The Missionary as a Servant of the Church

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Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36).

That’s how Paul describes his plan for his second great missionary excursion from Antioch. Perhaps it isn’t how we would expect a pioneer church planter like Paul to describe the next phase of his missionary career. Why would Paul, ever-ambitious to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named (Rom. 15:20), plan a trip to visit existing churches?

The answer is simple. Despite his call to preach and plant churches among the unreached, Paul understood his role as a missionary and apostle to include ongoing ministry to already-existing churches. Luke’s report describes the encouraging results of Paul’s labors during those visits: the churches scattered throughout Syria, Cilicia, and Galatia were “strengthened in the faith” and “increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5; cf. 15:41).

Paul’s Stewardship as a Servant of the Gospel . . .

In Colossians 1:23, Paul describes himself as a “servant,” a diákonos, of the gospel. As a servant of the gospel, he had been called to preach the gospel to “all creation under heaven” (cf. Eph. 3:7–8).  This task, Paul explains, is a stewardship (oikonomia) from God (Eph. 3:2, 9) that relentlessly drives him to preach Christ’s gospel to the unreached: “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16–17)!

. . . And of the Church

Paul’s role as a servant (diákonos) of the gospel with a divinely given commission (oikonomia) is fundamental to his apostolic and missionary identity. It is significant, then, that Paul uses this same terminology to describe his relationship to the church.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister(diákonos)according to the stewardship(oikonomia) from God that was given to me for you. (Col. 1:24–25a)

Paul sees himself as a servant of the church with a divinely given stewardship on its behalf.  This insight helps us to understand Paul’s ministry.

While he often speaks of his apostolic suffering for the gospel (2 Cor 1:5ff; 2 Tim. 3:11), here he speaks to the Colossians of his suffering “for your sake” and “for the sake of [Christ’s] body” (v. 24). Likewise, while he speaks elsewhere of the “struggle” (agonízomai, agón) he faces while preaching the gospel (Phil. 1:30; 2 Thess. 2:2; 2 Tim. 4:7), here he recounts his struggle for the churches of Colossae and Laodicea (1:29, 2:1). Paul says that preaching the gospel among the unreached requires intense toil and labor (kopiáo; 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 4:11), and so does his ministry in the church (Col. 1:29). And just as he depends on Christ’s powerful work in him to proclaim the gospel to the nations (Eph. 3:7; 1 Cor. 15:10), he also depends on that same powerful work to fulfill his stewardship for the church (Col. 1:29).

So what’s this stewardship Paul has been given for the church? What’s the goal of his missionary “struggle” and “labor” on behalf of congregations in Colossae and Laodicea? Paul’s answer is simple. He fully proclaims the word of God (v. 25) to bring God’s people to full, Christlike maturity (1:28). He teaches and admonishes them, proclaiming Christ to them so that “their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Col. 2:2).

This divinely given task is reflected throughout Paul’s ministry.

Anxiety for the Churches

Paul’s comments to the Colossians demonstrate his missionary heart for the church. In his view, he doesn’t stop being a missionary when he visits or writes to an established congregation. He sees the health of the churches and the deep discipleship their members and leaders as part of his apostolic and missionary calling. The churches, like the unreached, are on the forefront of his mind and occupy a significant portion of his time and energy. In fact, the well-being of the churches is such a constant preoccupation for Paul that in 2 Corinthians he lists “the daily pressure of my anxiety for all the churches” (11:28) as part of his apostolic sufferings—along with shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonments.

How did this “anxiety” for the churches affect Paul’s ministry? Acts and Paul’s letters reveal that as Paul planned his missionary trips over the years, the needs of the churches, not just the needs of the unreached, dictated his itinerary and missionary strategy. Consequently, Acts recounts that the churches of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia received two to three pastoral visits each from Paul.

Besides return visits, he writes pastoral letters that are “substitutes for his presence,” through which he conducts his pastoral work.[1] Furthermore, the pastoral prayers sprinkled throughout these letters corroborate his claim that he prays for them constantly—night and day (Col. 1:9; 1 Thess. 3:10).

Elsewhere, Paul comments about his anxiety and tireless pastoral labor for the churches. For example, he fears for the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 3:5) and desires to visit them to “supply what is lacking in your faith” (v. 10). When he can’t visit them, he sends a member of his church planting team “to establish and exhort you in your faith” (v. 2). 

We see the same concern and care for the Corinthians. His initial 18 months in their city were followed by years of pastoral follow-up which included multiple letters and return visits to present the Corinthians as a “pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). Sometimes, Paul’s anxiety for a church took precedence over his ambition to preach Christ to those who had not heard. During his third journey, his concern for the church at Corinth drew him away from fruitful evangelistic work in Troas, “even though a door was opened for me in the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:12).[2] 

Paul likewise dedicated significant time and energy to strengthening the churches in Galatia for whom he was “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). It was this love and concern for the Galatian churches that led him to return to them on each of his major missionary journeys in Acts.

