by Frampton Fox
The purpose of this article is to attempt to clarify biblical and missiological issues behind the contemporary use of the term partnership, and to see its relationship to the concepts of fellowship and indigeneity.
Partners, partnering, and partnership sound simple enough. Yet, as the popularity of this reawakened concept sweeps through the ranks of church and mission in this decade, are we really clear on the biblical and missiological basics involved? In an age when the world is polarizing: ethnically, economically, and politically, how can members of the body of Christ avoid growing increasingly apart from each other? If this is even remotely possible, are we clear on what we mean when we say "biblical partnership?" The activist nature of the missions movement worldwide places it in a special position of vulnerability to the sensational and the pragmatic. Because a thing is in vogue and apparently gets results does not, of course, make it popular with God and genuinely productive. The purpose of this article is to attempt to clarify biblical and missiological issues behind the contemporary use of the term partnership, and to see its relationship to the concepts of fellowship and indigeneity.
SOME SPOKESMEN FOR PARTNERSHIP
Rather than recreate the wheel, we will begin by critically surveying three samples of the limited amount of material seeking to establish the biblical basis for partnership. All three of these authors are writing primarily to support and encourage the formation of structured partnerships between organizations. Is there a scriptural precedent for insisting on partnership as a normative methodology in missions?
PARTNERSHIP AS FINANCIAL FELLOWSHIP
Luis Bush has made the most significant effort in writing a biblical basis for partnership focusing on the book of Philippians. He follows the word koinonia, translated fellowship, as the theme word of Philippians. Fellowship in the New Testament refers to a sharing together of tangible and intangible resources held in common by individuals in Christ. In this study, Bush suggests the following biblical definition of partnership: "…an association of two or more Christian autonomous bodies who have formed a trusting relationship and fulfill agreed-upon expectations by sharing complementary strengths and resources to reach their mutual goal" (Bush and Lutz 1991,7).
Bush identifies joy in partnership as the controlling idea of Philippians. From this perspective, he associates the essential ingredients of partnership with a common goal-the gospel, and a common foundation-the Godhead. In Philippians 2, he finds guiding principles for the appropriate attitude for Christian partnership. Yet his discussion of finances sounds more akin to bartering than partnering. "In a tangible way we might say that Christian partnership involves exchanging information for money" (Bush 1991, 10). His subsequent discussion of accountability, which is facilitated through information and financial sharing, is helpful. The intangibles of partnership: suffering, encouragement and prayer are well noted as enhancing the intimacy expressed in Philippians. Bush’s concepts and the servanthood principles derived from this epistle are excellent, but rather than establishing a basis for partnership, they more accurately establish the ethos of biblical partnership. Paul’s koinonia with the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:5,7) exemplifies an ideal atmosphere of warm, dignified sharing together toward which every missionary and national relationship should aspire. The relationship between Paul and the Philippian church certainly offers us an example to follow of koinonia in action. The teaching of Philippians offers principles applicable to various relationships in the body of Christ. Although it is a helpful definition, Philippians offers little clear evidence to insist on Bush’s definition of organizational partnership as being normatively demanded by scripture.
PARTNERSHIP AS AN APOLOGETIC FOR CHRISTIAN FAITH
Paul McKaughan, executive director of the EFMA, offers three biblical foundations for partnership: First, ministry always flows from relationship. Second, the demonstration of our oneness is the highest indication to a watching world that we love Him. Third, the Holy Spirit is drawing the Christian body into partnerships (McKaughan 1994, 69).
These are tremendous truths, which encourage us to relate together in ministry. When ministry situations call for a joint effort of persons or organizations, all should be motivated and directed by these great truths. Yet, can we insist from these principles that formal partnerships are (to use McKaughan’s terms) a necessity, not optional, but essential? While these biblical foundations certainly point us to truths governing Christian relationships, do they also specify the application of those principles?
