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Avoiding Paternalism

Parents are God’s kind provision to infants and children who have no concept of personal safety and cannot provide for their own basic needs. Without a strong and restraining hand to support us as we grew and matured, each of our lives might have ended tragically early.

While there is a time for parents to protect and provide, there is also a time when children must be released and trusted to make wise choices and assume responsibility for themselves. Paternalism is an ugly part of missions in which, like a helicopter parent, missionaries have asserted undue control and influence on the lives of new believers and their churches.[1]

At least two hideous roots nourish paternalism. The first is the root of pride in self. Pride looks like failing to delegate or hand over authority in ministry because one believes local believers do not have the training or expertise necessary to accomplish the task with equal effectiveness. Pride says that the other person is not ready and that the missionary’s continued control is vital to success.

Paternalism is an ugly part of missions in which, like a helicopter parent, missionaries have asserted undue control and influence on the lives of new believers and their churches

The second root of paternalism is a lack of trust in national believers. Some missionaries make the mistake of assuming cultural and intellectual superiority over local leaders and churches. Thankfully, not all missionaries operate under these assumptions, but it is a constant temptation to rely on our familiar way of doing things and minimize practices and ways of thinking that we do not understand or are merely different.

In Acts 20:17–38, Paul addresses the elders at the church of Ephesus and prepares them for his imminent departure. Paul spent considerable time teaching this congregation and warned them about future challenges the church would face (20:20, 27–30). Yet, despite the persecutions and storms they would endure, Paul had confidence that gospel ministry would continue in their city.

Paul was confident because his trust was in the God of grace and not merely the leaders and members of the congregation. The gospel message and the Scripture they had were sufficient to reveal Christ and his purposes for them (20:32). When missionaries fulfill the Great Commission by making disciples and teaching all that Christ commanded, they can leave in confidence knowing the Holy Spirit will complete his work.

The same God who worked in those who brought us the good news and who is working in us today will continue to work in the lives of new believers. If we are honest, we are all “control freaks” who want to manage and direct the lives of others to ensure the outcome is what we hope it will be. Paternalism is ugly, not only because it is a sin against our brothers and sisters, but also because it is a sin against God as we seek to control his kingdom and his servants.

Paternalism is a heart issue of pride that manifests itself in our controlling tendencies in relationships, finances, and mission strategies.

Thankfully, there are some steps we can take and attitudes we can cultivate to avoid paternalism in missions.

1. Resist grasping for authority or assuming responsibility that is not yours.

As a parent of a teenager learning to drive, I have been tempted to grab the wheel of the car from the passenger seat a few times. Cross-cultural ministers face a similar temptation to hold on to authority and remain the primary decision-makers. To combat this tendency, it is essential to remember that we are stewards of God’s mission and that it is his flock and his church we are serving (1 Peter 5:1–4).

2. Trust the Holy Spirit to enable and equip national believers for ministry.

Our desire to be needed can quickly turn into idolatry. As much as we would like to believe that we are indispensable, we are not. The greatest hope for ministry success is found not in our influence but in the Holy Spirit of God who indwells every believer. We learned by passing through many failures, and that will likely be the pattern for disciples in our ministry. We must trust the Holy Spirit to equip national believers and remember that they are likely to be more effective in their local context than we are.

3. Pass the baton of ministry leadership and ownership early and often.

Google “baton passes,” and you will find multiple instances of dropped batons, and even a few runners who just simply would not let the baton go. Ministry is a process of letting go and passing on to others what you never really possessed yourself––control of a ministry or church. The DNA of local leadership and ownership of the missionary task must be instilled in new believers from the very beginning. It is not the role of missionaries to control local churches or judge their readiness for ministry. Missionaries can partner, train, and mobilize, but they must be willing to continually step back and allow national believers to assume responsibility for themselves and their communities.

4. Be suspicious when there is only a one-way flow of resources and ideas in a relationship.

Developing partnerships can have the unintended consequence of creating dependency if one partner is always giving and the other partner is always receiving. Mature missional relationships are characterized by a two-way flow of resources and ideas. Our cross-cultural partnerships with national believers should be marked by mutuality and reciprocity instead of paternalism.

As we continue together in the work to which God has called the church in every part of the world, let us endeavor to strive “side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27) as siblings who minister in mutual submission to our heavenly Father.


[1] David Wesley, A Common Mission: Healthy Patterns in Congregational Mission Partnerships (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2014). xii–xiii.


Joshua Bowman holds a PhD in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. He served with his wife, Amy, and their four children in Zambia and South Asia with the International Mission Board for seventeen years as a church planter, church strengthening strategist, and team leader.

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