August 21, 2010

Complementarity and Team Partnerships (pt3)

 This is the 3rd post in my series on ‘Complementarity and Partnership’ (the first two can be found here  and here ). In my last post I began a sequence of proposals exploring how our theology of complementarity may be expressed in teams, with men and women in relationship together in servant ministry.

Here is proposal 2….

Proposal 2: Partnership means valuing and affirming each other’s unique contribution as men and women without rivalry, competition, resentment or self-promotion.

I’d like to begin with a simple his and her story…

Her story:

“For decades our church was silent about the design and calling of women and we’re reaping the results. 

Our women’s ministry operates with a high degree of skill, but also a high degree of independence.
They keep separate from other church ministries and are not accountable to our male leadership. 
Strong personalities lead this ministry, and many women choose to not be involved rather than risk potential conflict. At one point we tried to bring the ministry into the mainstream of the church but our efforts were met with resistance and criticism.” *

His story: 

It’s true, some are preaching Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 
The latter do so in love, knowing I’m put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing they can stir up trouble for me while I’m in chains. 

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice”. (Phil 1:15-18)

Two stories, one ancient, one modern, one male, one female, one anonymous, the other well known. Two woefully disappointing tales of Christians caught in the insidious grip of rivalry, ambition, autonomy and competitiveness. Perhaps most notable is the glaring absence of any true and genuine partnership in the gospel or in the ministry of the church.

They're both images that are so very far from what God intended, images that in fact reflect the very antithesis of what gospel partnership in ministry ought to be, whether it be same or mixed gender partnerships. 

The scriptures call us to foster together a profoundly different way of operating.
Consider these words from Paul:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:1-4)
Here, and in the preceding passage, Paul exhorts the Philippians to live a life worthy of the gospel, a life not marked by division, separation or individuation, but by being ‘united’ in all things.

In chapter 1 Paul urged them not to stand alone but together, to make every effort to strive side-by-side, to contend “as one man for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). With arms linked in solidarity they are to visibly, almost tangibly, present an ‘outward’ united front before a hostile and unbelieving world.

In chapter 2, he repeated his theme, this time calling them to exercise Christ centred unity, not just to those outside of Christ, but ‘inwardly’ towards their brothers and sisters in the faith. He calls believers to actively demonstrate the unity they have in Christ by being ‘loving’, ‘like-minded’ and “one in spirit and purpose” (2:2).

Did you notice that although the image of unity begins corporately in vs1-2, as we shift to vs. 3-4 the onus is placed slap bang on the individual, on you and on me for its effective execution? The practise of Christian unity actually begins with me!

Demonstrable unity takes shape as I begin to throw off my ‘selfish ambition’, as I disrobe of my "vain conceit”, as I unshackle a self-absorbed focus from my own interests”, and readily fix my attention on “the interests of others” (v4).

Paul makes it patently clear, that a life lived worthy of the gospel cannot be one that’s factional, independent, self-seeking or self-promoting, but one that’s humble, Christ centred, and ‘other person focussed’. A Christ-worthy life is one where I abandon self-autonomy and self-glorification and unite myself in common purpose and partnership with fellow brothers and sisters, so that “with one heart and mouth we [together] may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:5-6).

The image presented here, this antithesis of worldly ambition, pride and self-promotion, is not a spiritual state that comes naturally to us though is it? The temptation to become preoccupied with ‘my patch’, ‘my ministry’ and ‘my success’ means we don’t always sit easily with sharing ourselves, our lives or our ministries with others.

For those of us in ministry, it’s this struggle with ‘me-ism’, with competitiveness, envy and rivalry, that are the real partnership killers. These secret ministry sins tempt us to engage in autonomy over inclusivism, to pursue personal success over corporate effort, to subtly seek self-promotion overhumbly considering others better than ourselves’ (v3).  

In the book ‘Still Deadly: Ancient Cures for the 7 Sins’, envy is described asthe plague of friendship’, emphasising the fact that we don’t tend to envy those who are strangers but rather our neighbours, close relatives and friends. Gore Vidal observed this telling reality within himself declaring, “whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies”.

Jerry Bridges in his helpful book Respectable sins echoes a similar insight, noting we don’t tend to just envy people in general but...

1. We tend to envy those with whom we most closely identify and

2. We tend to envy in them the areas we value most.

For those of us in ministry it means we are most vulnerable to other men and women in ministry, and particularly if the things we value most happen to be things they represent, such as ministry success, fame, honour, status, large public platforms…

Instead of considering others better than ourselves, we find ourselves striving to be better than others. Instead of rejoicing in the success of another’s ministry we fall into the pit of comparative despair about our own. Instead of offering ready praise for another’s gifts and abilities we too readily seek to find fault and eke out points of frailty in the other. Instead of thanking God for the privilege of serving Christ where we are, we hungrily scan the horizon for that next opportunity, that bigger, grander, glossier platform to make our name known…

How true the words of Ecclesiastes…and I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”  (4:4) How quickly the heart strays from that of Christ and the example he set before us, of Christ who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Phil 2:5-7)

Their story:

Thankfully, not all stories are like the ‘his and her’ story. Within the pages of the N.T we see some extraordinary examples of godly partnership, perhaps the most notable between men and women would be that of husband and wife team Aquila & Priscilla.

We first meet them in Acts 18 offering home and hospitality to Paul as he goes about his mission to Corinth. 

On leaving Corinth for Ephesus, they pack their belongings and tent making business and partner with him in establishing a church, eventually staying behind to care for the infant church when Paul returns to Antioch, and later giving that same support to Timothy in his leadership there (2Tim 4:19).

But the couple did much more than assist Paul and Timothy, they were actively involved in their own ministry as a couple, partnering together to help Apollos understand the way of God more accurately” (v18-26) as well as hosting a church fellowship in their home (Rom 16:5).

The example of Priscilla and Aquila make an impressive and compelling illustration of a missionary husband and wife team working, not in rivalry, competition or self-promotion, but in partnership together, and in partnership alongside others and with Paul in particular, in the ministry of the gospel. At one point even being willing to risk their own lives on his behalf (Rom 16:4).

Mentioned together six times in the N.T, their extraordinary partnership, ministry and fellowship in the Word became renown to churches in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus. A ministry of which is said, “all the Gentile churches were grateful” (Rom 16:4).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the last words Paul ever wrote were to this endearing partnership- "salute Priscilla and Aquila" (2Tim 4:19).

When men and women choose to compete with one another, generate rivalry in their ministries, envy each other, or cannot bring themselves to value or affirm each others unique contribution to the kingdom, then something is seriously wrong. We’re called to work and labour together in the gospel as fellow workers and partners, not in a spirit of autonomy or competition.
Philippians reminds us that true Christian unity comes from within; it’s a matter of the heart, it’s a practice to be cultivated by each and every believer and not just a doctrinal truth to be blithely espoused. 

So as we seek to work together in Christ centred unity, in true brotherly and sisterly partnership, let’s keep careful watch over our hearts.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
(Prov 4:23)

*Story adapted from 'Women’s Ministry in the Local Church’: J.L Duncan & S. Hunt

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