Jesus sent His disciples two by two and trained his men in a small group of thirteen. Yet, the Bible never explicitly instructs that missionaries must go in sets. In the gospels and Acts we see men traveling without marriage partners in missionary groups. If we apply a wooden hermeneutic to these historical narratives, then the Catholic orders are much closer to the ideal than any of our evangelical agencies. We can insist from didactic portions of the New Testament that when God led ministry personnel to team up or to partner, they felt bound to do so in a manner consistent with Scripture.
Some of our greatest missionary heroes were lonely pilgrims: David Brainerd, David Livingstone, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Amy Carmichael, Bruce Olson, etc. The ability to survive in isolation is what kept many missionaries on the field and their ministries functioning. Yet, we would expect these heroic loners to apply scriptural principles to their relationships with other missionaries, national Christians, and organizations. As the mission paradigm shifts, we need trail-blazers in the areas of partnership and participation. Our relationships need to be guided by Scripture. We should be careful not to pressure ourselves into forms that may not suit the functions. Organizational partnership is not part of the Decalogue.
PARTNERSHIP AS AN EXPRESSION OF GOD’S NATURE
Phil Butler, who has written widely on partnership, pinpoints a primary biblical foundation. Partnerships are important because "God Himself dwells in community," and He made man to dwell in relationship. As agents of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5), we are to witness individually and in community (John 17, Ps. 133). This perspective helps to temper Western individualism as we relate the gospel to collectivist societies that hold community relationships as an almost sacred value (Butler 1994, 15).
Both McKaughan and Bush touch, if all-too-briefly, on this theme of partnership being based in God’s nature. "This communal relationship contains the discernible mirror image of the triune God" (McKaughan 1994,69). Luis Bush says the same thing in a slightly different way, "When God said ‘Let us make man in our image,’ he gave us a glimpse of the divine cooperative purposes of the Trinity right from the time of creation." He then applies this to the body of Christ being gifted as a fellowship to demonstrate Christ to the world (Bush and Lutz 1990, 21). This foundation in the nature of God and the nature of man is the strongest biblical underpinning yet for the necessity of seeking partnerships in ministry.
A HERMENEUTICAL CAUTION
We must beware of the tendency to force even a good agenda on the text of the Bible. What begins in the name of good praxis may end in a spirit of isogesis. Partnership, per se, is a highly workable and pragmatic concept that is certainly compatible with the teachings of the Bible. Depending on how we define partnership, we may even assert that "partnership is biblical." However, it may be more accurate to say that partnership can be effected in a biblical manner.
Broadly speaking, partnership is a neutral term like the word relationship. It cannot be judged as good or bad until a specific case is measured by the clear teachings of Scripture. Partnership is a convention of society that is a necessity for social beings. Anytime we do something together in cooperation with another entity, we have engaged to some degree in partnership. The cooperation may simply be an unspoken agreement to stay out of each other’s way. R. Theodore Srinivagasam aptly terms this type a partnership in isolation, as distinct from a partnership in dynamic relationships (Srinivagasam 1994, 32). Geographical comity arrangements are one example of isolation partnership. We may not be emboldened to call this "cold-war approach" a biblical partnership, but we could argue that it has proven expedient and to the ultimate glory of God in many instances.
Certainly, when we bring this empty term to the well of Scripture and fill it with biblical meaning we raise our expectations exponentially. However, scriptural integrity does not allow us to lift the concept of organizational partnership to the level of an institution like marriage. The Bible makes clear that marriage has been invented, instructed, and demanded by God for cohabiting men and women. Partnership as it is being popularly used in mission circles, though compatible with human nature and potentially in harmony with God’s teachings, is not demanded in that same authoritative manner.
Mission efforts need to fill partnership arrangements with biblical meaning and test them by two standards. First, by the relationship principles taught in Philippians and in other parts of God’s Word. Second, by their own pragmatic merit. The caution is that in the effort to find a biblical basis, we should not read our mission methodology into the Bible in an attempt to sanctify it. To protect the integrity of this new wind of cooperation, perhaps we need to temper statements like the following:
Partnership includes the sharing of all resources for the furtherance of the gospel (Phil 2:25, 4:15; Rom. 15:24). It is a normative way of advancing the gospel, especially when it is introduced from the very beginning (Bush 1990, 29).
