The number one problem in missionary work today is broken, strained relationships.
Someone said, “To live above with the saints we love—oh, that will be glory. But to live below with the saints we know can be a different story.”
It shouldn’t surprise us that relationships are such a battleground, because the only thing that will last for eternity is our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Nothing else will endure. None of our mission organizations, church buildings, houses, cars, bank accounts, or educational degrees will survive the grave.
When our relationships are strong, enormous resources are released to accomplish the work of God. When relationships are strained, the energy of the Holy Spirit working through us is drained away. It makes sense, therefore, that Satan’s strategy to undermine relationships among believers, especially those intent on serving Christ.
All of us have experienced relationship problems that distract us from Christian service. It’s easy for us to become so focused on a poor relationship, so hurt by it, so perplexed about how to resolve it, that we become sidetracked. Today the church of Jesus Christ is often tragically diverted from the task of communicating the gospel because of broken relationships.
In John 17, Jesus prays for the unity of his disciples and “those who will believe in me through their message.” That’s us! Jesus prays, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
Our practical unity with other believers is the first evangelistic method we have. Jesus says our unity lets the world know that the Father sent him and that God loves us. That is the very heart of the gospel message.
As we move across cultural barriers to share God’s love, the foundation of all our communication (whether it be acts of compassion, friendship, behind-the-scenes practical serve, or literature distribution) is a godly quality of relationships between us and our coworkers.
Because right relationships under-gird all ministries, we must give highest priority to resolving relationship problems on a mission team. I remember serving with a short-term team in West Bengal. As the only foreigner on a team of eight Indians, my job was to lead the team’s Bible study program and to drive a large truck, which was our mobile evangelistic base and home.
One day, just before driving out to a crowded market to preach, distribute Scriptures, and do personal work, tempers on the team flared. Our Indian team leader called us all together and said that we couldn’t go out to evangelize until we got right with each other. Right there in the back of the truck, we confessed our sins, forgave each other, and prayed together. Later that afternoon, we weren’t surprised to experience unusual interest and responsiveness among the Hindu villagers.
One benefit of short-term service is to see the Bible come alive in new ways as you get into situations where God must act to keep you out of deep trouble. The Bible is full of practical instructions on resolving and keeping relationships right. I’ve found three basic principles helpful in learning to live together.
Let Love Cover
In the rubs and scrapes of everyday life—let alone in missionary service—we must know the reality of allowing God’s love to cover our interaction with others. I lived for five-and-a-half years on the mission ship Logos with 130 others from twenty-five nations. If we’d taken up each offense and misunderstanding with one another, we never would have accomplished anything. Love is like the oil that covers the moving parts in the main diesel engine which propels the ship forward. Without oil, the engine overheats and locks up. However, there are situations where love doesn’t cover, but actually causes us to uncover that which is sinful and wrong.
Take the initiative to go and ask for forgiveness. In Matthew 5:23 and 24, Jesus says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother; then come and offer your gift.” With God, reconciliation has a higher priority than worship, because true worship can’t occur when relationships aren’t right.
If you’re aware that your brother has something against you, one of two things must be true. Either you’ve done something against him, or he thinks you have. In either case, the next move is yours, not his. Go and be reconciled with him
The church is full of offended people waiting for others to make the first move. Jesus says that it’s your move if you’re aware that the other person is hurt. If you’re the offender, you need to go immediately, ask forgiveness, and make full restitution. Even if it seems that the other party is more at fault, take full responsibility for your own wrong.
Take the initiative to go when you’re aware of sin in the life of another believer. “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15).
What does Jesus say here? “If your brother sins against you, go and tell a lot of people about it”? That’s not what it says, but that’s what we usually do, isn’t it? We go and tell other people. “Do you know what I saw John do the other night?” or “You know, I don’t really know exactly how to approach this person. I wonder if I can get some advice from you.” And when we go to other people, we immediately erode the potential for that person to come back, to confess, and to be restored, because as the news spreads, the stakes get higher. The higher the stakes, the harder it is for the offender to repent.
The whole purpose of Matthew 18:15-17 is to help sinners confess their sins and experience restoration. The purpose of loving confrontation is not to make life hard for them, embarrass them, or hurt them. It’s to bring healing and reconciliation.
”If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” Very explicit, isn’t it? Don’t’ tell him in front of the other team members, because the approach is so important. Do it privately. Do everything possible to make it as easy as possible for that person to admit the wrong, to ask forgiveness, and to be restored to fellowship with the Lord and with you. If you go and say, “You miserable sinner, I don’t understand how you could ever do something as terrible as this,” you haven’t created an atmosphere in which that person can easily acknowledge the sin and confess it. Go in humility.
Don’t start off by accusing the person. Because you don’t have the full story, say, “You know, the other night I noticed you in this situation. Would you tell me what was happening there?” When you ask questions, it’s much less threatening.
I don’t like to confront others. If you like to go to people and point out their sins, you have a problem. But the Word of God doesn’t say, “If you feel like going, go.” It doesn’t say, “If you think it’s a good idea, go.” It says, “Go.” That’s a command.
In Matthew 18, Jesus gives us a basic set of steps for seeking reconciliation. In verse 16, we read, “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If the person refuses to listen, or says that what you’re saying isn’t true, then take one or two others along.
On your mission team, this would be a good time to bring the team leader into the situation, unless the team leader is the one you’re confronting. If it’s the team leader, then you need to take another mature team member with you.
You need to go first yourself, then with one or two others, and then to the spiritual authorities supervising your team if the situation is still unresolved.
Let love cover. Ask forgiveness. Go and confront compassionately. As you serve Christ, these three principles, when applied to the inevitable struggle of interpersonal relationships, can produce a unity that will let the world know that the Father sent Jesus and has loved you even as he has loved Jesus. Pack these principles in your suitcase, between your socks and your towel, because you’ll need them.