Three kinds of missionaries

I’m thankful for the day I met “Bun” in Japan. For more than 20 years I traveled to his apartment every week to read the Bible—all of the New Testament and some of the Old. We read books like Romans and Galatians several times. He devoted his life to Christ in the second year of our studies, with a handshake across the kotatsu. At first he was persecuted at work, but later, applying what he saw in Jesus, he became the top salesman in his company. He also became a friend and confidant of the company president.

He became a dear friend and co-worker in the gospel. In time, he began teaching me new ways to look at the Bible. Now, with his help, I’m writing essays on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and sending them to over 100 Japanese acquaintances. Below is an edited version of one of these. I think every new (and old) missionary should grasp Galatians and its message of crossing cultures.

We understand that there is only one gospel. However, in Galatians there are three kinds of people seeking to do “ministry.”

First kind of missionary

The first kind is found in chapter one (vv. 6-9). They are seeking to propagate what Paul calls a false gospel. Actually, it is quite close to the real gospel. These were Jews who believed in the Messiah but could not strip their Jewishness from their message. Their message was a mixture of the true gospel and their own cultural and religious practices. Paul was adamant, though; this mixture is not the gospel by any means!

What does this have to say to us as we seek to cross cultures? It is easy to add our own cultural practices to the gospel, but Paul calls that a perversion of the gospel (v. 7).

Second kind of missionary

The second kind of person seeking to do ministry shows up in the second half of chapter two. Surprisingly this is Peter, the disciple that got most of Jesus’ attention, and Paul’s traveling companion, Barnabas. They temporarily became “enemies” of the gospel. They were different from the first kind of missionaries in that they were not zealously or consciously sharing a different gospel. In fact, they were not saying anything. But it was through their actions that they departed from the true gospel (2:11-13), and this is equally dangerous.

These actions communicated essentially the same thing as in the first kind of missionary: that the Gentile Galatians were inferior before God and were expected to add the Jewish religion and practices to their faith in order to please God. Peter’s motive was fear of the Jewish Christians who had come from the Jerusalem church. Perhaps he also had a political motive—seeking to maintain peace between the legalistic Jews and the newcomer Gentiles. Whatever the motive, it also represented a false gospel.

Third kind of missionary

The third kind of person in this story is Paul, who stood virtually alone against the false representation of the gospel in both instances. Because of his courage, this precious message of Jesus was able to break out of its Jewish wrappings and spread to every corner of the globe.

Do we have a similar challenge as we seek to tell a message unfettered by Western additions to the essential gospel? As Hebrews 12:27 says, “getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered” (MSG).

Point for discussion

There can be many walls and barriers between nations, religions, genders, generations, and even within families. How does the book of Galatians help us to overcome these walls? How can we apply its message to our mission in Japan?

Bill Swan and his wife (US) have been long-term missionaries in Japan with The Navigators since 1977. They’ve done city-wide ministry in Sendai since 1982 and been longtime mission consultants in Russia and the USA.

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