This statement contains at least two matters that need to be balanced. First, can we assert with clear scriptural authority that partnership, as Bush defines it and including the concept of sharing all resources, is normative? Second, if it is normative, is it consistent to qualify this by saying especially if it has been introduced early? Though we may appreciate the sentiments that motivate such statements, they sometimes confuse more than they clarify. It might be clearer to say that when a partnership expressed in the pooling of resources is practiced from the beginning of an effort, it can be a very effective and scripturally encouraged method of furthering the gospel. There are many specifics the Bible does not address.
A PRACTICAL QUESTION
If mission partnership is viewed as something from God for the body of Christ, where in the discussion do we place all the cooperative agreements between mission organizations, or personnel, and secular agencies? For example, there are two missionary Bible translators who were able to remain for many years in a closed South American country through an arrangement with the Ministry of Education of that atheistic government. The same would be true for many modern tentmaking and development missionaries who fulfill the functions of a mission partnership without reference to theological concerns. Does a biblically based partnership philosophy apply to these partnerships, or are they outside the fold? Restricting the discussion to Christian, or mission, partnerships makes it more tidy. Yet, it does not seem to do justice to the increasing reality of these valid blended agreements involving non-religious affiliations.
PARTICIPANT OR PARTNER?
To further complicate the issue, some have called for expatriate missionaries to go home (Wakatama 1990, 127). Others counter this with a cry not for moratorium, but for mutuality. In answering Wakatama, Panya Baba says missionaries do need to sacrifice their identity and relinquish decision-making to the church. He also calls on the national church to voluntarily involve the missionary participant in the decision-making process (Baba 1990, 132). Some say it is cost-effective to hire nationals rather than missionaries. Roger Hedlund, writing from the Indian context, warns of the dangers of bogus national evangelists and of well-meaning foreign workers who come in to compete with the local structures. Foreign workers who come in to complement the existing work will be welcome. "Mutuality is the key" (Hedlund 1990, 277).
It does not seem that the Bible is at all specific on whether missionary partner relationships, serving beside the national brethren, are preferable to participant relationships, operating under the national church. Again, we must allow latitude for the Spirit of God to lead missionaries and nationals to discern their specific situation and judge how best to work together. The principle of mutuality, equality, and reciprocity is the issue in whatever form is applied.
Having raised some questions and hinted at some parameters, what does the Bible say about Christians together in partnership? The study of the koinonia word family has definite implications for understanding partnership in missions. Those who are yoked by common experience in the body of Christ are called on to express that yoking in interpersonal relationships through: identification with each other as equals, empathy with those who suffer, participation in suffering, and sharing of material resources. It is significant that the word formerly used by the Jews to describe the unclean-ness of the Gentiles was chosen by the Holy Spirit to express the bringing together of all ethnic groups in Christ. This was expressed by unprecedented signs of racial and spiritual unity: touching (Gal. 2:9); eating together (1 Cor. 10:16); and financial pooling as family (Acts 4:32). This togetherness was one of the four basic tenets of the New Testament church from its inception (Acts 2:42).
The application challenge is for us to find radical signs of racial and spiritual unity and to visibly express what we invisibly acknowledge, including personal interaction and financial interdependency. There does not seem to be any explicit reference to organizational or structural partnerships. Yet, these principles of biblical fellowship should guide all relationships in the local church and the wider body of Christ. If a structured partnership between Christians seems expedient, then these dynamics would apply, as would other biblical relationship principles like those found in Philippians.
