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Missionaries Need to Know What a Church Is: A Lesson from Adoniram Judson

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What does someone need before being sent by a church to serve in cross-cultural missions? Certainly, one should have a clear profession of faith; certainly, they should give some evidence of fruitfulness in evangelism and discipleship. They should also have a sense of calling for the work, both subjectively and objectively. And there will need to be a team of financial and spiritual supporters. Anything else?

Here’s something that often gets overlooked: Ecclesiology! Before being sent out, missionaries should come to a biblical, convictional understanding of what a church is. This was a lesson Adoniram Judson learned the hard way.

JUDSON’S FIRST TEST

Judson left America with a great deal of fanfare. It was only after Judson leveraged an offer from the London Missionary Society that the Congregationalist churches in America united behind him and his team. Due to Judson’s missionary zeal, these churches formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first mission agency in America. Now, Judson and his wife Ann were being sent out by these churches as the first American missionaries, fully supported by American Congregationalist churches.[1]

But on the four-month trip over to India, knowing he would soon be working on Bible translation, Judson began to translate the Greek New Testament. He began to wrestle with the word baptizo. English translations had transliterated the Greek word, but Judson knew the word meant immersion.

So, when translating the Bible into a foreign language, how should he translate this word? As a paedobaptist, this was especially thorny, given that the mode of baptism used by Congregationalist churches was sprinkling. But the more Judson explored this issue, the more he became convinced of the practice of immersion.

This change forced Judson to reconsider his understanding of the proper subjects of baptism: believers only, or believers and their households? Not only that, it forced him to reconsider his understanding of the church. Reflecting on this study a few years later, Judson writes:

It was on board the vessel, in prospect of my future life among the heathen, that I was led to investigate this important subject. I was going forth to proclaim the glad news of salvation through Jesus Christ. I hoped, that my ministrations would be blessed to the conversion of souls. In that case, I felt that I should have no hesitation concerning my duty to the converts, it being plainly commanded in scripture, that such are to be baptized, and received into church fellowship. But how, thought I, am I to treat the unconverted children and domestics of the converts? Are they to be considered members of the church of Christ, by virtue of the conversion of the head of their family, or not? If they are, ought I not to treat them as such? After they are baptized, can I consistently set them aside, as aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, until they are readmitted? If they are not to be considered members of the church, can I consistently administer to them the initiating ordinance of the church?[2]

In exploring the question of infant baptism, Judson realized that this was about far more than baptism, but the nature and practice of the church. A consistent application of a paedobaptist hermeneutic required Judson to baptize not only his converts but their households, including adult children and perhaps even their servants. Coming from a Christianized land where infant baptism was the general practice, and all converts had already been baptized, this was never an issue. But now, going into a land where Christianity had not yet arrived, Judson began to see problems.

How could unconverted adult children receive the initiating ordinance of the church? And having received that ordinance, how could they be treated as “aliens from the commonwealth” by being denied the Lord’s Supper? Though paedobaptists often appealed to continuity from the Abrahamic covenant and the sign of circumcision, Judson noticed that this analogy was applied selectively and there were significant points of inconsistency.[3]

JUDSON’S DIFFICULT DECISION

The more Judson sought to answer these questions, the more he was forced to conclude that Christian baptism was only for believers and that church membership should only be made up of the converted. Now, Judson faced an excruciating decision: would he hold fast to his newfound convictions? Or would he choose expediency? Writing to her parents a few months later, Judson’s wife Ann confided:

We knew it would wound and grieve our dear Christian friends in America—that we should lose their approbation and esteem. We thought it probable that the commissioners would refuse to support us. And, what was more distressing than anything, we knew we must be separated from our missionary associates, and go alone to some heathen land. These things were very trying to us and caused our hearts to bleed with anguish. We felt we had no home in this world and no friend but each other.[4]

Adoniram and Ann Judson wept and poured out their hearts before God about this decision. And by God’s grace, they held fast to their convictions. For their decision to hold fast to Scripture, they would be cut off from the support of their churches, damage their reputation, be alienated from all their friends and colleagues, and bring grief to their families. And yet, in God’s kindness, a new era of American missions would begin. Baptists rallied to form the Triennial Convention to support the Judsons and the cause of foreign missions.

CONCLUSION

Do you want to be sent out for cross-cultural missions? Undoubtedly, you should have a robust, theological understanding of the gospel—of God, of sin, of Christ, of justification, of conversion. All these matters (and more) are crucial for cross-cultural evangelism.

But the goal of missions is not merely individual conversions. Rather, it’s to see indigenous, gospel-preaching churches planted. This means that before being sent out, you also need to come to a robust, theological understanding of the church—its ordinances, membership, discipline, leadership, worship, and more. This understanding shouldn’t merely be academic but rather a lived-out reality of your Christian discipleship. The best missionaries are those who have proven themselves in the local church, who love the church, and who long to see it established among the unreached.

As Judson demonstrates, for the missionary, ecclesiological convictions can sometimes be painfully inconvenient. They often complexify the relationship with supporting churches. But as he also reminds us, holding fast to biblical convictions is always worth whatever difficulties may arise.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at historicaltheology.org.

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[1] Some would argue that George Liele was the first American foreign missionary, though the circumstances of his sending were quite different from the Judsons. See https://www.imb.org/2018/06/26/missionaries-you-should-know-george-liele/

[2] Adoniram Judson, A Letter to the Third Church in Plymouth, Mass. On the Subject of Baptism (Boston: Lincoln & Edmands, 1820), 15-16.

[3] Ibid. 16.

[4] Wayland, Memoir of Adoniram Judson, 1:107.