I am an IMB-SBC missionary. We have served the past 20 years in Guayaquil, Ecuador. For many years we thought we had things worked out in our minds about how things should be. But about ten years ago, the Lord began to open our eyes about many of the traditions and practices that we had long held that, while in themselves might be OK for some--are actually extra-biblical.
The list is long, but to list a few things I had grown up believing: churches need to have a certain number of baptized believers before being a church, churches need a have a pastor to be a functioning church, churches need buildings to be a "real" church, Sunday is the "Lord's Day" and must be observed as THE day one is supposed to go to church, one's tithe must be given to that local church, the paying of professional religious workers, preaching the Word being an integral part of church gatherings, churches must grow out of existing churches (have a mother church), "missions" being to go overseas and help a struggling congregation build a church building so that they can be a real church...the list goes on and on.
Over the years most of the above have ceased to be issues as we continue to examine each tradition/practice in the light of what the New Testament actually teaches or was practiced in the first century. Again, I am not saying the above are all WRONG, just that they are extra-biblical traditions and practices and should not be binding upon new churches being planted.
I am also quick to point out we are far from having all the answers ourselves. A lot of these issues are difficult to deal with. There are no easy answers.
One issue that we continue to deal with is church leadership. To go directly to the point: is there a difference between someone functioning as a shepherd, and the office of shepherd (pastor)? Most reading probably are thinking, what's the difference? If one is functioning as a shepherd/pastor they ARE a shepherd/pastor.
The reason I ask, is that for years we have had many women who go out and win the lost to Christ. They begin discipling them. They make sure these new disciples are baptized. They continue to teach these men and women to follow Christ in all His commandments. They are doing just what the Great Commission says to do. Most of these women are horrified to be called anything other than a servant of God. Yet, through their giftedness find themselves shepherding the flock that the Lord has given them.
So if a church planter happens to be a woman, and she is functioning as a shepherd of the flock she is discipling, she IS a shepherd. The only problem is that women can't be pastors, right? But, is there a difference between the pastoral function/gifting and what some call the "office" of pastor?
So, what do we do?
Here are some of the options I have thought about:
Tell them to leave the flock that they have given birth to...
Name one of the believing men in the group to take on the shepherding (even though most times there are no men in the group with this gifting)...
Tell them to walk away from the group and let the church manage on their own (probably another woman would step in and pick up where the original left off)...
Call a male pastor from outside the congregation to come in and "be the pastor" (experience shows that called-in-from-the-outside pastors usually expect renumeration and are usually a poor match for these kinds of highly participative kinds of churches where everyone functions according to giftings)...
Do nothing and leave them in God's hands.
This last option has been my personal response to these situations. It is NOT MY CHURCH to interfere and tell them what to do. I am not the boss, the owner, the god of these new congregations. I firmly believe that Christ himself builds and puts together the pieces of his church. It is not for me to interfere and begin shuffling pieces around to conform to my wishes.
I believe in the importance, the function, the gift of shepherding that the Holy Spirit gives to the church. But where do we get the idea that this function/gifting is an office? Cannot several in the church utilize their shepherding/pastoral giftings? Is there only one person per church with shepherding gifts? My personal experience has shown that usually there are at least 2-3 to each small congregation with these giftings.
In order for the church to be the church, must there always be a named "pastor" in charge? Can't the church function through the giftings given her by the Holy Spirit without naming someone as THE PASTOR?
I am not against pastors, or even churches that believe in the office of pastor. What I struggle with are the impositions we place upon a new body of believers by telling them they must name an individual to be their pastor. This is especially strange when the church is functioning quite well without this office through the various giftings that have been provided by the Holy Spirit. Who am I to step in and tell them to do something quite out of context with the smooth operation already implemented by the Holy Spirit of God within their midst?
These are just some of the real life issues we deal with as church planting missionaries. I am sure those reading can find gaping holes throughout the post, inconsistencies, etc. But the reader is not here living here with us and dealing with the issues first hand. It is one thing to judge from afar, and quite another to be smack in the center of these kinds of situations.
All we ever really ask of people is for them to pray for us. We are weak, flawed individuals caught up in a huge global task of bringing in what I believe is the final great harvest. There are lots of sticky issues to be dealt with. We need the Lord's wisdom. Please pray for your missionaries.