A Historical and Biblical Appraisal of “Faith” Missions

The biographies of ministers like George Müller, of the Bristol Orphan Homes, and Hudson Taylor, of the China Inland Mission (now OMF International), dramatically popularized the concept of “faith” missions—meaning that missionaries or ministers are prohibited from soliciting financial help and do not receive any fixed salaries. It is worth asking, where did this idea originate, and is it a biblical model of missions?

The Beginnings of “Faith” Missions

Francke’s Foundations in Germany

In founding his orphanage, Müller was strongly influenced by the work of August Hermann Francke in Halle, Germany. In his autobiography, The Footsteps of Divine Providence, which we have just published, Francke tells of many answered prayers. In 1695, Francke set up a box for anonymous donations for the support and education of poor children. At first, he took in four; within a few years, his boarding house grew to became the largest charitable institution in the world, supported by King Frederick I of Prussia, who was a loyal patron to local Pietists.

While Francke did not outline any philosophy of giving per se, his dependence on prayer and anonymous gifts, and his living “without any settled provision” (p. 42) was an inspiration to George Müller, who read Francke’s Memoirs.

Having thus made a beginning, in the Name of GOD, to take effectual care of some poor, without any settled provision, and without any regard to human supports, I relied entirely upon Him, and so did not scruple to make daily addition to the number of our children.

The Footsteps of Divine Providence, 2021 edition, p. 42

Passages in Francke’s autobiography (published in 1701) are nearly identical to those from Müller’s biography (published in 1899):

All our provision being spent, I closely adhered in my mind to this saying, “Seek first the kingdom of GOD, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you“; avoiding temporal cares, and turning the whole bent of my soul upon a close union with GOD: and when I was now laying out the last of the money, I said in my thoughts, “LORD, look upon my necessity.” Then going out of my chamber, I unexpectedly found a student in my house, that waited for [me], and presented me the sum of seventy crowns, sent by some friends from a place above two hundred English miles distant.

The Footsteps of Divine Providence, 2021 edition, p. 61

Francke was himself of a well-to-do family, with a strong network. The charter and building materials for his boarding house were provided directly by the Elector of Brandenburg, later King of Prussia. Francke also trained and sent the first Protestant missionaries in 1706, with help from the King of Denmark. He printed more than one million Bibles in around a dozen languages. In spite of his noble connections, it is remarkable what Francke accomplished without fixed donations. Halle became a global hub for the spread of Protestant and Pietist ideas through Francke’s Foundations.

Anthony Groves and the Plymouth Brethren

Anthony Norris Groves was the first to expound the concept of “faith” stewardship, in his 1825 booklet, Christian Devotedness. Groves was one of several figures who were crucial to the beginnings of the Plymouth Brethren, alongside John Nelson Darby. Their primary theological distinctives are primitivism and literalism: Primitivism means that early church practices are considered to be normative today; literalism for the Brethren means that no Scriptural command may be side-stepped by any “cultural” interpretation. All are relevant for practice today, including the prohibition of fixed income, commands to pacifism, and head coverings for women.

Groves believed that the missionaries of the early church did not have regular incomes, which he considered “trusting in man” (Jeremiah 17:5), and he believed that societies providing a generous income for overseas missionaries had led to extravagance and became a scandal to the gospel.

In his 1825 booklet, Groves took as his theme the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:19: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” Groves interpreted this command as a blanket prohibition against saving money. He interprets Matthew 19:24 as stating that wealth directly inhibits spiritual growth, and works against salvation: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” He refers to Luke 18:22—”sell all that thou hast”— and Acts 2—”they had all things in common”—as evidence that we believers should not have property.

In spite of his strict interpretation against salaries for missionaries, Groves did not oppose missionaries working a trade overseas (“tent-makers”), as he states several times in his journal while in Baghdad.

