For three centuries (of five centuries) of the Protestant movement, there was little to no foreign missions. Why was this? There are a number of theories. Catholics during that time saw the lack of mission vigor as evidence of the illegitimacy of the Protestant movement. This argument actually held some merit… at least until things changed in the early 19th century. So let’s consider some other problems.
There have been numerous reasons given.
- In the first century or so the Protestant movement was focused on establishing itself–dealing with internal matters… conflicts..
- They were often fighting for survival
- The Protestant nations were not connected to the outside world… and Protestant rulers lacked interest in missions (until King Frederick IV of Denmark)
- The lack of writing and interest by the Reformers (such as Luther and Calvin). I know some have argued against this point; but a few quotes that express value in evangelizing the lost hardly outweighs the bulk of writing that minimized missions, if not ignored it. Additionally, in the case of Calvinism, the Council of Dort codified an extreme version of that theological perspective, undermining Calvin’s (admittedly non-vigorous) call to missions, and promoting a viewpoint that would make missions ineffective or even presumptive.
- Some note the eschatology of the Reformers. I can hardly speak to that, but considering how sloppy eschatology has undermined missions in the 20th century, I can see how that could be.
But I would like to note a couple of things.
Different ecclesiology of the Reformers. One might think of the Roman Catholic church as consisting of four major components (such a classification is useful for this explanation only… does not accurately describe the organization of the Roman Catholic Church):
The Reformers rejected two parts of this pyramid. First, they rejected the Monastic Orders. Second, they rejected the Papacy. While there are biblical/theological reasons for getting rid of them, there was a cost. In the Catholic church, the monastic orders were the missionary arm of the church. To get rid of them meant that for Protestant churches to be effective in missions, they would have to develop new institutions with, or along side of, the church. The papacy was at times quite missional. After all, often the monastic orders provided the popes, such as in the case of Gregory the Great, the first missions-oriented pope. Many popes were not particularly motivated in missions, but many were. Regardless, the underlying theology of the pope gave impetus to missions. As the “vicar of Christ,” the pope effectively had the world as his parish. As such, he was viewed as responsible for the spiritual well-being of people everywhere. By eradicating the papacy, Protestants would have to find a new way to recognize themselves as responsible for the entire world. In the end, Protestants ended up with the following:
In the Roman Catholic church, the parishes and church hierarchy were typically the least missional parts of the church. It is hardly surprising that the Protestant church for many decades, even centuries, would struggle with gaining a missionary vision.
Cuius Regio, Eius Religio. This translates as “Whose Reign, His Relgion.” With the Peace of Augsburg, this pattern was established, and then expanded with the Peace of Westphalia. The ruler of a region could determine the religion of his subjects. For Protestants, with no pope, this essentially meant the development of State Churches. The church boundaries would be the same as the boundaries of the state. It is hardly surprising then that missions would not occur in this situation unless the state expanded its territories.
It may also be anticipated that the groups that were most interested in missions were those groups that did not follow “Cuius Regio, Eius Religion.” Most notably, this would include the Anabaptists, and some later Dissenters. Further, those groups that did accept the State Church concept, actively and even violently opposed Anabaptists and other similar groups— as well as their missional practices.
Those interested in this can look at Latourette’s history of Christianity, as well as that of Justo Gonzalez. Additionally, an oldie but goodie: “The Theology of the Christian Mission” with Gerald Anderson as Editor. Especially in that book, one can read Willam R. Hogg’s article “The Rise of Protestant Missionary Concern.”