Missions and the Early Church

Throughout the history of the church missions have played a vital role.  The Lord himself thought it was crucial and told the disciples to spread his message throughout the world.  They were told to teach, baptize, and to make other disciples.  Today we call this command the Great Commission.  The disciples came from a variety of backgrounds, and those in missions throughout the ages have continued to do so.  In regards to this Ruth Tucker writes, “They were ordinary individuals, plagued by human frailties and failures.  Super-saints they were not…they were willing to be used despite their human weaknesses [1].”


The early church is filled examples of those who were full-time missionaries, bi vocational, and layman.  Early church tradition says that some of the Apostles served as full-time missionaries to various parts of the world [2].  Though some of these traditions lack historical support Thomas is said to have gone to India, Thaddeus and Bartholemew to Armenia, and John Mark to Egypt [3].  The early church document known as the Didache, which was a type of instruction manual for new Christians, speaks of welcoming preachers who have come to instruct them.  Church history also shows and abundance of what we would call bi vocational missionaries today.  There were many and they mostly included “Bishops, teachers, philosophers, and monks [4].”  The bishop was given a church after a community had been evangelized, but there work was just beginning.  These men not only pastored churches, but also continued to preach the Gospel to those in their community.  This can especially be seen in the relationship between Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp.  While Ignatius was on the road to Rome to be martyred he wrote a letter to the Bishop Polycarp and implored him to continue the course so that all may be saved [5].  Justin Martyr is another noteworthy mention in this group.  Justin Martyr is one of the great early apologists of the early church, but he was a philosopher by trade.  He debated many about Christian truth, and some of his works we are blessed with today.  He went into the community and wrote letters debating and evangelizing those who opposed Christianity.  The monks were instrumental as many saw missions as way of fulfilling their monastic vows.    Layman were also vital in missions in the early church.  Though there was widespread persecution the Christians remained integrated in society.  Dr. Smither writes in regard to this, “In short. early Christians in the Roman Empire were ‘in the world but not of the world’ and testified to their eternal hope from their temporal place in society [6].”


So how does our knowledge of missions in the early church shape how we think of missionaries today.  The great missionaries of the past had a deep sense of urgency.  Regarding this urgency Ruth Tucker states, “Polycarp was an evangelist and missionary who conveyed a deep sense of urgency in his interaction with the pagan culture around him [7].”  Missions is just important today as it was in the days of old.  There are still many groups of people who have not heard the Gospel.  Another thing we can learn is that we are all missionaries in one form or another.  We may not be called to go to a foreign country, but we are all called to love our neighbor.  We think of being a missionary as a full-time vocation, and that is true, but we can be missionaries in our daily lives.  All of us are called to take the Gospel to everyone.


Works Cited

1.  Tucker, Ruth.  From Jerusalem to Iranian Jaya:  A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2004), 13.

2.  Smither, Edward L.  Mission in the Early Church:  Themes and Reflections.  (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, 2014), 30.

3.  Ibid, 30.

4.  Ibid, 32.

5.  Ibid, 33.

6.  Ibid, 44.

7.  Tucker, Ruth.  From Jerusalem to Iranian Jaya:  A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2004), 31.

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