3 Characteristics of a Godly Missionary

In his daily devotional entitled For the Love of God, Volume 2, DA Carson notes three privileges/responsibilities which ought to characterize the ministry of all those who “teach the Word of God to the people of God.” All three of these responsibilities are reflected in the ministry of Ezra who “had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).

Carson says that all three aspects of Ezra’s ministry are necessary for anyone who teaches God’s Word, but I would say that this is especially true for missionaries.

1) A Godly Missionary Studies the Bible

Carson says about studying God’s Word:

“There is no long-range effective teaching of the Bible that is not accompanied by long hours of ongoing study of the Bible. Effectiveness in teaching the Bible is purchased at the price of much study, some of it lonely, all of it tiring. If you are not a student of the Word, you are not called to be a teacher of the Word.”*

Carson is specifically referring to pastors here, but I think this applies to missionaries of every stripe. For Stacey and I, working as Bible translators, we could not do our jobs at all if we did not devote ourselves to the deep study of God’s Word. But the challenge is not reserved for translators. All missionaries face difficult cultural situations. And it is vital to know whether or not your perspective is derived from the Scriptures or from your home culture.

I have found that missionaries often have to deal with questions regarding sexuality and marriage in Africa. Take this conversation between a visiting European pastor and a national Christian in Africa from Walter Trobisch’s I Married You:

“Are you married?” I asked, as a way of starting conversation.
“No, not yet.”
“How old are you?”
Thirty-four and not married. What could be the reason for that? I thought. Then Maurice continued:
“I lost my father in my early childhood. I had to take care of my mother. Besides, I wanted to finish my studies first and have a decent job. I’m business manager for a construction company. Also, it’s not easy to find a girl to marry.”
“What makes it so difficult?”
“The getting acquainted. I don’t know where to meet a girl.”
“Do you have one in mind?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And what does she say?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her yet.”
“Why not?”
“The only place I can meet her is in the bus. I know which bus she takes when she goes to school in the morning. I take the same one and try to have a chat with her between the two bus stops.”
“How old is she?”
“I don’t know. Not more than sixteen, I guess.”
I gasped. Could this be possible? Here was a fine-looking, distinguished gentleman who had a good job with much responsibility, yet he was pursuing a young schoolgirl in a bus! (Trobisch 1971:8-9)

Would you have gasped too? What would you have said? Is there something wrong with a 34-year-old man pursuing a 16-year-old girl? Is the gasping due to something in the Bible? Or is it just your culture? Couple this with questions of polygamy, cohabitation, and bride prices, missionaries are always faced with situations that we would never have seen in our host countries. And the only way to respond in a godly way is to really know the Scriptures and to be able to see beyond our own cultural biases. However, knowing what the Scripture says is not enough.

2. A Godly Missionary Obeys the Bible

In taking Ezra as an example, Carson points out that Ezra not only applied himself to the study of God’s Word, but to the observance of the Law as well. Carson further explains,

“For some people, study is an end in itself, or perhaps a means to the end of teaching. But even though the subject matter is Scripture, for these people there is no personal commitment to living under its precepts – to ordering their marriage, their finances, their talk, their priorities, their values, by the Word of God.”

Speaking as a Bible translator, there is a temptation to study the Bible and translation academically. There is a temptation to set myself to the task of understanding the Word and seeking to translate it excellently, without taking the time to allow the Bible to affect my own life. The Bible is not like other literature, however. It is not something to be examined, analyzed, or even translated, and then put back on the shelf. Each time we read and study God’s Word, we are called to obey it.

For example, we just finished our first draft of the Fall narrative in Kwakum. In this story we come to understand why, even though God created all things to be good, we live in a world tainted by evil. Together as a group we talked about how the world is now full of thorns, tears, sorrow, and death. But there is a temptation to follow in the pattern of Adam, who blamed Eve, and Eve who blamed the snake. When we face sickness and death we can see clearly that it is their fault in one sense. However, in Romans 5:12, we learn that “death spread to all men because all sinned.” We face death today not only because of Adam’s sin, but because of our own. And any process in which we analyze, study, and translate Genesis 3 without feeling a urge to repent is lacking. We ought to not only study God’s Word, we ought to be changed by it. It ought to drive us to obedience.

3. A Godly Missionary Teaches the Bible

As a final observation, Carson notes that,

“Ezra devoted himself to the teaching of the Law. He was not a hermit-scholar; he was a pastor-scholar. What he learned in study and obedience he also learned how to pass on. Whether in large, solemn assemblies, in family or clan settings, or in one-on-one studies, Ezra committed himself to teaching the Word of God to the people of God. It is difficult to imagine a higher calling.”

This might seem obvious to you. Missionaries are called to teach God’s Word, right? Well, I have found that teaching the Bible is not always seen to be a necessary task of missionaries. Very specifically, I have seen that some approach Bible translation as more of a linguistic task in which the expat is there to assist in the specific tasks related to translation. Thus, once the translation is complete, the task of the missionary is also complete.

Dr. Wayne Dye (Senior Scripture Engagement Consultant for SIL) was asked to address the question of Bible usage starting in 1974 at the request of SIL International Administration. Specifically, there was a call put out saying: “An in-depth examination of Wycliffe field procedures is urgently needed, to give a rational evaluation of results to date; to identify the factors making for or deterring a successful outcome of individual tribal programs…” (Dye 1980: 18). After years of study, Dye came to the conclusion that,

The single most important thing that a translator can do to bring response is to apply the Good News to personal needs, hopes and problems as frequently as possible. This needs to be done with both unbelievers and believers…” (Dye 1980: 61)**

Dye calls these times of applying the Bible “Good News Encounters.” He sees these encounters as “looking for what it is that is bothering (your hearers) and finding the answer in Scripture that will help” (Dye 1980: 45). In other words, good translators do not just give people God’s Word, they apply it. They teach. A good translator helps people, Christian or not, to see that the Bible is not an abstract book. The Bible is not just a storybook that is interesting to read. People need to see that the Bible is the Word of God, and that specific passages of Scripture apply to specific aspects of their lives. This is something that every Christian knows, for they should be applying the Bible to their own lives in the same way. And therefore, every Christian and every missionary is able to teach others to do the same.

Dye also mentions that such teaching is almost always in informal settings. This means that every single missionary has opportunities to follow through with this recommendation. If you are a missionary doctor and your main task is to heal people’s bodies: Awesome! I long for better medical care here in our village. However, if you, as a Christian who knows the salvation that comes through Christ, only heal bodies, you are doing a disservice to your patients. If you work to release men, women, and children from slavery around the world: please don’t stop! But also, don’t stop by just rescuing them from physical slavery. Let them know that they can be free spiritually as well! As missionaries, our primary task is not necessarily our primary job responsibility. For all of us, our primary task is to bring the Gospel to the nations.

My goal is to be, and to become more and more, a godly missionary. Ezra proves to be an excellent example for me and for all those who would seek to honor the Lord through mission work. He committed himself to seriously studying God’s Word, to the application of the Bible to his own life, and to teaching the Scriptures to those around him. My prayer is that we as missionaries would follow his example.

*All quotes from Carson’s book are taken from the devotion from January 7th.
** Dye, Wayne. 1980. The Bible Translation Strategy.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.