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Last month, together with some of our younger leaders, I spent a week in the Balkans with Brian Jose. Brian had many stories of people from the West turning up in the Balkans, expecting to ‘do’ mission for local churches.
He asks them, ‘Would you let an Albanian take over your meeting or programme if they turned up out of the blue?’ And they always say ‘No’. But they can’t see that’s what just they’re doing! They assume they know best or that the Balkan church ought to be grateful for their help.
We visited a church started by a well known mission agency. In time local leaders were put in place. All well and good. But the agency still owns the building and so still controls the church. The missionaries themselves are not under the authority of the church. They act independently.
Albanian churches are expected to listen to Westerners. They are not quite trusted. There is still a sort maternal relationship. They are treated as children. They are not true partners in mission.
We find similar issues being address in the letter to the Galatians. Some people in Galatia are teaching a message that, Paul says, ‘pretends to be the Good News, but is not the Good News at all’ (1:6-7). They are saying Gentiles who have put their faith in Jesus also need to be circumcised. Paul’s response is this:‘If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you.’ (5:2) That’s pretty clear.
But there’s another thing going on. There’s an underlying assumption in what the false teachers say. It’s this: ‘You Gentile Christians ought to listen to us Jewish Christians. You ought to do what we say. After all, our church in Jerusalem is larger, stronger, older, better resourced, more established. We have a long history stretching back to Abraham. The Good News came from us. We’re your mother church. We’re just being maternal. We want to look after our children.’
Think how that might sound today. ‘You Albanian Christians or Kurdish Christians or Afghan Christians ought to listen to us British Christians. You ought to do what we say. After all, our church in Britain is larger, stronger, older, better resourced, more established. We have a long history stretching back to the Reformation. The Good News came from us. We’re your mother church. We’re just being maternal. We want to look after our converts.’ No-one quite says it like that, but that’s the subtext of a lot of mission activity.
But Paul rejects this. He wants a partnership of equals; partnership not dependence.
That’s why he says what he says in 1:12: ‘I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.’ The gospel message is not from Jerusalem. It’s not the property of the Jerusalem church. Nor the British church. The gospel did not originate with us.
This puts Paul in a dilemma because, as it happens, the apostles in Jerusalem agree with Paul’s position on circumcision. It would have been so easy for Paul to say, ‘The big guns in Jerusalem are on my side so listen to me.
But if he had done that then he might have won ‘the circumcision argument’, but he would have lost ‘the equal partners argument’. He would have conceded that Gentiles churches were under the authority of the Jerusalem church. And he won’t do that.
And so we get this strange narrative in chapters 1 and 2: ‘I met the apostles – but not straight away (1:15-17). I met the apostles – but only a few of them (1:18-19). They agreed with me – but their opinion doesn’t really matter (2:6, 9).’
In 4:25-26 Paul says ‘Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem. She is the free woman, and she is our mother.’ Where is our mother church? Where is the church who gave us birth? Where is the church to whom we are accountable? Not in Jerusalem. It’s not a church in Sheffield. It’s not the headquarters of mission agency. Our mother church is in heaven. Our mother church is the congregation of people gathered around the throne of Jesus.
The church in Galatia is not even under the authority of Paul. Look at 1:8: ‘Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you.’ The church in Galatia is under the authority and headship of Christ – not the church in Jerusalem, not even Paul. And the church is led by the Spirit through the word – not by messengers from Jerusalem and not even by letters from Paul. This letter is a letter of persuasion, not of dictate. And the same is true for Albanian churches and Pakistani churches and Kurdish churches. They are not under the authority of mission agencies or Western churches. They are under the authority of Christ, led by the Spirit, owing allegiance to the heavenly church.
So if we want to work with churches in Albania or Pakistan or Kurdistan then we need to work as equal partners.
In the Balkans we met a church planter called Arvid. Brian told us how a Westerner came through Albania and was telling Arvid all the things he wanted to do. Arvid got quite agitated because the guy was expecting them to get on board with his agenda. And in his outburst Arvid mentioned Brian’s name. ‘Oh, you’ll listen to Brian,’ the guy said in frustration. Arvid replied: ‘Brian influences us because he listens to us.’ A partnership of equals.
It’s not that the Western church has nothing to contribute. Of course it has. We have a history, resources, understanding. But we must work with others churches as equal partners. They, too, have a history, resources, understanding. Indeed, it comes to their context, they will usually have a better understanding. There are many things we can teach them. But there are also many things we can learn. As we work with churches around the world we must work together as equal partners.
‘But what about when there is no church? How can you work with a local church when there isn’t one or they’re all very new Christians?’ Let me respond with another question: Where is Paul when he writes to the Galatians? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that, wherever he is, he’s not in Galatia! He planted the church and then moved on.
And that was his habit. Sometimes he stayed for a few years, sometimes a few weeks. But he always moved on to let the church develop without him. He was still involved – that’s why he’s writing this letter. But he allowed local leaders to take responsibility for the church. His goal was a partnership of equals. And he did that by moving on. That might sound risky to us, but Paul entrusted them to the Holy Spirit.
In one town we visited in Albania there was a church started by a missionary from the UK. Twenty years later he is still there. He will not hand on the work. So the church remains dependent on him. It is causing a lot of frustration.
Paul’s goal is a partnership of equals. Partnership not dependence.