He was one of the greatest missionaries of all time—planting churches and developing leaders in urban centers throughout Asia Minor. He wrote prolifically in order to contextualize the gospel and Christian holiness among these newly-established congregations. And yet the long-term fruitfulness of Paul’s ministry did not come without a price.
One of the churches which he had founded began to question his spiritual authority, turning instead to the glamorous personae of false teachers. Some misunderstood his own instructions, twisting his words into dangerous heresies which he never intended. There were some who interpreted his humility as weakness. They considered the simplicity of his message inferior to the eloquence of the pseudo-apostles who came after him.
As a spiritual father, Paul experienced both the joys and the sorrows of walking with young leaders and congregations through times of growth and victory as well as seasons of division, confusion, scandal and misunderstanding. He did these things in a cultural and religious milieu that was not so different from what many missionaries encounter today.
And yet, when reading Paul’s letters to these local mission fields, have you ever noticed the affection, care and regard with which he speaks to them? He wrote to them as women and men who had been made holy and righteous by God (1 Cor. 6:11). He often addressed them as “beloved”. They were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1).
Was Paul just naïve? Of course not. In fact, his letters were occasioned by specific problems—even sins—which he wanted them to address. But no matter how serious the issue at hand, Paul preserved the dignity and respect of the local leaders and members in several ways which I believe should still guide and inspire how we work with the global church today.
He viewed them as part of one family of faith.
Paul did not refer to these churches in cold, analytical, organizational terms. He spoke of them as brothers and sisters—members of one household of faith.
If we want to treat our international mission partners with dignity and respect, then we must allow the all-consuming, all-embracing love of Christ to work its way into every crevice of our inner being. Our nationalistic pride and ethno-centric thinking must be melted and transformed into that self-giving love-poured-out which comes from the life of Christ within.
He worked with them as partners in the gospel.
He worked with them as partners in the Gospel.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians uses the language of partnership (1:5; 4:15). Sometimes translated as fellowship or participation, partnership is something which is based upon relationships of agreement, participation, trust and accountability. Without these four elements one or both parties involved will lose their dignity and respect.
He did not circumvent the authority of the local leaders.
No matter how serious the doctrinal or moral crisis faced by a local church, or what other strategic objectives Paul may have envisioned for a particular mission field, his letters reveal that he always worked with those who were the duly-appointed spiritual leaders in that place. Although he was an apostle—even a spiritual father to many of them—with spiritual authority and a prophetic pen, Paul still showed great deference to the rightful authority of the local (or as some say – “national”) leadership.
If this was Paul’s posture toward churches which he himself had founded, how much more so should it be ours—who often have entered the labors of others. In doing so, we will preserve both their dignity and ours.