To move closer toward finding a biblical basis for structural partnering relationships, the clearest indications may be found in observing how God does ministry throughout the scope of Scripture. God’s first missionary act to reach out to another who would need him spiritually was done in the context of a consensus relationship, "Let us make man…." God makes an apparently verbal, cooperative agreement with Adam and Eve that later was recorded by Moses (Gen. 1:28-30, 2:15-20). God, the landowner, supplied resources to Adam, the sharecropper and taxonomist. Adam fulfilled his responsibilities and God allowed him to enjoy the produce. Spiritually, the first couple broke their contract with God and lost the benefits thereof. Cain was rejected because he had obviously not followed the understood expectations regarding sacrifice. When Cain refused to abide by the terms of the way things were to be done, the close relationship was dissolved. When God dealt with Noah it was by a prescribed plan. The plan included a one hundred and fifty-year program of ship building, animal preservation, and preaching. The plan included explicit instructions for the ark, the animals, and Noah’s family. They did their part and God did his.
God called Abram to build a people and established a covenant with him and his descendants: "you do this and I will do that" (Gen. 12:1-3). God renewed this cooperative covenant to subsequent generations with Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 26:24, 35:11). God calls Moses to partner with him to reach the goal of delivering Israel from bondage (Ex. 3:13). Through Moses, God established the first written agreement made with Israel as His covenant nation (Exod. 19:5-8ff.).
The work of the Godhead in effecting redemption and establishing the church is a study in divine partnership, where the Father sent the Son and the Son sends the Spirit, all with the mutual goal of a harvest in mind (John 15). Scripture reveals something of the Godhead’s own interdependent relationships and individual responsibilities. In Matt. 16:18, Christ offers opportunity and delegates authority to Peter and the other disciples to join him in building his redemptive vehicle, the Church. The Lord Jesus Christ in his mission to establish his Church chose twelve. He trained them, empowered them, and entrusted them in a mutual relationship toward a common goal (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). It is beyond the scope of this survey, and perhaps even beyond explanation, to delve into the mystery of God’s sovereign work and his work through fallen agents of free will.
Any application of the life of the infinite God to our finite lives must, of course, recognize that God is not dependent on man. Yet God in his wisdom chooses to somehow limit himself to work in, through, and in spite of men as agents tainted by the fall. This may be likened to Elijah instructing that excessive amounts of water be poured over the sacrifice on Mt. Carmel. Thus, insuring that whatever was done would testify to God’s glory and not man’s. God does not need man. Yet, he has marvelously limited himself to work in something very much like an interdependent partnership with man to effect his goal of redemption. For the purposes of this study, suffice it to say that we have a part as God’s fellow workers (2 Cor. 6:1), God has a greater part (Col. 1:29), and the mutual goal will be reached (Rev. 5:9,10.). The greatest scriptural precedent for formal partnership in ministry is God’s own model of how he did ministry throughout biblical history.
INDIGENEITY VS. PARTNERSHIP
By indigeneity, we mean those principles which encourage self-support of national churches and view skeptically the unguarded use of foreign funds. This was made popular and expressed by Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson, John Nevius, and Rolland Allen. Partnership, as presently conceived, encourages as obligatory economic sharing from wealthier donor-nation churches to poorer receptor-nation brethren.
FRIEND OR FOE?
What is the proper working relationship between the older concept of indigenous mission work and the modern understanding of partnership? Much of the mission work that exists today was begun and shaped under the old paradigm known as three-self indigenous church methodology. This theory sought as its goal self-governing, self-propagating, and self-funding churches. Some advocates of the newer partnership paradigm are critical of this formative theory as being outdated, and characterize it as the enemy of the new concepts. Luis Bush in his booklet, Funding Third World Missions, champions the cause of economic support flowing from the West to needier parts. In the booklet he raises questions about the "Three Selves Formula"—"Does it destroy the thesis of this booklet? Or is the Formula itself in conflict with the biblical principle of economic sharing" (Bush 1990, 12)? His answer, though somewhat indirect, would seem to be that all the major pioneers of this theory were not biblical, but were simply responding to historical pressures of colonialism and rational concerns. For example, according to Bush, Henry Venn, who was a pioneer of indigenous principles, was pragmatic rather than biblical in his approach (13). In another book he writes, "The ‘three-self theory of missions hindered the development of partnership" (Bush and Lutz 1990, 39). Are indigeneity and partnership adversaries? How should they relate to each other?
