Nevius on Finding Local Leaders

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Every missionary wants to develop indigenous local leaders so that an indigenous church may be established.  When there are not many local Christians to choose from, it can be difficult to find the right people, especially those that are Biblically qualified.  With many years of experience under his belt as a missionary in China, John Nevius had that following to say on the subject:


"It is only natural that missionaries should at first seek and employ many native agents.  They are anxious for immediate results, and home societies and the home churches are as impatient to hear of results as the missionaries are to report them.  No communications from the field seem so indicative of progress, and are so calculated to call forth commendation and generous contributions as the announcement that native laborers have been obtained, and are preaching the gospel.  While the missionary himself is for months or years debarred from evangelistic work by his ignorance of the language, a native agency stands waiting his employ.  His circumstances and his wishes add stong emphasis to the oft-repeated truism, "China must be evangelized by the Chinese." So urgent seems the necessity to obtain native assistants that if such as he would like are not forthcoming, he is glad to avail himself of such as he can get.  How many of us have thought in connection with some specially interesting inquirer, even before he is baptized, "What a capital assistant that man might make." (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.21)


There is a church that my wife and I know well where almost none of the people on the church leadership committee are qualified to be there (this church uses a leadership committee instead of an elder board, deacon board, or some other form of church government).  Sure they are aware of passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that lay out the Biblical qualifications for elders but those requirements don't seem to be very important to them.  As in the time of Nevius,

there is still the pragmatic temptation to say to oneself, "It is nearly impossible to find anyone that meets the qualifications for church leadership that Paul lays out, so we will just look for a person who is generally a good person and shows sufficient inclination towards spiritual growth and maturity even if they don't meet up to Paul's qualifications."  Now certainly, as a little church gets started and grows, it will take time before suitable men, qualified to be Biblical elders, will emerge.  And it is right and proper to be discipling and training up those who have great potential but missionaries need to be careful not to put into positions of formal leadership (such as elders or other formally elected and recognized church leaders) those whose lives do not yet exhibit those qualities of spiritual maturity that adorn the Gospel of grace.  On the topic of too quickly elevating people to positions of leadership, especially those who will be teaching the Bible, Nevius goes on to say,


"Other passages of Scripture place our duty in this matter in a still clearer light. "Not a novice, lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the devil." By one rash and unauthorized step we may inflict an irreparable injury on the person in whom we are so much interested, and destroy all hopes of his former usefulness.  Again, "Be not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall recieve heavier judgment."  This is a warning to would-be teachers, and may be applied with equal force to those who would gratuitously assume the responsibility of recommending and employing teachers, without sufficient Scriptural grounds for doing so.  Again we are taught: "Lay hands hastily on no man, neither be partaker of other men's sins; keep thyself pure." The pertinency of those passages is too obvious to require lengthened remarks." (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.31)

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