Last year, my wife and I undertook the privilege of raising financial support in order to move overseas as missionaries. The year was filled with ups and downs, steps forward and steps back, discouragement and speechless awe. By God’s grace, we met our financial goal and deployed to our field early this year.
One of the greatest privileges of the support-raising process was the opportunity to interact with and visit numerous churches. Though we deeply missed the joy of consistent fellowship in one church, we loved the opportunity to meet fellow-workers around the continent and to see their generous commitment to supporting gospel workers overseas.
The process also gave us a front-row seat to the different ways churches interact with both potential and current missionaries. Observing these relationships forced us to refine our thinking regarding what characterizes a biblical sending partnership.
Churches should want to improve the character of their church-to-missionary partnerships. We certainly met many who were eager to send “in a manner worthy of God” (3 John 6)! And yet, we’ve not observed comparable interest or discussion about the other side of the relationship, that is, the missionary-to-church relationship. How do those of us who are sent and supported engage with those who send and support?
To be frank, during our own support-raising process, this second dimension was rarely at the forefront of our minds. Our support training bootcamp—which happened apart from RTIM—didn’t mention it aside from the counsel to invest time in maintaining support relationships so that we do not lose supporters. Maintenance and thankfulness are certainly appropriate for the missionary-to-church relationship. But does the example of the apostles call us to something more?
I will attempt to answer this question in three stages:
- 1. What language does the New Testament use to describe church-missionary support relationships?
- 2. What should characterize the church-to-missionary relationship?
- 3. What should characterize the missionary-to-church relationship?
This first article will address #1, while a follow-up article will address #2 and #3.
Biblical Language for Church-Missionary Support Relationships
No biblical passage straightforwardly states, “Churches shall support missionaries.” The existence and character of these partnerships is generally implicit, not explicit. The epistles are particularly helpful in this regard, as they provide a peek inside the communication between the apostles and their supporting churches. While the apostolic nature of their ministry should caution us against hastily drawing direct connections, many principles clearly extend beyond the apostles (e.g., 3 John 5–8, in which John encourages the church to support other “brothers” who have “gone out”).
So what language do the apostles use in describing these relationships? Today, we regularly use words like “donors,” “sponsors,” or “supporters.” Unfortunately, these words picture the relationship as entirely one-way. In contrast, the Bible emphasizes mutuality in the relationship.
First, Paul uses the word koinonia twice in Philippians (noun form in 1:5; verbal form in 4:15) to describe his relationship with the church in Philippi. This is the familiar word we typically translate as “fellowship,” both our relationship with other believers (Acts 2:42) and with God himself (1 Cor 1:9; 10:16; Phil 2:1; 3:10; etc.). Paul uses the word to speak of “your partnership/fellowship in the gospel” (1:5), and of how no other church besides Philippi “partnered/fellowshipped with me” (4:15) at the beginning of his ministry. This word portrays “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement” (Louw & Nida).
A second descriptive word appears in 3 John 8. John encourages the church that they ought to support those brothers who have gone out “in order that we might be fellow-workers for the truth.” This word (sunergos) is formed by combining the words “with” (sun) and “work” (ergos)—by supporting these workers, the church is “working with” them.
These two words are very similar; they both place a heavy emphasis on the mutuality of the relationship. (Compare 2 Corinthians 8:23, where Paul uses both words in the same sentence in describing Titus as his “partner” and “fellow-worker.”) This mutuality is a keystone of Paul’s relationship to his supporting churches. He makes this explicit on several occasions. Consider two:
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Rom 1:11–12; emphasis added)
“And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.” (Phil 4:15; emphasis added)
For Paul, his relationship with these churches is one of giving and receiving; he’s concerned for their good, and desires to give back spiritually to those who have given to him financially. We might say that the giving/receiving relationship is mutual but asymmetrical; Paul receives financial help, and desires to give back as he is able. Paul doesn’t see himself as on the high ground here—both he and the churches he serves alongside are “partakers” (same root as koinonia above) of grace (Phil 1:7). Certainly, he does seek their help. But this isn’t his ultimate goal; his ultimate goal is their spiritual good (Phil 4:17).
Put simply, the New Testament presents a picture of mutuality in sending relationships.