The Growth of “Faith” Missions

In 1852, Hudson Taylor was baptized in a Brethren assembly. He joined the Chinese Evangelisation Society, arriving in China in 1854 at the age of 21. During his first term, he faced a number of problems and prejudices, surviving a fire and an attack by bandits. In 1857, encouraged by George Müller, he left his mission society.

It was not until 1865 that Taylor founded the China Inland Mission. By the time they left in 1866, with a team of more than twenty adults, Taylor had gained the support of Charles Spurgeon and had published China’s Spiritual Need and Claims, which went through numerous editions.

Taylor became the best known figure in evangelical missions and China Inland Mission became the largest missionary society in the world. Missiologist Ralph Winter wrote:

“More than any other human being, James Hudson Taylor, that young upstart, who did not heed his station in the social order, made the greatest contribution to the cause of world mission in the 19th century.”

Ralph D. Winter, “Why is the China Inland Mission/North America‘s 100th year celebration so significant for us today?” Mission Frontiers, June 1988. [link]

In 1899, A. T. Pierson—a mobilizer of the Student Volunteer Movement and Charles Spurgeon’s successor at the Metropolitan Tabernacle—published George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God. Pierson had married Müller’s daughter and held a high respect for the man whose biography he wrote.

“Not once, or five times, or five hundred times, but thousands of times in these threescore years, have we had in hand not enough for one more meal, either in food or in funds; but not once has God failed us; not once have we or the orphans gone hungry or lacked any good thing.”

George Müller to A. T. Pierson, in George Müller of Bristol, ch. VI, p. 81

The lives of Francke, Taylor, and Müller are wonderful exhibits of God’s faithfulness, and that is a faithfulness that extends, not only to missionaries, but to the merest sparrow. It is interesting, though, to contemplate how well known these men were. All three were heavily involved in writing and publishing, and all three circulated printed accounts of the progress of their ministry. None solicited funds, but continuous publishing clearly maintains the attention of like-minded believers. Though serving the poor, all three also had high connections. The monarchs of Denmark and Prussia supported Francke’s evangelical and charitable endeavors. Taylor and Müller had the ear of Charles Spurgeon, who had the ear of thousands of Londoners on a weekly basis.

“Faith” Missions Under the Microscope

What Is Faith?

From reading his journals, it becomes clear that Groves writes with an ascetic turn of mind. As a habit, he takes Scriptures “in their most unrestricted sense” (Christian Devotedness, p. 4). He speaks of being “compelled to live by faith on the divine promises day by day” (p. 30). He writes that the “primary object” of God’s government is “the development in us of the character of dear children, the essential feature of which is unlimited dependence” (p. 2).

This axiom of “unlimited dependence” has stark implications. For Groves, they mean rejecting welcome help. First, it means ministers cannot ask for money. While travelling to Baghdad, it causes Groves to write that he “foolishly” placed too much trust in his carriage (Journal, v. 1, p. 35). He goes unarmed and unescorted in Kurdistan, in a region riddled with bandits (v. 1, p. 104); not long after, a similar group is murdered (v. 2). When his wife dies, he speaks of her death as caused by his own dependence on her, and God as allowing her to die to teach him dependence (v. 2, p. 162)! He speaks of language learning as if God might at any moment give him the gift of tongues, bypassing all his labor (v. 2, p. 252).

At what point do we stop interpreting everything by “dependence”? Should we not study because the Holy Spirit leads us into truth? Should we never eat because we live not by bread alone? “Dependence” describes the act of salvation, but it is by no means an exhaustive description of the Christian life.

When Müller, Groves, and others write of doing missions “by faith”, their implication is that living with a fixed income—especially as a minister or missionary—is decidedly not living by faith. But where does this leave laymen, who toil to feed their families? Do they not live by faith? Groves allows that missionaries may work for their money (v. 1, p. 204). If working for your money is “by faith”, and tent-making is “by faith”, how is soliciting funds not “by faith”? He reduces faith to “not asking for material help” whereas biblical faith is a spiritual dependence for forgiveness and empowerment.

