What Four Years of Elders Meetings Taught Me About Team Unity

There is tremendous power for unity in a practical theology of the body of Christ. For two years I was able to sit in on elders meetings at my church as part of a leadership development program. Then for two more years I was able to participate in elders meetings as an elder myself, before we left for the mission field. What I observed in those four years of meetings has continued to shape the way I work for team unity among my teammates on the field.

Like many young men with a heart for ministry, there was a time when I thought that my personal set of spiritual gifts was somehow superior to others’. I would not have said this, but I know at times I felt it. Or at least I failed to feel down in my bones an appreciation for gifts that were different than mine, which is almost the same thing. This is where observing the elders meet together was so helpful for me. Here was a group of men, a group very diverse in terms of age, background, personality, and gifting. And yet they worked well together, appreciated their differences, and even celebrated them. The one gifted in preaching would praise the one gifted in systems, who would praise the one gifted in wisdom, who would praise the one gifted in the biblical languages. They would lean on one another in the tasks in which they were weaker. They not only knew that their differences made them a better team of shepherds, they actually believed and felt this, even in the midst of disagreement. And I began to believe and feel it as well.

The diverse gifts given to the body of Christ, the Church, are described in passages like 1st Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1st Peter 4. These and other passages put together give us a robust theology of the body of Christ. Christ has ascended, and in doing so has given gifts to every single believer, though not the same ones. Each believer has gifts with which they are able to uniquely build up the body of Christ in love, and each believer is in need of the gifts of the rest of the body, just as the different members of the human body need one another. All are to be honored, none are to be despised, even though some gifts are more powerful for edification than others. All gifts are spiritual, though some seem to us more supernatural than others. Through these gifts we serve and teach one another, display God’s power to the lost, and we glorify the giver of these gifts, knowing that they come from him and are not of our own making.

Before sitting in on elders meetings, I could have written you a decent theological paper laying out these truths in detail. But in order to really make this theology practical I needed to see it modeled. Here’s a plug for any pastors out there thinking through raising up leaders – make sure there are places where the men you are raising up can observe you modeling leadership, in addition to the good content they are learning. Modeling enables others to learn things practically and intuitively which complements study that is heavy on the abstract and on the knowledge necessary for leadership.

Now that we are on the mission field, we are trying in turn to pass on these biblical principles to our teammates. It has been said that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. I believe this. But a lived theology of the body of Christ can not only hold missionary teams together, it can even cause them to flourish and to be powerfully effective, even in the midst of disagreement.

Our previous team was made up of three families, all very different from one another in personality, culture, and giftings. We had our fair share of conflict and times where we drove each other crazy. But God was gracious to us, we ate a lot of good kabob together, and we came to genuinely appreciate one another’s friendship and diverse spiritual gifts. Together we saw a small church planted in the hard soil of Central Asia. We reached an important stage of maturity as a team when we were able to openly affirm one another in the ways we were individually gifted, rather than seeing one another as a challenge or threat. We grew in doing this in team meetings and even in front of the local believers, who were prone to comparing us to one another. By emphasizing my teammate’s gifts, I could not only encourage them and remind myself of how much I need them, I could also model for locals how to honor believers they are very different from. Practically, I could also lean on my teammates’ pastoral and preaching gifts, their energy for life and language, their hospitality and sharp minds for making detailed plans and arguments. And they in turn could lean on me in other areas.

Now we have taken on a new leadership role with a different team, even larger and more diverse than our previous one. Our prayer is that this practical theology of the body of Christ will soak deep down into the foundation of who we are as a team. To see a fellow believer a little bit more like Christ sees them, as a saint uniquely gifted by the ascendant king – that is a powerful force for team unity.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Whence The Self-Perpetuating Hierarchy

With the deaths of the apostles (apostoloi, or envoys), who had been the chief conveyors of Jesus’s message, the role of the bishop grew; and by the beginning of the second century we find him being treated in a more exalted manner – as a successor to the dead apostles and symbol of unity for the local congregation – but still the appointee of his congregation. As its symbol of he was duty-bound to consult his congregation in all important matters. “From the beginning of my episcopacy,” the aristocratic Cyprian of Carthage, monumental bishop of third-century Africa, confided to his clergy, “I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people.”

By the end of Augustine’s life, such consultation was becoming the exception. Democracy depends on a well-informed electorate; and bishops could no longer rely on the opinion of their flocks – increasingly, uninformed and harried illiterates – nor, in all likelihood, were they averse to seeing their own power grow at the expense of the people. In many districts, they were already the sole authority left, the last vestige of Roman law and order. They began to appoint one another; and thus was born – five centuries after the death of Jesus – the self-perpetuating hierarchy that rules the Catholic church to this day.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 61-62

Babylonian Seminary

[3] Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, [4] youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. [5] The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. [6] Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. [7] And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:3-7 ESV)

I’ve recently started reading the book of Daniel again. While the book of Daniel is full of amazing theology, history, and prophecy, today I only want to take one obscure point and with that point to poke popular missiology. Here is that point: Daniel and his friends were asked to study the language, literature, and religious practices of the Babylonians for three years before they were qualified to serve as leaders in pagan Babylonia.

Why does this matter? Popular missiology (the study and practice of missions) contends that multi-year seminary-type preparation of leaders is a modern Western concept. It claims that for the needs of the Great Commission today, we should jettison such slow, non-reproducible, knowledge-centric leadership training. In its place we need to create streamlined rapidly-reproducible leadership lessons that pump out leaders at a much faster rate – something like ten leadership development participatory bible studies. After all, can’t we trust the Spirit of God and the word of God to raise up qualified leaders? Why should we ask locals to sit under training for so long and under the instruction of foreign teachers? God forbid we train leaders in ways that echo those of the older Western paternalist missionaries, stuck in their colonialist mindsets. We are beyond that, aren’t we?

