Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office. As you sit on the butcher’s paper waiting for a nurse, you look up at the doctor’s medical certificates on the wall. You look closer at the certificates and you notice— his medical license was issued by a pharmaceutical company, not the state board! Even if you’d been in that doctor’s capable care for years, I imagine you’d have some serious concerns.
At that moment, I think you’d understand clearly—it doesn’t just matter that someone has approved this doctor. It matters that he’s been licensed by the right authority.
If you feel called to the mission field, in the midst of all the questions of how to get from here to there, I think you need to ask a similar question. Who should authorize you to go?
The Local Church Authorizes Missionaries
The first step to any step in the Christian life is to look to the Bible. And while there isn’t a text that says, “You must be sent by a local church,” the Bible is clear on who has the authority necessary to send you: the local church.
The local church is the only entity on the earth that has been authorized with what Jesus calls the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:19; 18:17–20). In Matthew 16 and 18, these keys are the authority to act on the behalf of the Kingdom of God, to guard the gospel of heaven, and affirm or deny whether someone who says they are a Christian is a citizen of heaven.
For all the good input individual Christians or other Christian organizations can give, the local church is the only organization authorized by Jesus to affirm or deny a person as truly Christian. If this feels abstract, let me put it practically. Only a church has the right to discipline someone from fellowship at the Lord’s Supper. Not the government, not a campus ministry, not a missions agency, not even you as an individual are authorized to make that decision.
The only organization holding the necessary authority under God to approve someone as qualified in both life and doctrine to preach the gospel is the church. No other organization—even if it is made up of Christians—has the heavenly mandate necessary to carry that out.
The Local Church Sends Missionaries
Who should send you as a missionary? Since only a local church has that binding and loosing authority, it seems that only a local church has the authority to affirm the basic, necessary component of serving as a missionary—that you have the character and doctrine. Only a local church has the authority necessary to properly commission you—to make a decision under the Lord to set you aside for the work of missions.
Only a local church has the authority necessary to properly commission you.
Notice, while we don’t have clearly stated who Paul’s sending committee or home church was, who commissioned him under the guidance of the Spirit is very clear: the leaders of a local church. Even though Jesus himself told Paul on the Damascus road that he was sending Paul to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 26:16–18), that wasn’t when Paul began his missionary journeys.
Though he had been personally called far more clearly than you will ever experience, he waited something like 12-15 years before he began his missionary journeys. He didn’t begin until the Holy Spirit directed the leaders of the church of Antioch to set him and Barnabas aside for this work (Acts 13:1–3).
Sending Agencies Offer Logistical Help
Please hear carefully what I’m not arguing. That doesn’t mean that local churches always make the right decision. Nor am I saying the local church is all you will ever need. There are all kinds of additional tools that are practically necessary to get overseas, stay overseas, and stay doing the right things overseas. Many of those tools are provided in the resources and experience contained within a sending organization.
Sending organizations often have excellent resources to help you set and achieve goals for language learning and your children’s education.
Sending organizations often have excellent resources to help you set and achieve goals for language learning and your children’s education. They may have good tools for financial accountability and spiritual encouragement in the work. They may have wells of practical and cross-cultural wisdom to draw from. Make use of those resources, if they’re helpful! But none of those practical abilities grant spiritual authority.
Considering Going Overseas? Invite Your Church Into the Process
There is much more to say about spiritual oversight and accountability. There is more to say about the practical challenges of living outside your home country; of visas, and work permits, and ministry goals, and family dynamics, and team coherence. But I implore you to enter all those other questions with this firmly in place—begin your path overseas with the affirmation and commissioning from your local church. No one else has the authority under God to give it.