In general, I think of myself as a pretty agreeable person, easy to get along with, and open-minded. I’m sure many of you think the same of yourselves—after all, we’re called to unity in Christ, right?
Knowing that church life in your home country can get messy, think about how it looks when a hodge-podge group of people tries to work together in a foreign country, foreign language, and well, foreign everything. This is the task God has called us to and to which we’ve followed in obedience, but it can be really hard to stay unified in purpose when personalities clash, tempers flare, and feelings get hurt.
Two words can close a door to ministry: “I disagree.”
Disagreements can lead to either me trying to do things on my own and probably then not very well, or both parties going their separate ways and nothing gets done.
Disagreements can also come over legitimate concerns about unscriptural practices and even false teaching. These require much prayer and wisdom and conversation with leadership. Whatever the outcome, if attitudes and practices don’t change, it can bring ministry to a close for someone in the group.
Because most of us enter cross-cultural service through a formal organization, we can also find ourselves disagreeing with changes and top-down guidance. I’ve seen the organizational pendulum swing more than once from side to side, and with each change, we saw friends leave the field in protest.
When I think about disagreement, I think of the big blowup between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. Paul was pretty disappointed that he’d abandoned them on their earlier journey, and he was not about to let that happen twice. Barnabas, always the encourager, wanted to give John Mark, who was also his nephew, another chance. Just as he’d seen the good in a crazy Pharisee-turned-Christian named Saul, I think he also saw the good in a young guy named John Mark.
Paul was not persuaded, and the argument cost them their partnership in the ministry. Paul and Silas sailed off one way and Barnabas and John Mark went another.
What looks like a failure in unity doesn’t mean God’s plan failed.
We know that as the years passed, Paul’s feelings toward John Mark changed. He’d obviously heard that he’d learned from his mistakes and proved himself worthy at Barnabas’s side because he mentions him in later letters. But we also don’t see that the difference of opinion between the two men led them to criticize or put down the other as they continued to serve. Their disagreement didn’t lead to slander, which would have hindered the other’s work for the Kingdom.
Not all disagreements are just matters of opinions, but they can be opportunities for us to show the lost around us how believers can love despite differences. Even if a brother has acted in a way contrary to Scripture, I can put distance between us while still caring for his soul. Taking time to talk through issues or bringing in a third party to mediate helps give margin for God to work.
Are you struggling with disagreements between you and other co-workers on the field? Ask the Lord how to restore unity and resolution so that Satan doesn’t have a chance to gain an advantage on your attitudes toward each other.
Work toward asking, “Will you tell me what that means?” or maybe, “How do you understand it?” before you blurt out with “I disagree.” That’s a way we can maintain…
Grace and Peace
For more on doors that close quickly, read When Doors Close: Changing Course in Missions Without Losing Your Way.