A Case for Three-Self Churches

HISTORY OF THE THREE SELVES

In the mid-19th century, a man named Henry Venn argued that missionaries ought to plant churches that are “indigenous”. By indigenous he meant native, autonomous and reproducing. Venn had never been to the mission field, but as a mission administrator, he saw cracks in the foundation of the Great Commission methods of his day, including in his own denomination—the Anglican Church.

In his youth in England, Venn was told by an African boy: “Treat us like men and we’ll behave like men. Treat us as children and we will behave as children.” Venn never forgot that line.

You might think that insisting upon indigenous churches would be obvious, but the popular method in Venn’s day was for missionaries to go to foreign lands in order to pastor the churches they planted. The local people often did not become pastors themselves, and if they did, they were often supported by foreign funding. Moreover, the foreign offices and managerial machinery in the host country continued to make decisions in the foreign church. Not surprisingly, the native church either became addicted to dependency upon the foreigners, or they felt pandered, babied, and belittled.

To fix this issue, Venn urged missionaries to plant churches that were autonomous, evangelistic and generous, or as he put it, a church with the “Three Selves”: self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. The church was to be self-governing in that she had her own authoritative local elders, void of foreign jurisdiction. The church was to be self-propagating in that she would lead the charge in preaching, evangelism and church planting, void of overseas meddling. The church was to be self-supporting in that she provided for the congregation’s leadership with their own money, void of foreign funding.

All of these “Three Selves” were inferences from the New Testament Scriptures. Venn “invented” these points no more than Calvin invented the 5 points. But just as Calvin was given credit for rediscovering what Scripture had always taught about sovereign grace, Venn rediscovered the paradigms in Acts that demonstrated what mission church plants should look like.

Venn’s perspective was so dominant that many missionaries of his era began using Three-Self vocabulary. For example, John Paton, the great missionary to the cannibals of the South Seas, wrote:

“Our object in sending out missionaries is not to form new branches of our own church, but to plant and develop a strong native church that will ultimately be self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.”

That is, the goal was not just to plant churches. It was to plant a certain kind of church.

Before looking at this kind of church that was planted, it would be helpful to see the kind of missionary that planted it.

A MODEL THREE-SELF MISSIONARY

Paul visited Philippi in the middle of his 2nd missionary journey. He was escorted by Silas, Timothy and Luke. Philippi was the 7th of 17 different cities he visited on that journey. He was in his early forties, nearing his prime intellectually but probably already slowing down physically. He was converted about 15 years prior and had begun his mission work immediately. At this point, Paul was a veteran missionary. He’d already written the book of Galatians. He’d planted churches in Derbe, Iconium and Lystra and enjoyed historic revival in Antioch Pisidia. All to say, Paul is a man missionaries need to listen to and watch.

Philippi was the first church he founded in Europe, a major city in the region of Macedonia. He was far away from the place he expected to be. The Spirit had forbidden him from going to Asia and Bythinia (Acts 16:6-7) and instead led the team over 600 km to the West in Troas and then on to Macedonia. As Cowper wrote, God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.

Unlike previous places, Paul didn’t go to the synagogue first in Philippi because there was no synagogue. Apparently, there were not even ten Jewish males to form one. Instead, Paul met with some women by the riverside. He’d go anywhere people gathered to preach the gospel. The venue might have changed for Paul—the marketplace with the Stoics, the synagogue with the Jews, the riverside with the Philippian women. But the method never changed. Paul always preached the word immediately. On-the-spot, Paul “proclaims” the way of salvation to the women (16:17). Nothing will replace preaching. Times change; God’s Word endures.

Lydia is immediately converted because “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (v. 14). Incidentally, she was from Thyatira, the place Paul originally wanted to go but was forbidden. This is like a missionary being stopped by God from going to Malawi so that he can reach Malawians elsewhere.

Paul immediately met with persecution and torture—a real case of police brutality. Through that pain, however, the Philippian jailer comes to Christ. Paul then rightly saw the government overreach, and knowing the new church’s reputation was crucial, he invoked the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. Finally he was released.

A MODEL THREE-SELF CHURCH

The proof is in the pudding. Was Philippi Bible Church a model three-self church? Yes it was, in every way. We know it was self-governing because when Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he said: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (1:1). Paul’s practice was not to hang on as the local pastor. Wherever he went he sought to “ordain elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5). He didn’t recruit pastors from outside that ethnic group. Instead, he “appointed elders for them in every church” (Ac. 14:23).

