". . . to the ends of the earth."
The 175th anniversary of Presbyterian World Mission
Michael Parker | Bible Explorations
"What does God’s Word say about the importance of mission in the life of his people?" | Read: Isaiah 49:6
At the 1837 General Assembly in Philadelphia, Presbyterians met together in a time of discord. The church had been slowly dividing for many years over theological issues, and opposing parties were now grouped in two camps, the Old School and the New School. Amid the tumult that resulted in schism that year, Presbyterians were also debating the place of the church in the task of mission. Some argued that mission was the essential responsibility of the church; others objected, believing that mission could be performed by mission societies established for the purpose of world evangelization.
As Presbyterians approach the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh, they find themselves in a similar position as their ancestors 175 years ago. Matters of profound theological and moral significance rack the conscience of the church today as they did in the early 19th century.
At the same time, we find ourselves today asking fundamental questions about the varied work of participating with God’s mission in the world—the missio dei.
Pray: Psalm 22:25–31
Jesus, identifying with the terrible suffering the psalmist described, quoted the first verse of this psalm on the cross. The psalmist, however, ends with praise for God, for “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.”
Study: the crux of the matter
What is the role of the church in completing the Great Commission of Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20)?
In 1810 a number of mission-minded people from a variety of denominations, but mostly the Congregationalists, established the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first Protestant organization in the U.S. that was intended to send missionaries overseas. Presbyterians over the next several decades sent more than a score of missionaries abroad through this organization.
Many Presbyterians, however, were uncomfortable with the outsourcing of mission to a parachurch organization. They sent overtures to the General Assemblies of 1812, 1828, and 1831 calling for the establishment of a Presbyterian mission board. Presbyterians from the Synod of Pittsburgh felt passionately about this issue, urging the denomination to embrace a “conceptional change” in how the church approached mission.
When the 1831 GA failed to adopt the overture for a Presbyterian mission board, Western Pennsylvanians established their own mission board, the Western Foreign Missionary Society. During the following six years, this organization sent 21 missionaries to Native Americans tribes and 39 missionaries to Liberia and India.
When the Presbyterian Church split between the Old and New Schools at the GA in 1837, the Old School faction adopted the Western Foreign Missionary Society, renaming it the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission and moving its headquarters to New York. When the schism was finally healed in 1869, the New School faction had already begun to support the denomination’s mission board. This board, now called Presbyterian World Mission, will celebrate its 175th anniversary at this year’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh.
Presbyterians in the mid-19th century embraced mission as central to the purpose of the church. When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he said to them, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The church believes today that these words of Jesus continue to be its chief raison d’être, for the evangelization of the world has been in the plan of God from the very beginning, and Jesus instituted the church primarily to be his instrument to fulfill this great end.
Remember: Acts 1:8
As Jesus’ disciples gathered together for the last time when they would have the resurrected Lord physically in their midst, many questions filled their minds. Luke records only one of these questions, which was probably the most urgent for this little group. “Lord,” they said, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Perhaps with some frustration in his voice, Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or periods.” (Acts 1:7). Instead he spoke of an empowerment they would receive from the Holy Spirit and the great missional task that lay before them. They were to be Jesus’ witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then in the broader area of Judea and Samaria, and finally “to the ends of the earth.”
Live: the task before us
As the ancient Israelites considered the need to restore the nation after the Babylonian exile, God assured them that Israel would be restored, but he also gave them a broader vision: “It is too light a thing,” God said, merely for you to dream of restoring the nation; rather, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
The church, like ancient Israel, will no doubt always feel the temptation to focus on its own needs and those of the world immediately around it. But we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by “too light a thing.” If we do, Scripture will always be there to remind us that God calls us to embrace a broader vision.