Hopefully, this issue arises in the process of first examining and interviewing a missionary to determine their qualifications and fitness for support from your church. Occasionally, you may have this problem if the missionary changes their doctrine while on the field or if you have already had a support relationship with them before you defined some doctrinal criteria.
It is not enough to assume that, just because a missionary candidate may come to you from some well-established mission sending agency, they are actually in doctrinal alignment with your church. Failing to ascertain the divergence could prove to be embarrassing and difficult in the future. Generic evangelical statements of faith abound; they are intentionally broad and might be interpreted in many ways. On the other hand, seeking to coerce missionary candidates to comply with every jot and title of your church’s statement of faith to whatever degree of specificity you require might be too extreme.
We hope that, no matter what their role on the field, the missionary candidate has received enough Bible and theology training to have sound discernment about Christian life and witness in a cross-cultural context. You certainly don’t want to support a missionary for many years on the field only to discover that the fruit of their ministry would not be acceptable in your church. We’re not talking about styles of clothing or benign cultural practices. Can your would-be missionary be trusted to evangelize, disciple, train leaders, and plant churches following biblical principles and methodologies with which your church would agree?
Unfortunately, every year Propempo receives calls from churches asking for advice about how to either correct a wayward missionary or graciously break off the relationship because of this very problem. While this is difficult, it is at least indicative of a caring church. More unfortunate are those situations in which the wayward missionary goes unchecked and teams on the field are fractured leaving their ministry in a shambles. Besides the problem of misrepresenting your church and its doctrine on the field, a supported missionary automatically receives a certain aura of authority and influence in the church. Especially when they come home, errant missionaries can have a very divisive impact on the church body. It’s always better to begin to deal with this sooner than later and with a loving attitude.
Doctrinal misalignment is not always the fault of the missionary. Sometimes a church may change its doctrinal position. A missionary with a teachable spirit will be receptive to guidance and discipleship toward alignment with the church. In either case we recommend a Matthew 18 type process to graciously disciple, instruct, and “restore” doctrinal alignment and full, confident fellowship.