Philippi was also self-propagating. When Lydia was converted, she immediately began bringing the church into her home. When the Philippian jailer was converted, he didn’t rely on missionary Paul to order coffee and donuts for the new church. The jailer took that responsibility himself. If the church is going to grow, the human tool for growth is going to be the local congregation. The Philippian church sent out Epaphroditus to help Paul in his mission work. We have no indication that Epaphroditus was any kind of church leader. He may have been just a guy working the sound booth and stacking chairs. But the church in Philippi was so mature, it could send out everyday laymen to do mission work.

Finally, Philippi was self-sustaining. This church plant was not only supporting itself. It was supporting other missionaries, including the original church planter. Consider these two passages.

“And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.” (Phil. 4:15-18)
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” (2Cor. 8:1-4)

John Paton was adamant the native church should be self-supporting as soon as possible.

“In all my work amongst the [people], I have striven to train them to be self-supporting, and have never helped them where I could train them to help themselves. In this respect I was exceedingly careful, when the question arose of building their churches and schools.”

Some say this isn’t possible today. “Don’t you know how poor the people are where the missionary serves? Unemployment is ubiquitous.” But I doubt privation was worse than what Paton faced on those savage islands. Yet the people still gave out of their poverty, just like the churches in Macedonia did. Paton wrote:

“The greater part
of the work is, apart from the salaries of the foreign workers, self-supporting. They pay for their own Scriptures, build their own churches and schools, largely support their own teachers and preachers, and in many other ways help to lighten the financial burden of the work. In addition to this, thousands of pounds are contributed annually to the funds of the various Foreign Mission Boards.”

A COMMON OBJECTION

Do reproducing churches that reflect the Three-Self Model discourage cooperation and partnership? “Well, if all you want is autonomous, indigenous churches, then missionaries must ignore their former church plants and refuse interaction with outside help.” The opposite is true. Paul’s partnerships with his churches didn’t end when they became indigenous. In fact, his partnerships didn’t really begin to blossom until they became indigenous.

If we view partnerships as only a one-way street of resources poured into a ministry, then yes, partnerships end with indigenous churches. But is that really a partnership? The word “partnership”, when speaking of church collaboration, is used in reference to only one church in Scripture: Philippi. In fact, the word is only used three times in the New Testament, once in 2 Corinthians metaphorically and the other two times as Paul speaks of his relationship with (who else?) the Philippians.

It wasn’t until the church in Philippi became reproducing that they began supporting Paul (Phil. 4:15). There was a time when Philippi needed Paul and now Paul needs Philippi. This was a true gospel partnership (1:5) because there were two sides to the ledger—a debit and a credit. Paul gave and received, not just financially but in fellowship. Paul wasn’t embarrassed by needing help. He gloried in it. 

WARNINGS TO TODAY’S CHURCH

There are a number of contemporary applications the church can take from this. Regarding self-governing, if the goal is to raise up local leaders, then missionaries and the native congregation should be very careful about sending off their prospective elders to far-away seminaries. The different culture coupled with an often-higher standard of living means it can be very difficult to bring them back. Rarely are distant Bible schools really needed. The best way to train a pastor is still one-on-one.

On the matter of self-propagating, missionaries must remember that missions and church planting is not only a Western thing. It is true that the West has often dominated church planting and missions for hundreds of years, but it is the task of every church around the globe to carry out the Great Commission.

Finally, when it comes to self-sustaining, let us remember that the church in Acts didn’t have formal church buildings. The best missionaries in church history emphasized native buildings that were modest and constructed by the congregation. Often, the buildings didn’t cost the churches back home a single penny. All of this was by design. Even if the native Christians were poor, they learned to give and work and save without foreign aid bailing them out of their responsibilities. 

Conclusion

Paul is the greatest biblical example of a missionary that planted indigenous churches. Philippi is the greatest biblical example of an indigenous church planted by a missionary. If missionaries want to learn how to plant indigenous churches, then they should study how Paul planted the church at Philippi, or they should mimic how the great missionaries in church history planted churches, like John Paton on the island of the New Hebrides.

1 thought on “A Case for Three-Self Churches

  1. I so respect how you use the scriptures to support your position. And, I appreciate the logical approach you present. Stirs my heart!

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