Paul talks about different roles in the work of God in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul himself remained a pioneer church planter after he started the church at Corinth. Paul’s role is absolutely essential. It was essential in his day, and it remains essential in ours.

However, Paul is not the only model for missionary service presented in his first letter to the Corinthians. Apollos was a church-developing missionary, and his ministry was also absolutely essential. While it is true that new believers have the Spirit and the Word, it is also true that missionaries need to be careful in dealing with new churches on the mission field to avoid creating dependency. However, the apostolic model shown in this text is not “plant and abandon.” This model does not advocate a few follow-up lessons followed by inductive Bible study as all that is needed to keep a church of new believers going. Careful nurture and ongoing instruction are essential.

Apollos had done an essential part of the missionary task in following behind Paul and working with the church to help her members understand the truth and apply it to their lives. In addition to Paul and Apollos, there is another group in view in this text. Paul is gone, and so is Apollos, but there are still leaders in the church. These are the teachers who continue to instruct and guide the fellowship of believers. Paul doesn’t give us names, but these are the ones to whom he will shortly address the warning: “Be careful how you build.”

Laying the right foundation

Each role – that of Paul, Apollos and the church leaders – is essential. The pioneers must make sure that they lay the right foundation. And the only foundation that matters, according to Paul, is Jesus Christ. Not just any Jesus will do, however. Only the Jesus of Paul’s gospel, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, who was buried, and who was raised again on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4), can serve as an adequate foundation for the church.

I was once in a church that, sadly, abandoned its commitment to the Scripture. In describing the work of evangelizing an unreached people group, I discussed the essential role of Bible translation. Afterwards, a man came up to me and asked, “Why all this fuss about the Bible? The Bible just divides us. Why don’t you simply focus on Jesus?” I responded, “Which Jesus would you like?” Without the witness and control of the word of God, you can make up any Jesus you want – and plenty of people have done so.

The Jesus of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians was a real man, with a real body that could be put to death. This Jesus was the Messiah who fulfilled everything to which the Old Testament pointed. This Jesus was the substitutionary sacrifice for sins. We need missionaries who know the gospel with crystal-clear accuracy and who know how to communicate that gospel effectively across whatever cultural barriers exist. This Jesus is the only foundation worth laying.

Building on that foundation

However, subsequent builders who come after the pioneer must also build with care, building on the foundation of the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Paul shifts to a building metaphor and talks about the quality of what each person builds; he is talking about the life of the church. This text is not about how individual Christians build their Christian lives, as some think. It is about how believers build Christ’s church. Paul gives two types of materials with which one can build on the foundation of Jesus Christ. The first class is permanent and precious: gold, silver and precious stones; the second class of material is flimsy and flammable: wood, hay and straw. God will judge the quality of each person’s work in building the church. God not only cares what each person does in his or her personal, private life. He also cares passionately about what each person does with the church.

The foundation of the church is the gospel of Christ. The pioneer church planter, according to Paul, must build wisely.

Sending the best to the world 

Today’s pioneer missionaries must be among our best people. They must have the best understanding of theology and biblical studies. They must have the best cultural understanding and cross-cultural communication skills. The task of a pioneer missionary is not a fall-back option for those who can’t make it in the States. It requires the best skills. It requires more skill to minister effectively cross-culturally than in your own culture: you must understand Scripture for yourself in your own setting, and then you must understand how to communicate it and apply it in a setting not your own.

Similarly, church development missionaries like Apollos are still an essential need, and they also must be our best. They also must have the best understanding of the classical theological disciplines. They must also have the very best ability to communicate that knowledge cross-culturally. The message of this text is that God takes his church seriously. Whatever your role may be, build wisely, because your work will be evaluated by fire.

Like Paul, we must also have a passion about building wisely, laying a solid foundation of the complete biblical gospel and building carefully on that foundation both in terms of content and in terms of character. My vision for Southern Seminary is that we would marry these two passions. I want us to be a school that marries a passion for missions with a passion for doing missions rightly. My vision is that we would send our very best to the ends of the earth, where they can lay the foundation of the gospel with skill and integrity and build on that foundation with the whole counsel of God.

________

Zane Pratt serves as associate professor of christian missions.

See also: