Missiological Reflections of the Protestant Reformation

Considering the breath of Catholic Missions throughout their history, it is astonishing that Protestant Missions took centuries to really take off.  When a new form of religiosity centralized in scripture formed out of the Catholic tradition, why did they not take the desire to spread this new fervency outward?

First lets get a quick recap of the Catholic mission movement.  The outward focus was not pervasive but it was there.  The Celtic Mission Movement is most famous for spreading throughout Northern Europe.  St. Columba especially was fervent in taking the gospel forward.  Raymond Lull centuries later would profess the gospel to the saracens.  The major thrust of Catholic Missions comes through the sodalites of the Franciscans and Dominicans.  The monasteries were often planted in outlying areas of where the churches were and gave access to Christianity to the outside world.

Centuries before Hudson Taylor set said for China, Nestorian missionaries had brought the gospel multiple times.  It seemed like each time a dynasty fell, the rising rulers destroyed the church, often to eventually rebuild.  Throughout Persia, India and Asia tradesmen, monks and others had taken the message of Christ out.

The Catholics sent priests and monks out on explorations once the Americas were discovered.  The Spanish especially sent out Dominicans, Jesuits and others who brought Christ with them.  While many of these efforts were tainted by “Convert or die” political powers, with selfish power motives, the fact is that they put at least put the effort in.

So we get to the Protestant Reformation.  The history of how this movement came about is intriguing and complex, I’ll concentrate on the missiological reflections though.  The efforts of the new movements were abysmal in comparison to the Catholic counterparts.

There are exceptions.  Paul Pierson helps to point out the few successes in the early Protestant Missions Movement in his book “The Dynamics of Christian Mission”.  Check it out for more details.

So after covering the context we come to the main question: why did the Protestants not carry the missions fervor of the Catholics?  Why did it take centuries until Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann first launched their Moravian missions and William Carey popularized the Protestant Missionary Movement?

Theological
The theology of Predestination and election drained the new movement of theological reasons to spread outwards.  The thought pattern was basically, “God will bring to His Kingdom who he chooses and does not need our help.”  William Carey came across this as well.  When appealing to go to India, legend says he was told, “Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”

The other major theological hindrance was mis-interpreting the Great Commission passages.  Prominent Reformer Martin Luther among others also thought that the Great Commission was only given to the first century apostles.  This view was prevalent then and has lingered since.

Organizational
The primary means through which Catholics did missions was through the missionary orders.  These sodalic structures gave a focus and an avenue for missions to happen.  Most monasteries were not the loner desert retreats but outposts for study and providing for the surrounding community.  They taught agriculture, took care of the orphans and poor and gave religious fervency to the towns that were built up around them.  When the Protestants restructured church, they lumped the monastic orders in with the corruption they were trying to escape.  We know Luther had a real problem with Tetzel the Dominican enforcer of indulgences in his German province.  It is possible that Luther made the mistake of generalizing his opinion on that specific group and threw out the concept of a separate mission structure because of the corruption he witnessed first hand.  The major Protestant Missions Movement started centuries later when sodalities were once again established with the formation of the Baptist Missions Society.

Political
During the times of the Reformation Movement there was much internal struggle.  Different sects were coming out of different areas with often competing goals and theologies.  This added to the struggle with the Roman Catholic Church distracted their attention from the outward.  In a sense, they were distracted and lost focus

Historical
Connected to the political is the historical.  There is a trend for renewal movements and new movements to concentrate on their own concerns.  Another good example of this is the African American Missions Movement.  African Americans have been going since they have come to America (often returning back to Africa with the gospel after being freed).  As a whole though, they have had to battle other issues and properly give priority to overcoming the barriers they faced.  Decades after the Civil Rights Movement, we are now seeing growth in the number of missionaries being sent out, however the percentage of African American missionaries is still relatively low.  I suggest the same trend in the Protestant Missions Movement.  The Reformers were now concerned with running a new religious structure, a task many had not asked for (some wanted church to reform, not start another structure).  This large task focused their attention more locally and did not concentrate on expanding.

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Further Reading

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One Response to “Missiological Reflections of the Protestant Reformation”

  1. John Prater Says:

    Great article. I would like to use it in a Missions course I am teaching in Zambia next month. To whom shall I give credit?

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