I have many missionary friends throughout the world. In some places there are those who partner with missionaries of other organizations for the sake of the Good News. Then there are those who seek out unity among other missionaries, but the sentiment is not reciprocated. This guest post comes out of that experience and through the reading of the Apostle Paul’s writings. The author has asked to remain anonymous. Read, contemplate, wrestle and offer your thoughts. I think “church planters” might find this relevant. Blessings.
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. (Romans 15:20)
Speaking as a missionary of nearly a dozen years in multiple cultural contexts, this verse has often come to mind. To say that missionaries are “territorial” would be an understatement. I’ve been there, I know. Want to get another missionary riled up? Just show up in an area where they’re already working without consulting him or her or without inviting them to participate and sit back and watch the fireworks. This usually does not happen with long-term missionaries who live in, and are always present members of, the communities in which they’re ministering; but is a notorious practice of short-term missionaries who pay no mind to Paul’s urging. Are those fireworks justified? Probably not. When missionary emotions fly high in these sorts of “disputes,” it’s usually because of pride. Again, I’ve been there, and I know.
But pride, mixed with elevated emotions, rarely makes for good biblical interpretation and application. So, let’s step away from the emotions of this issue and decide how best to employ Paul’s counsel.
I suppose the first thing that we need to do is decide whether or not Paul’s apparent personal preference is a “rule” for all of us. If not a rule, then is it a principle that we should respect? If not a principle, then is it a guide? If not a guide, then is it a suggestion? If not a suggestion, then should we just chalk it up as another of Paul’s quirky sayings and dismiss it entirely?
The second thing we need to do is to check our motives. What good reason would anyone have to work contrary to or apart from a person who is already working with a specific people group or groups? What if that person’s “doctrine” is slightly different from yours? What if we believe that the person/missionary/minister/pastor is sinning or has “fallen from grace?” What if the person already working in the area that you want to work in is of another denomination, no denomination, another church, or holds to some non-essential that just rubs you the wrong way? While we’re talking about “church,” we might as well apply all of these points there as well. We’ve so conflated territory and overlaying foundations that the unity of the body has become next to impossible.
What if none of that matters at all? What if you just don’t care who’s working where? What if you simply want to work in the area where the servant is already working because that’s what YOU WANT TO DO?
Many of the same sorts of questions could be asked of the person/missionary/minister/pastor as well. What GOOD REASON do you have for not wanting others to work the harvest in your area if the mission is not as effective as it can be by you being there alone? What are the possible negative consequences of others working in your calling area? Are you prideful? Are you simply pissing on your fire hydrants to keep others away? Are you worried about your support drying up because someone might like the way others do mission in your area better than the way you’re doing it?
Let’s get back to Paul
We have to remember that Paul’s “area” was practically the entire Gentile world, and that it rarely, if ever, worked out well when someone else or another group came and tried to work where he had already laid a foundation. We also have to remember that Paul himself made disciples who followed-in (not followed-up) after him and continued the same teachings and discipleship. Those that did come in after Paul who tried to lay ‘another’ foundation over Paul’s work were almost always up to no good.
I think that for the most part, Paul’s desire to not preach where others were, and not to attempt to lay his foundation over another’s, was a point of honor and not one of rivalry. Also, there was practically no disparity amongst the Apostles in teaching. Even if one of the other Apostles got “in” somewhere before Paul, I am sure Paul would rest in the idea that the Gospel was delivered well. Today, we have denominational, philosophical, and ideological differences of such difference that we even if “Christ was at the center,” we’d all be talking about different things. Further, I think that when others sought to lay a foundation over Paul’s, it was exactly the opposite, namely, rivalry, selfish ambition, and a twisted mental and spiritual anti-biblical attitude to “win” some sick game.
I think we’d all admit that putting one’s harvest sickle into another’s field and thus claiming credit for the work or glory for the “achievements” that follow is ungodly. This attitude goes way beyond laying foundations on top of another’s, and borders on hostile occupation and flag planting. There is nothing admirable about invasions.
I’d like to know what you think. If you’re a long-term missionary, I’d like to ask, “How you feel when others come into your area of calling and seek to lay a foundation over yours?” How would you counsel someone who blatantly has no Romans 15:20 respect for you or the people you minster to? How have you dealt with these sorts of situations? How would you prevent these possible divisions in the body before they happen? How have you managed your own hurt feelings because of such actions?
For the rest of you, a few questions:
1. How should we see Paul’s words in Romans 15:20? Rule? Principle? Guide? Suggestion? Quirky Drivel? What?
2. What, in your opinion would be some solidly biblical reasons for ignoring Paul’s counsel in Romans 15:20?
3. What is the best way, if a conflict should arise, to resolve the offense or error between first foundation layers and second attempters?