, though this is contrary to a Scriptural understanding of “call” and our understanding of the word).  Stopping at this point, again, confusion ensues.

Now, add the word “call” for a Parochial school teacher, principal, or District executive for schools.  The word “call” here is often used in connection with a contract, based on the performance of the “called worker,” with an “evaluation” of that performance by an individual or group given such responsibility (by the congregation, school, or even district).  Such a process sounds a lot like “hiring” and not calling in the Scriptural sense—more in line with the secular world, but not the church.  Another question raised is the basis/content of such evaluation (the Word, character, activity, performance, results, etc.).

The word “call” here might be used to sound more ‘churchly,’ even as the word “missionary” has now taken on the meaning of “helper” apart from the public proclamation of the Gospel.  But what would be wrong in simply saying “hire,” even for a teacher or principal or district executive for schools?  Maybe the answer is…nothing.  At least in this way, we would be more honest and consistent in our vocabulary, calling a thing what it is and not further blurring distinctions.

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