In short, Paul’s missionary ministry was as pastoral as it was pioneer. It was as dedicated to building up and strengthening existing churches as it was to planting new ones.

A Legacy of Serving the Church

As we can see, Paul’s concern for the reached—the churches scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin—meant that his ministry over the years oscillated between planting new churches and strengthening these existing ones. Sometimes those were churches that he had planted; sometimes they weren’t.

For example, after a decade of evangelism and church planting in Cilicia, he was recruited by Barnabas to help shepherd the burgeoning Gentile church in Antioch. For at least a year, Paul and Barnabas served together as teachers in Antioch (Acts 11:26) before being sent out by the church on a missionary journey (Acts 13:13).

Clearly, Paul didn’t see his investment in FBC of Antioch as a deviation from his missionary calling.  On the contrary, that investment paid rich dividends as that congregation became the home base for his missionary travels. When the missionary works to strengthen the global church, he develops new ministry partners and new gospel launching points.

We see the same dynamic near the end of Paul’s ministry when he tells the well-established church in Rome that he is “eager to preach the gospel” and “to impart some spiritual gift” to them (Rom. 1:9–15). So, yes, he desires to reap a harvest among the nations, but he tells those Roman believers that he desires to reap a harvest among them as well (1:13).

Was this a deviation from Paul’s course to take the gospel to unreached Spain (15:20-21)? Was he breaking his own rule not to build on another man’s foundation? Not at all. Not only was strengthening the Roman churches a worthy ministry investment in itself, consistent with his goal to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28), it was also a part of his strategy to reach the unreached of Spain (Rom. 15:24). Paul wanted Rome to become the new Antioch for his foray farther west. He wanted the church in Rome, strengthened by his letter and his personal ministry, to partner with him as he pushed westward into pioneer territory.[3]

Perhaps the most striking example of Paul’s willingness to invest in well-established churches is his ministry to the church in Jerusalem. Before traveling toward Rome and Spain, Paul went east to Jerusalem to deliver the offering he had collected from the Gentile churches in Achaia and Macedonia. The goal of this trip was to promote the unity of the church and tangibly demonstrate the solidarity that exists in the gospel between Jewish and Gentile believers.

At first glance, this seems like a massive deviation from his plan to evangelize Spain. But this “ministry for the saints” in Judea (2 Cor. 9:1) was a worthy investment. Yes, he had “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Rom. 15:19), but that didn’t mean serving the church there was off the missionary table.

A Commitment to the Long Game

Paul loved the church. Whether that meant following up with churches he’d planted or investing in churches planted by others, his ministry demonstrates a legacy of tireless labor to bring God’s people to full maturity in Christ. Whether it meant deep discipleship (Col. 1:28) or ensuring that churches had trained, reproducing leadership (2 Tim. 2:2), he was committed to the long game outlined in the Great Commission.

It’s sometimes assumed that Paul would kind of swoop into an area, make some converts, gather them quickly into a new church, and then move on to virgin territory as soon as possible. One author characterized Paul as “always pressing on to find new fields to conquer, leaving the new converts to fend for themselves after the minimum of instruction.”[4]

But that’s not the case. As Paul Bowers rebuts, “Insofar as the pattern of Paul’s plans and movements is available to us, there is no restless rushing from one new opening to another but rather a methodical progress concerned both with initiating work in new areas and at the same time with bringing the emergent groups in those areas to stable maturity.”[5]

Conclusion

It’s a mistake to reduce missions to reaching the unreached. It’s a mistake to assume that when a group or region has access to the gospel or has been engaged that we can paint them green on a UPG map and assume there’s no more missionary work there to be done.

It’s a mistake to assume that Paul saw work among existing churches as outside the bounds of his missionary calling. And it’s a mistake to establish any metric or endgame for the missionary task other than building healthy churches with well-discipled members and well-trained, reproducing leaders.

Regardless of a missionary’s specific ministry focus, he is always a servant of the church.


[1] James W. Thompson, Pastoral Ministry According to Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 31.

[2] See Elliot Clark, Mission Affirmed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022), 14.

[3] In fact, the monumental book of Romans is, in large part, a call for the fractured churches of Rome to unite around Paul and his gospel so they could help him on his mission to Spain. Investment in already-established churches is a wise and crucial strategy for reaching the unreached (see Rom. 15:24).

[4] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970) 169. Quoted in Paul Bowers, “Fulfilling the Gospel: The scope of the Pauline Mission,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987): 190.

[5] Bowers, 189-90.

AJ Gibson

AJ Gibson and his wife, Ruth, have served as missionaries since 2004. They joined Reaching and Teaching in early 2015 and AJ serves as Reaching and Teaching’s Regional Leader for Latin America. He also travels and teaches throughout Mexico and South America. The Gibsons now live in south Texas and AJ serves as an elder in his local church. They have two adult sons (Jonathan and Christian) and three children still at home (Katelyn, Hudson, and Sofia).

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