Partnerships are all the rage these days. Churches want to partner with missionaries, and missionaries have reasons to partner with local churches. But how should churches and missionaries decide whom to partner with?
In order for there to be a healthy partnership between a local church and missionaries on the field, I propose that a church and a missionary must share fundamental agreement about theology and methodology. But before I dive into that, let me back up and examine the very idea of partnership first.
WHAT IS A PARTNERSHIP?
One way to define a kingdom partnership would be to say that it's an intentional, biblically-driven, active, mutual cooperation between a local church and a cross-cultural field team to achieve common goals.
Missions strategist Luis Bush, who is a major advocate for partnerships, has helpfully defined partnerships like this (adapted slightly by me): a partnership is a temporary, renewable, formal association of two or more autonomous and like-minded Christian bodies who have formed a trusting relationship and seek to fulfill agreed-upon expectations by sharing complementary strengths and resources to reach their mutual goals.
ARE PARTNERSHIPS BIBLICAL?
The New Testament doesn't have much prescriptive teaching about formal partnerships. Depending upon your Bible translation, you might find the word partnership used in Philippians 4:18 to describe the impoverished, newly planted, still developing Philippian church's monetary and prayer support of the Apostle Paul's apostolic band of church planters. A close reading of Philippians leads us to conclude that, if this was partnering, it feels a little backwards compared to the partnerships that are popular today. Paul had no expectations or professed needs, and Paul's partner was a brand new, impoverished church.
As far as I can tell, the New Testament contains no examples of partnerships between a local church and a team or individuals in a distant field of cross-cultural ministry. Paul did have coworkers, and the personal greetings in Romans 16 clearly show that there were cooperative relationships between him and local churches and even other workers. Perhaps these indicated partnerships, but they seem to have been more organic arrangements than the definition of partnerships above describe.
Yet the fact that the New Testament doesn't appear to contain partnerships as I've defined them doesn't mean that Scripture forbids them, especially since we do see cooperative work for the sake of gospel extension in the New Testament, and we have plenty of scriptural guidelines on how relationships ought to work between professing believers, whether individuals or representatives of teams or local churches. In short, I would argue that partnerships as I've defined them are biblically allowable, and even encouraged, and that Scripture has plenty to say about how we should pursue such partnerships.
THEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR GOD-HONORING PARTNERSHIPS
Levels of Partnership
How much theological agreement is required between a local church and its partners on the field? Well, it depends on the goals of the partnerships. The closer the goals are to planting churches and developing leaders, the more theological like-mindedness is required. Partnering to feed starving people overseas does not require the same degree of like-mindedness as partnering to train local leaders to start indigenous churches. Partnering to distribute copies of the Bible or to make an audio recording of the Scriptures in a foreign location requires less theological like-mindedness than partnering to plant churches in a pioneer area.
Local churches should probably sketch out their own two or three levels of potential partnerships, and then carefully consider what theological essentials must be embraced at each level of partnership. But I would urge caution at all levels, because our theological commitments have a way of "leaking" into all areas of ministry. It is possible to partner in good faith with those whose theological precision far exceeds their methodological integrity, only to realize that there is no real like-mindedness because of their methodological compromise.
Goals and Theological Agreement
What were Paul's goals in ministry? Paul's stated goals included:
- Preaching the gospel message of Jesus Christ, particularly to Gentiles (Rom. 15:16, 18). Paul seemed to have aimed to reach as many people as possible with this evangel (Rom. 1:14).
- Proclaiming this gospel to individuals and households so that they would be personally converted, and begin a life of following Jesus Christ as Lord (1 Thess. 1:9-10). He makes use of a variety of venues for proclaiming this good news, eschewing, apparently, only one: pagan temples.
- Beginning local churches, properly ordered communities of faith brought into existence by this gospel and ruled over by Jesus Christ himself (cf. Eph. 3, Titus).
These goals then informed his methods, methods which were more flexible for the sake of achieving the goals. (Admittedly, the Scriptures have much to teach us about aims of missionary work, but far less to say about methods. We test all methods by Scripture, discarding many, but at the end of the day there is more than one acceptable cross-cultural approach to planting a sound, biblical church. Partners do well to listen to and learn from one another, testing everything by the Word.)
How much theological agreement do I think Paul would propose for higher level partnerships, partnerships which aim at the goals I just described? Based on the content of his letters, as well as the other letters in the New Testament, theological agreement about the following matters would seem to be important:
- The total trustworthiness and sufficiency of Scripture (e.g. 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
- The gospel and conversion: what is the gospel (e.g. Gal. 1)? What does God do in conversion? What does man do in conversion? (e.g. 1 Cor. 3:6; 2 Cor. 4-5)
- Ecclesiology: what is a local church? How is it ordered? How does the church make decisions? Who has final authority in the local church? Who are the proper subjects of baptism? What is the relationship between sending churches and field teams? How do sponsoring church leaders relate to the field workers? How do field workers relate to sponsoring church leaders?
- Contextualization: is the goal to clarify the gospel, including its challenging hard edges, or to remove any and all offense? (1 Cor. 9; Rom. 14)
- Preaching, teaching and the ministry of the Word: there is more than one way to minister the Word effectively, especially in cross cultural settings. The Word can be taught effectively with or without a pulpit, in large and small groups, even apparently on the move (as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-27). But the Word must be taught. The New Testament places a heavy emphasis on teaching and teachers (1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Tim. 6:2-4; 2 Tim. 2:15; Tit. 2:1; Tit. 2:15). We need the same emphasis on good teaching!