In the end, Groves’ theology points to a dualism in which all material things (“the flesh”) are evil, and spiritual dependence encompasses everything. This is notable when he views the beautiful God-created landscapes of the Caucasus, and can only morbidly reflect that all be destroyed (v. 1, p. 72).

Testing Brethren Hermeneutics

As mentioned earlier, “faith” missions is built on the biblical hermeneutic principles of primitivism and literalism. Both principles tend to create imbalanced practice, and not just in the area of stewardship.

In his book, Letters to a Devastated Christian, Gene Edwards points out that primitivism as it is usually expounded relies on several shaky premises. First, primitivism assumes that all aspects of the first-century church recounted in the Book of Acts are still normative. Needless to say, Edwards contends that they are not—a key example being the denial of personal property in Acts 2. Second, primitivism assumes that we know enough about early church practice to answer our questions. In defense of “faith” missions, Groves asks, “Why has this spirit for so many centuries been slumbering?” (p. 15) He presumes that, like him, the apostles never solicited funds.

Literalism is likewise appealing on the surface, but reductionist upon further inspection. Brethren doctrine “resurrected” a literal reading 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 in favor of head coverings for women. This is a passage that almost no one in recent church history has taken literally, and if Lucy Peppiatt is to be believed, no one should. One passage taken literally may involve a direct contradiction to another passage taken literally. In the case of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul writes that “long hair” is a “disgrace” on a man, but in Acts 18:18, he does not cut his hair while at Corinth! Either Paul is contradicting himself, or he has changed his mind, or there is some rhetoric involved in 1 Corinthians 11.

Testing “Christian Devotedness

In Groves’ booklet, Christian Devotedness, he advocates the “most unrestricted” interpretation of Jesus’ saying, “lay not up treasures upon earth” (Matthew 6:19). He teaches that it is an outright prohibition on saving or planning for “future or possible” needs. But Paul uses the same verb for “lay up” in 1 Corinthians 16:2, exhorting the Corinthians to prepare to be generous to the church.

“Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.”

1 Corinthians 16:2

When Paul says this, he is speaking of them accumulating a fund, so that when he comes he can transfer the money to those who need it in Jerusalem. He is also making a direct financial appeal for a specific, known need. If we can labor and save for the church’s needs, why not for our own?

Paul uses the same verb for “storing up” money again in 2 Corinthians, in an analogy:

“. . . The children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.”

2 Corinthians 12:14

Here is only appealing by analogy to the way of the world; but Paul considers only natural that parents would save up for their children. Groves employs some sleight of hand here, saying that Paul is not asking for money. In any case, Paul is appealing to a universal principle, that parents store up provision for the needs of their children.

Pride and Faith Missions

Finally, I want to point out that “faith” missions appeals to human pride. “Faith” missions exploits monergist language to put on an air of spirituality while simultaneously setting up a new law that is not founded on sound Scripture. It sounds very noble-minded to never ask for needed funds and only direct your appeals to God in prayer, but we are never restricted to doing so in the Scriptures. In fact, asking for help from other believers may be the more Christian practice, and only seeking help in prayer may be an indicator of spiritual pride.

“The church is a company of people who have learned how to be ill and to ask for help . . .”

John Goldingay, Walk On, p. 60, paraphrasing Stanley Hauerwas, Suffering Presence, p. 80

We cannot reduce all practice into godly “dependence” and sinful “independence”; rather, we depend on Christ for spiritual help, and we also take initiative in providing for our own material needs and co-laboring with Christ in obedience to his commands.

Throughout Jesus’ life, people of all stripes pleaded with him pointedly and repeatedly for material help, and he gave it to them. The apostles did the same. There are certainly specific dangers attending financial appeals, which tempt some to give up this practice. But we address these dangers by applying sound hermeneutics, not by rejecting the whole enterprise. As Paul did, we show love by prioritizing people over finances (2 Cor. 12:14; Phil. 4:17). And we also humble ourselves in making our needs known to God and each other.

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