FINDING THE BALANCE
If indigenous principles of church planting are "St. Paul’s Methods" as Rolland Allen contends, then how can partnership complement these concepts? To answer this we need to separate Western cultural values from our definition of indigeneity. William Smalley rightly observes:
It seems to me, first of all, that the criteria of ‘self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating’ are not necessarily diagnostic of an indigenous movement…. It is the way the funds are administered, the way the decisions are made, and the purposes to which they are put that are diagnostic of an indigenous church, not the presence or absence of such foreign funds (Smalley 1979, 32).
Having challenged the criteria of determining what is indigenous, he goes on to challenge the values behind a Western application of the three-self principles:
I very strongly suspect that the three "selfs" are really projections of our American value systems into the idealization of the church…based upon Western ideas of individualism and power. By forcing them on other people we may at times have been making it impossible for a truly indigenous pattern to develop (Smalley 1979, 35).
What does this mean for the generations of missionaries who practiced this formula of church planting with varying degrees of success? Are they the enemies of partnership? Melvin Hodges, a strong spokesman for three-self church planting in a very fast growing denomination world-wide, says that missionary partnership does not have to contradict indigeneity:
…These concepts were never intended to convey the idea that the missionary had nothing left to offer the national church once a national leadership is developed…his ministry may still be required for the extension and maturing of the church in many different areas (Hodges 1978, 19).
Beyerhaus reacts strongly to this adversarial concept of indigeneity and partnership, calling the concept of a totally independent church foreign to Scripture:
An understanding of the three selves formula that could render a church completely independent and cut it off from the stream of spiritual life and mutual responsibility circulating through the whole body of Christ, could never be supported from the New Testament (Beyerhaus 1979, 29).
A westernized understanding of the final goal of church development leads to a wrong understanding of the proper place for partnership. James Plueddemann suggests that following the dependent newborn phase, an independent (self-governing) phase may be a necessary transition toward the ultimate goal of a biblically mature church. The mature church will be able to partner with the mission and actively engage in evangelism and nurture (Pluddemann 1983,48).
Chris Marantika, who has experienced outstanding results through many partnership relationships in Indonesia, tells of his struggle with the three-self concepts because he did not see how the poor church in Indonesia could do the job alone:
The more I studied, I came to the conclusion that self, self, self is not biblical. The concept of the body-the family of God-is togetherness. Of course, there is diversity of gifts in the body. But that doesn’t mean that we go by ourselves. ! believe togetherness or interdependence is the biblical ideal. People tell me ideal missionary work is something that is supported only from within the country. I say that is a not a biblical idea (Mumper 1986, 9).
Marantika goes on to say that three-self thinking came about as a combination of fear that the government may dose the door and Western individualistic mentality. He rightly challenges these as forming an inadequate basis for strategy and contends that economic sharing, if properly done, can enhance the indigeneity of a nationally led work and strengthen it in the area of self-propagation.
Having established that indigenous principles and partnership are not contradictory, but rather complementary, we need to suggest an integrated model of how the two can work together. Hans Finzel in writing an appropriately titled article, "The Lost Art of Indigenization," proposes a seven phase continuum of indigenization that attempts to strike this balance: (1) initial entry; (2) first fruits; (3) training nationals to become leaders; (4) partners in leadership; (5) initial national control; (6) complete nationalization and withdrawal; and (7) networking with the global Christian community.
Similarly, Ian Hay of SIM International says that a missionary must "know what phase the work is in and adapt his activity and mentality" accordingly. This reminds us that not only is every phase different, but every field is different and must be read accordingly. Finzel goes on to describe how he sees missionary partnership fitting into his seven phases:
Partnerships are the hot trend in missions today. In my bell curve of missionary involvement, partnerships are found in phases four and five. They are a tremendous new innovation in missions today and should be entered into readily and enthusiastically. Is our new emphasis on partnerships, however, just giving us another justification to stay longer? There must be a finish line drawn, a set of results and objectives that, when reached, will mean that the nationals are free to be on their own. There needs to be a "part" in every partnership. "Partnerships without permanence" should be the watchword (Finzel 1992, 103-105).
