Sometimes, the best way to define a concept is by explaining what it is not. In Matthew 6, Jesus began a lesson on prayer by explaining to his disciples how not to pray. I can imagine a teacher beginning a lesson on the platypus by explaining that it is not a duck, beaver, or otter. I want to use a similar strategy to explain the impact of failed or absent partnerships.
If partnership brings diverse believers into a mutual, complementary relationship where they engage together in the mission of God, then what happens when partnership is missing or unhealthy?
Healthy partnerships provide relational accountability, so each partner’s witness and ministry remain faithful to Scripture and relevant within the local context. Unhealthy or nonexistent partnerships mean that either one party controls the other or that the two parties remain relationally isolated. This has and can lead to doctrinal disasters.
When healthy cross-cultural partnership is absent, it tends to be because either foreigners dominate the relationship or nationals isolate themselves. Either way, the one-sided reality of failed cross-cultural partnerships may lead to the following errors.
Irrelevance may result from foreigners dominating ministry with their singular perspective on the application of Scripture to the local context. When foreigners control a partnership and demand conformity to their beliefs without sensitivity to the cultural context, locals may view the gospel as irrelevant and legalistic. The gospel is relevant, but the ignorance or hostility of cultural outsiders means that the audience misunderstands or is confused by the message. The imposition of foreign cultural values and norms has never ended well.
When foreigners control a partnership and demand conformity to their beliefs without sensitivity to the cultural context, locals may view the gospel as irrelevant and legalistic.
Historically, this was true in the days of colonialism when some missionaries had paternalistic, controlling attitudes towards local churches and leaders. All too often, missionaries were slow to pass the baton of leadership to national believers. The lack of local church ownership and participation in missions slowed the maturity and numerical growth of local disciples.
Pluralism may be the result of liberal foreigners accommodating false doctrines and practices. While outside control by foreigners may lead to legalism, the influence of liberal foreigners easily leads to pluralism. Foreigners who doubt the Scriptures and advocate for tolerance of differing viewpoints will influence local believers toward the acceptance and celebration of multiple truth claims.
A strength of healthy partnerships is that they provide accountability and a relationship that challenges cultural and theological errors. When cultural outsiders are not grounded in the convictions of Scripture, they end up over-sympathetically accepting local beliefs and practices. Healthy partnership should include loving, corrective confrontation for the sake of the gospel. Outsiders who elevate the culture while deemphasizing the authority of Scripture fail to offer a corrective to their cross-cultural counterparts.
Heresies proliferate in the context of theological and relational isolation. Relational isolation combined with an unhealthy, independent bent toward the interpretation of Scripture provides an environment for heresy to thrive. When local believers reject historical and contemporary accountability in their biblical exegesis, they exile themselves to a dangerous theological island. Isolated, over-confident interpretations of authoritative texts lead to alternative truth claims––better identified as heresy.
Believers should enter relationships locally within the church and cross-culturally with partners in order to mitigate the risk of self-deception and outright error.
Every person has theological and cultural blind spots. Believers understand that our abilities to know and perceive truth are impacted by sin and the Fall. Believers should enter relationships locally within the church and cross-culturally with partners in order to mitigate the risk of self-deception and outright error. Isolated believers who place unwavering faith in their personal explanation of theological truth may wander far from biblical orthodoxy.
Syncretism may result from people isolated from the accountability of either cross-cultural relationships or Scripture. When cultural insiders isolate themselves from relationships and deemphasize Scripture, the result is often syncretism. Cultural insiders do not benefit from the relationship and perspective of cross-cultural partners or the critique of Scripture itself. The status quo continues to operate with little discomfort or challenge to how things have always been in the local context. Local beliefs are mixed with Christian truths so that the result is an unholy combination called syncretism.
Transformation to the image of Christ is impossible when a people and culture fail to evaluate their weakness or engage in a relationship that exposes these faults. At best, teachings about Christianity are mixed with local beliefs, and little true internal or external change is evident. Relationally isolated groups like this tend to act with suspicion toward outsiders and remain grounded in their ethnocentric perspective. Unrestrained independence leads to unhealthy isolation from God, other people, and the authority of Scripture.
Partnership as Guard and Anchor
One-sided relational control by foreigners or relational isolation by cultural insiders escalates the probability of theological errors for believers today. Believers are one because of our connection to the head—Jesus—and we must be one as we engage in the mission of God. Partnership across cultural boundaries is a gift to local churches, believers, and organizations to help guard them from heresy, anchor them to the gospel message, and compel them to engage in the gospel mission.
Joshua Bowman holds a PhD in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. He served with his wife, Amy, and their four children in Zambia and South Asia with the International Mission Board for seventeen years as a church planter, church strengthening strategist, and team leader.