by Beth (international partner)
In The Ongoing Role of Apostles in Missions, Don Dent explains why “apostles are the forgotten foundation for establishing Christ’s church in new places” (Kindle loc 154). Dent directs the Kim School of Global Missions at Gateway Seminary (SBC) in California. For thirty years, he served in south and southeast Asia as a church planter with the International Mission Board, and he brings hard-won experience to the issue of missions engagement.
Dent unapologetically espouses movement-driven missiology, an influential theory prioritizing rapid reproduction of believers and churches as the primary goal of missions. The book offers no argument for this commitment to movements, and I believe there are significant biblical reasons to reject this goal. However, Dent diverges from much of movement missiology in important ways. The book is well-researched and concise, and it rewards critical reading with biblical insight about the missions task. It also offers a worthwhile starting place for those seeking more nuanced dialog with movement-focused missiologists and field workers.
Authority and Task
The book opens with a historical study of the words “apostle,” from Greek, and “missionary,” its Latin translation. Dent argues that these terms always carry the ideas of both task and authority: a commission carried out on the authority of the sender. The English words have diverged, with “apostle” now emphasizing authority and “missionary” emphasizing task, but Dent rightly points out that there is no biblical distinction between the terms. He then turns to the Greek New Testament, arguing that the term “apostle” was not restricted to the twelve or to eye-witnesses of Christ, but applied somewhat more broadly by the biblical authors, taking in all those sent out with the task and authority to establish the church in new places.
Unlike some movement missiologists, Dent does not argue from these findings for equating the role of modern missionaries with the twelve apostles, whose uniqueness he acknowledges, nor for using the term “apostle” for missionaries today. (He uses “missionary apostle,” but is not prescriptive about terminology, loc 2347.) Rather, the significance he traces lies in the fact that missions is an apostolic task, in the sense that it continues the commission and authority Christ originally gave to the apostles for establishing the church. The right end goal of missions, he contends, is not merely evangelism or even a single church plant, but laying a solid foundation for a growing, indigenous church in new locations and among new peoples.
Recognizing that theirs is an apostolic task, Dent argues, modern-day missionaries must “intentionally model their character and ministry after the example of Paul and the apostles found in the NT” (loc 156). Here he diverges most significantly–and, I believe, rightly–from many movement-driven missiologists. Rather than the forms of New Testament ministry (e.g. travel patterns, pacing, and numerical results, which occupy many missiologists), Dent commends theological elements: confidence in the gospel message for salvation, clarifying gospel content, Jesus as the dividing line in conversion, character qualifications, enduring suffering, and leadership development. He includes a careful biblical study of the place of miracles in gospel advancement. Dent also highlights examples of “apostolic” work, including some who are making deep, slow investment in frontier contexts. As such, he seems to place greater value on the diversity of gifts in the body than do many in movement circles. There is a wealth of encouragement here for those laboring to see the gospel seed take root, and little trace of the “simple and reproducible” discipleship, reduced to a handful of easy steps, that characterizes much of movement-driven methodology.
Apostles and the Church
The book’s most significant weakness comes in relating the apostolic task to the existing church. Here, Dent asserts the apostolic team as a “significant entity alongside” (i.e., outside) “the church” (loc 1826), arguing that “[t]here is no indication in the New Testament of any church…giving oversight to Paul or any of his missionary teammates” (loc 1826). To support this view, he must differentiate, absurdly, between the work of the Spirit and the work of the church. Thus, in Dent’s analysis, “Antioch was not a ‘sending church,’ because the Holy Spirit called and sent out Barnabas and Paul” (loc 866). Churches, Dent asserts, may commission, financially support, and hear reports from missionaries, but must stop short of “authorizing or supervising” (loc 1195). Dent rightly claims spiritual authority for missionaries to proclaim the gospel, yet wrongly seeks to establish that authority in contrast to the authority of the local church, rather than in contrast to the spiritual authorities opposing gospel spread.
Dent further introduces an extra-biblical distinction between “movement/apostolic” phase churches, marked by simplicity and rapid growth, and “established” churches, marked by detailed theology and formalism (loc 1260). His observations of the dangers facing the established church are keen and personal, and the caution is not baseless: extra-biblical requirements and preferences taken from culture and tradition have at times hindered the gospel unnecessarily. However, Dent’s insights are not interpreted through biblical ecclesiology, and so fail to produce helpful missiological insights. His dismissiveness toward the “established” church places Dent once again in the untenable position of presenting God’s kingdom as divided against itself when he warns that the presence of an “established” church in an area “may actually make it more difficult to initiate a movement” of the Holy Spirit planting churches (loc 1261).
Dent’s dismissiveness towards “established” churches is a surprising departure from his otherwise careful biblical views, and it offers an important, if unintentional, insight: when rapid reproduction, even with the aim of glorifying God, becomes the primary goal of missions, pragmatism is nearly unavoidable. If the main kingdom goal is rapid growth, then churches—and Christians—are necessarily valued by their utility to that end.
Keeping the Best
The book’s anemic ecclesiology hiders its usefulness to those seeking to see the church rightly established in new contexts. Yet despite this significant weakness, the book provides helpful missiological insights. Dent rightly observes that “systematic theology has often not addressed issues related to the missionary role of New Testament apostles” (loc 519), and this omission has often led to a de facto understanding of the missions task as any international, evangelistic enterprise. We need the audacious prayer, circumspect planning, and focused perseverance that come from understanding missions as an apostolic task. Dent offers a thoughtful biblical apology for keeping the goal of indigenous church networks in sight in all our missions endeavors. Labors that support this goal, such as relief efforts, Bible translation, and theological education, will be most effective when they are understood in relation to this fuller “apostolic” work of missions. In addition, reformed missiologists need to engage graciously with our movement-driven brothers and sisters as allies for the sake of the kingdom, a dynamic lacking on the field today. For those willing to read critically, Dent’s concise and accessible book may offer a place to start.