This model sees different kinds of partnership appropriately at work in different phases of the national need, culminating in what Finzel calls a networking phase. This pattern includes the important idea of closure, but closure with an open door to ongoing networks of mature relationships, which could include appropriately done foreign funding. Thus, we do not need to debate about who is being more biblical. Indigenous principles properly applied are the parent and friend of contemporary partnership theory.
Having considered some of the biblical and missiological questions concerning partnership, a suggestion is in order. It may help the practitioners’ discussion of how the Bible views partnership to think in terms of a continuum ranging from highly structured to very casual partnerships. It may work even better for missiological discussion to classify partnerships in levels such as formal, non-formal and informal. Formal partnerships would involve one or more organizations, extensive written agreements, and many discussion conferences. Non-formal partnerships would be planned and purposeful with some form of understanding or agreement; but very interpersonal in orientation involving any combination of individuals, churches or organizations. Informal partnerships would be highly relational, more spontaneous, naturally developing, and may have nothing more than a feeling of mutual consent binding them together. Where would the cooperative relationships in the book of Acts and the Epistles fit? They are certainly in the direction of the non-formal and informal end of the spectrum.
In the New Testament, the ethos of koinonia from the body life of the local church naturally flowed out into the missionary activity of establishing new churches. If our modern applications become so large and unwieldy that some formality is necessary we must remember that it is not the organized cooperative that is demanded by the Bible. Instead, it is this identifying atmosphere of mutuality, sharing, and interdependency that can really be called biblical. If this grows into the form of an organized partnership, may it not be at the expense of the spirit of communality. Philip Butler points to this priority as he says:
These biblical themes suggest that partnerships which allow us to demonstrate at least functional community to be aware of, pray for, speak well of, and support each other-are not an option: they are absolutely critical (Butler 1994, 17).
Fellowship and partnerships are a rich part of the family structure of New Testament local churches. Reciprocal relationships based on the one another commands should be basic to the life of the body. Certainly these qualities should spill over into interrelationships outside a believer’s primary church affiliation, but let’s avoid the tendency to blindly follow a new fad. Let’s critically examine what we mean biblically and missiologically when we say "partnership."
Baba, Panya. "We Need to Work Together to Develop Good Relationships," Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ), Vol. 26, No. 2 (April 1990), pp. 131-133.
Beyerhaus, Peter. 1979. "The Three Selves Formula—Is It Built on Biblical Foundations?" in Readings in Dynamic Indigeneity. Pasadena: William Carey Library, pp. 15-30.
Bush, Luis. 1990. Funding Third World Missions: The ursuit of True Christian Partnership. Wheaton, Ill.: World Evangelical Fellowship.
Bush, Luis. "In Pursuit of True Christ ian Partnership: A Biblical Basis from Philippians," in Partners in the Gospel, The Strategic Role of Partnership in World Evangelization, James H. Kraakevik and Dotsey Welliver, eds. Wheaton: Billy Graham Center Monograph, n.d., pp. 3-15.
Bush, Luis and Lorry Lutz. 1990. Partnering in Ministry: The Direction of World Evangelization. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Butler, Phillip. 1994. "Kingdom Partnerships in the ’90s: Is There a New Way Forward?" in Kingdom Partnerships for Synergy in Missions. William D. Taylor, ed. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library. P. 9-30.
Finzel, Hans W. "Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em: On Temporary Partnerships and the Recycling of Missionaries," International Journal of Frontier Missions 9:3, July 1992: 103-105.
Hedlund, Roger E. "Cheaper by the Dozen? Indigenous Missionaries vs. Partnerships," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, July 1990, pp. 274-279.
Hodges, Melvin. 1978. The Indigenous Church and the Missionary. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Frampton Fox served with Pioneers for 9 years as a church planter among East Indians in Guyana, South America and is currently a lecturer in missions at a Bible School in South Asia. He is a graduate of Columbia International University, B.A., M.Div., D.Min.
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