December 12, 2017

Holding the Rope

Fred Moritz

The year was 1792. William Carey had challenged his Baptist brethren to obey their responsibility to take the gospel to unreached lands. Baptists of mid-England formed the Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen. They appointed Carey and John Thomas to go to India as missionaries. In 1793 Carey said a tearful farewell to his church in Leicester, England. On a Wednesday the Society came together for a farewell service as Carey and his son prepared to leave. Sometime during that all-day meeting, Carey met with the four leaders of the Society. These men promised Carey “that, as he went forth in the Society’s name and their Master’s, they should never cease till death to stand by him.” Andrew Fuller, one of those men, later described the occasion with an illustration.

Fuller said that the mission to India seemed like a few men who considered going into a deep, unexplored mine. It was as if Carey said, “Well, I will go down, if you will hold the rope.” The meeting, in Fuller’s mind, was as if he and the other brethren gave their word that “whilst we lived, we should never let go the rope.” Local churches and the Society they formed stood behind Carey, and God gave him a long and fruitful ministry.

The churches that formed the first missionary society in England were small. The greater London area churches showed little interest initially in the enterprise, though they later supported the work wholeheartedly. The rationale behind the formation of the service agency was that local churches, working together, could accomplish more than they could individually. That same thinking prevailed in America when the Congregationalists formed an agency to support Judson and his compatriots in India and Burma. When the Judsons and Luther Rice became Baptists, Rice returned to the United States and invested his life in rallying Baptist churches to the same unified effort.

Missionaries today continue to go “down into the mine” seeking to win lost men to Christ, baptize and disciple them, and plant New Testament churches. Some go to places that are dangerous because of political uncertainty. Some go into locales where exotic illnesses threaten. Others go to countries where poverty makes life difficult or where false religions marshal their forces in opposition to the gospel. All missionaries go to lands where people by the thousands need our Savior. These missionaries, like William Carey, need someone to “hold the rope” for them as they embark on their Great Commission task.

The history of missions and cooperation between churches will fascinate anyone who studies it. There have been many instances of harmonious cooperation, and likewise many accounts of compromise, personal acrimony, and violation of New Testament (and thus Baptist) principles.

William Carey, after the death of his dear friend Andrew Fuller, found it necessary to separate from the mission society that was formed to hold the rope for him. The issue in that case was that a new generation of men in England tried to micromanage the work in India and make decisions that should rightly have been left to the missionaries on the field.

Today local churches and mission agencies stand with missionaries and hold the rope for them as they serve in challenging and sometimes dangerous places around the world. How can we cooperate together to efficiently support the work of God around the world?

The Primacy of the Local Church

Scripture teaches that a local church is the only New Testament ecclesiastical authority. The missionary’s relationship to his sending church is twofold. The first missionaries were called by the Holy Spirit. The local church in Antioch commissioned and sent them (Acts 13:1–3). Paul and Barnabas were sent under the authority of their local church. We sometimes overlook the second part of their relationship to the Antioch church. They were also accountable to that same church. Upon returning to Antioch they gathered the church together and gave a full report of their ministry (Acts 14:25–28). Mission boards should function as service agencies for the local churches and the missionaries they send. They should not interfere in the affairs or decisions of local churches, but rather serve local churches.

This Scriptural principle should guide our approach to the work of missions: Mission agencies do not send missionaries— local churches do! The mission agency can provide important services, which we will discuss later in this article. The agency functions to serve the churches as they support missionaries and the missionaries who fulfill the Great Commission on the field.

Mission agencies should guard carefully against usurping the authority of the local church. The missionary is accountable primarily to his sending church and, secondarily, to his supporting churches.

A Purity of Position

Mission agencies bear the responsibility to articulate doctrinal and practical positions that are true to the Word of God and then to consistently maintain those positions. I could cite much historical data to emphasize this point but will limit myself to the case of the Northern Baptist Convention and what followed that struggle.

Chester E. Tulga served as Research Secretary for the Conservative Baptist Fellowship (now the FBFI). In 1950 the CBF published his book entitled The Foreign Missions Controversy in the Northern Baptist Convention. Tulga began by outlining the controversy over theological Modernism in the 1919 NBC meeting in Denver. That resulted in the formation of the Fundamentalist Fellowship of the Northern Baptist Convention (later the CBF and now the FBFI) in Buffalo in 1920. Baptist Mid-Missions (1920) and the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (1927) were formed out of this struggle over Modernism. The unscriptural issue of inclusivism, that is, a mission agency sending both Bible believers and Modernists to the field, was a major point of contention in the debate.

Tulga went on to document subsequent years of struggle in the Convention that culminated in the formation of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society (now CB International) in 1943. Within fifteen years CBFMS capitulated to the compromises of New Evangelicalism. Monroe Parker, Ernest Pickering, B. Myron Cedarholm, Bryce Augsburger, and many other courageous leaders withstood the compromise in the Conservative Baptist movement. In 1961 the Conservative Baptist Fellowship called for the formation of a new mission organization, and Baptist World Mission was founded that year. I have been honored to serve with this agency since 1981.

This history reminds us that if churches are to cooperate in the work of world evangelism, service agencies must establish and maintain a solid foundation of pure doctrine and Scriptural practice. We work together based on common doctrinal and separatist convictions. We must maintain consistency in these common persuasions. Our cooperation is voluntary. Richard V. Clearwaters used to say that in our cooperative efforts we are bound together by “a rope of sand.”

A Proper Accountability

The service agency, then, is responsible for insuring that the missionaries hold the same Biblical position as the mission and practice it in their ministries. Mission administrators are responsible for different assigned fields to help the missionaries with any problems they may face.

The mission agency helps the missionaries in securing the various visas and residence permits required for them to legally live and minister in their countries of service. Foreign governments commonly require certification of their status with a recognized agency. The mission organization often guarantees their financial support and assures that the missionary will conform to the laws of the country while living there.

In financial matters, the mission agency receives and disburses funds for missionaries. The missionary must account to the mission agency for the use of his work funds in the ministry. This satisfies government tax requirements.

Crises do occur in the lives and ministries of missionaries. Sadly, disciplinary problems arise on occasion. Sometimes the mission office learns of the problem first. The service agency should always work in lockstep with the sending church in addressing such problems.

There may also be illness, accident, unforeseen financial need, a death in the family, or some similar problem. The sending church should always be in the lead as to appropriate action to help the missionary in such a situation.

Each missionary should be responsible for giving regular reports to his home and supporting churches.


The four leaders of the Baptist Society kept their word to Carey. They served the society, prayed for Carey, and raised needed funds. History records that each man held the rope until he died. Two hundred and twelve years have passed since Carey first volunteered to go. Times have changed, and Carey would not recognize our modern world. Godly missionaries labor for Christ around the world today. The work on which Carey embarked and the work missionaries do today is the same. Faithful men held the rope for Carey. With an understanding of the primacy of the local church, with a conviction to maintain purity in doctrine and practice, and with an understanding of accountability, let this generation of Fundamentalist, separatist Baptists work together to serve our generation by the will of God (Acts 13:38).

Fred Moritz serves as a Professor at Maranatha Baptist Seminary and is the Executive Director Emeritus, Baptist World Mission

(Originally published in FrontLine • September / October 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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