- Doctrine of sin and sanctification: this has huge implications for discipleship (e.g. Rom. 3; 2 Cor. 3).
- Doctrine of success: faithfulness is success. This leaks into all church planting methods. (More on that below.)
- Doctrine of accountability: leaders must be kept accountable to Scripture (e.g. 2 Tim. 2:15).
- Doctrine of family: do you agree on what the Bible teaches about gender and family? Do you both understand how the gospel should transform family relationships? (e.g. Eph. 5:22-33).
THEOLOGY THAT'S FUNCTIONAL, NOT JUST CONFESSIONAL
Even if both sides of a partnership check all the above statement-of-faith boxes, it could be that one or both sides live and minister in a way that practically denies what they profess to believe. Theological agreement between partners must be functional, not merely confessional.
In Paul's epistle to Titus, he instructs Titus to watch his life and doctrine closely (Tit. 2:7-8), which seems to include Titus' methodology or at least his manner of living out his ministry in Crete. The letter to Titus isn't really about doctrine, per se; it's about teaching what accords with sound doctrine. In other words, the book of Titus is an entire New Testament document devoted to demonstrating how confessional theology should work in guiding the life of the church and its leaders.
Both sides of a potential partnership, therefore, should probe into how the other party's theology flows into practice. Here are some areas in which one's "functional" or "real" theology is particularly important:
A church might ask a field team, "What role does God's Word play in your strategy? Can you explain to me how your methods are derived from Scripture and what role Scripture itself plays in those methods? How is your team "using" Scripture on a daily basis for ministry? Be specific."
A field team might ask a potential church partner to explain how Scripture informs their church's decision making process and to give a few specific examples from a "business meeting." That team might ask the church leaders to describe how the congregation approaches Scripture on a daily or weekly basis, not just in the sermon, but in their counseling, their "programming," or their gatherings generally. Is this a church really committed to the sufficiency of Scripture?
The potential partners might ask one another to describe how they "do" evangelism in order to learn about their respective doctrines of evangelism, repentance, and conversion. Two partners may share theological statements and missions goals, but each party's practices of evangelism in particular reveal whether or not one's confessional theology flows into one's practices. When they don't, there is no true like-mindedness, making partnering difficult and affecting trust in the relationship.
How does the other side of a potential partnership define biblical success? Is it numbers or faithfulness?
Paul's theology of success is evident in his letter to the Romans (1:16) and Thessalonians (1:5-6; 2:13). He relied on the Holy Spirit and the truth of the gospel for success, not on particular methods or best practices. His was a God-centered ministry and he knew his success depended upon his God. Paul also knew that success depended upon the prayers of the churches to the living and true God (2 Cor. 1:11; 2 Thes. 3:1).
Paul does not advocate new best practices or methods guaranteed to succeed. He doesn't encourage Timothy to study the approach of these "winners." Instead, he says, "Continue in what you've learned. Persevere in all good work!" (2 Tim. 3:10-14; 1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim 3:10-14; cf. Heb 10:35-39).
A biblical doctrine of success will clearly state that faithfulness is success. That does not render accountability, evaluation, and adjustment unnecessary, but it does remind us that our responsibility is to be faithful in our life and doctrine. We should imitate Paul in our ministry (1 Cor. 11:1). Sometimes there was visible fruit and people were converted and churches were planted. Sometimes there wasn't. Always there was suffering. God is sovereign over the results. Our duty is to be faithful servants.
PRACTICAL GUIDELINES FOR PARTNERSHIPS
The Scripture's teaching on unity and godly attitudes should guide our partnerships (see Phil. 2:1-5), so that each side shouldn't be asking ,"What can I or my team or my church get out of this partnership?" but rather, "What can I give? How can I serve? How can I be a blessing?"
With that in mind, here are some practical guidelines for developing God-honoring partnerships once theological agreement is in place:
- Communicate often and openly. Expect misunderstandings and try to ward them off by communicating freely and frequently.
- Seek to build a close, trusting relationship with several individuals in the partnership.
- Invest in the partners (the people) not just the goals of the partnership.
- Agree upon goals for the relationship as well as for the ministry. Be explicit about your side's goals. No hidden agendas.
- Talk openly about money and hold one another accountable as steward's of God's resources. Money alone rarely moves a partnership towards kingdom goals. Giving money without love counts for nothing according to 1 Corinthians 13.
- Aim for the long term, but begin with a short-term renewable partnership.
- Regularly evaluate and invite feedback from the partners in ministry.
- Continually clarify goals and mutual expectations, preferably in writing. Don't promise more than you can deliver.
- Adopt a learner's posture and expect to learn from one another. This takes humility, trust, patience and brotherly love.
At the end of the day, partnerships are between sinful, sometimes ethnocentric, occasionally stubborn individuals who nevertheless have the Spirit of God. He enables them to work together graciously, though not without effort and prayer. Wise partnerships will be characterized by level-appropriate theological like-mindedness, clearly stated biblical goals, and a godly approach to interpersonal relationships.
Ed Roberts is a church planter in Central Asia.
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