My contention is a simple one. Multi-year leadership training is a global concept, one embraced by all epochs of church history and even practiced before church history began. It’s not a modern Western imposition on the rest of the globe, even if we grant the questionable point that if something is Western then that automatically means it should be jettisoned. Multi-year leadership training is a simple outworking of what many civilizations have found to be universal wisdom – it takes some years to really know a man and to impart to that man the knowledge and skill necessary to lead well. This was not only true of ancient pagan Babylon, but also of the ancient Christian training centers of Edessa, Gond-i-Shapur, Ireland, and the those medieval European centers of clergy training that would form the basis of our modern university system. Jesus himself invested three and a half years in those who would become the first leaders of the global Church.

While living in the US, for three years I took part in a church-based pastoral apprenticeship. Then after I graduated, I helped to lead that apprenticeship for two more years. Though I was skeptical in the beginning about the length of time being asked by the elders (three years?!), over time I came to see the wisdom of taking the slow route when it came to raising up pastors, missionaries, and church planters. Sometimes a man would make it two and a half years through the program only to flame out in the final year, some character or doctrinal issue finally bubbling up to the surface. It was often very surprising when this happened, and this in our own language and culture, where we have a much easier ability to discern character and belief. On the other hand, for the vast majority of the men that made it through the apprenticeship, at the end of those three years we could say with confidence that we really knew their life and doctrine. Many of these have now gone out as pastors, church-planters, and missionaries and are raising up leaders in their own contexts.

But what about Paul? Didn’t he appoint elders much more quickly than this in the churches he planted? Yes, there is some evidence in the book of Acts that Paul didn’t always take years to train and assess potential leaders before they were appointed. This is a valid point, and one worth exploring further. But it’s the whole counsel of the word we need here, not just the book of Acts. When the instructions for leader qualification of 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (written by Paul) are taken seriously, we will often find that it takes years to soberly assess and inculcate these character traits and skills in the men of our churches – especially when we are working in a different language and culture. And this should probably be considered normal. Who, after all, plants lasting churches as quickly as Paul did? So shouldn’t it be normal if our leadership development runs a little slower than his did also? I for one recognize that there are some real discontinuities between my gifts and Paul’s, just as there are also some continuities. That capital or lower-case “A” in apostolic makes a real difference. But I digress from my simple point.

If anyone states that multiyear leadership training is a Western concept (and therefore bad), that person is simply speaking ahistorically. It’s popular to take pot-shots at seminary in missions circles. Yet the common witness of the Church throughout the centuries has been that an investment of years in faithful men leads to trustworthy leaders, who will then be able to train others also (2 Tim 2:2). What may be truly Western (in the bad sense) would be methods that insist that leaders can be multiplied rapidly and exponentially like some kind of pyramid scheme.

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So Choose Your Words Carefully

Cicero, born in the century before Christ, exercised his techniques when republican Rome, in all its vigor, welcomed public men. Augustine loved Cicero, as did the whole Latin world, which placed the Roman orator just below Virgil on the divinity charts. (Jerome, the cantankerous translator of the Latin Bible, awoke one night in a frenzied sweat: he had dreamed that Christ had condemned him to hell for being more of a Ciceronian than a Christian.) The ancients held the practical use of words in much higher regard than we do, probably because they were much closer to the oral customs of prehistoric village life – so clearly reflected in Nestor’s speech to the Greek chieftains in the Iliad and in Mark Antony’s speech over Julius Caesar’s body – in which the fate of an entire race may hang on one man’s words.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 47

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What’s Up With the Male Head Coverings in Corinth?

1st Corinthians 11, with its discussion about head coverings, has been called one of the most confusing chapters in the Bible. Often the discussion about this chapter zeroes in on whether or not women are universally required to wear head coverings in the church, or whether this requirement was a local/historical application of a universal principle. I lean toward the latter, finding the case compelling which advocates that Corinthian female head coverings were a sign of modesty and faithfulness among the married women of the Greco-Roman world. So today, whatever forms communicate that principle of modesty and faithfulness in a contemporary culture would be a good way to apply 1st Corinthians 11 to the ladies of our churches.

But what about the men? Why would men in Corinth desire to cover their heads when praying or prophesying in the church? This is why I love learning about the New Testament background and culture. As L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Check out this revealing note from the ESV Archeology Study Bible:

Roman statuary depicts emperors and senior magistrates as partially covering their heads with fold of their togas when offering a public sacrifice (“praying”) or reading its entrails (“prophesying”). Paul instructs the Corinthian men not to dishonor Christ by praying to him in the same way that others addressed false gods such as Apollo. By praying with their heads uncovered, they show they are praying in a new way and worshiping a different deity than their pagan neighbors.

ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1710

That’s right. Roman emperors and other officials covered their heads to pray and prophesy. There’s even a statue from Corinth of Caesar Augustus doing this very thing (pictured above).

So how in the world do you apply this underlying principle of countercultural worship forms to the men of contemporary churches, whether in the west, the global south, or among the unreached people groups of the world? In some contexts it might be simpler than others. Where we serve in Central Asia, we should apply this by raising up men who preach and pray and even dress differently enough from the mullahs and imams of the mosque that it’s clear that they are worshipping different deities. The god of the Qur’an is not the same God of the Bible and the apostle Paul would have that distinction reflected in the public praying and prophesying of men in the church.

How would this be applied in the post-Christian West? I’m not quite sure, and I would welcome help in fleshing this out. Who would be the equivalent of the emperor and other Greco-Roman officials? Perhaps the political, business, and culture leaders. And the equivalent of making a civic religion sacrifice and reading its entrails? Perhaps any false-salvation narrative held up publicly by one of these leaders, whether that be a president promising the answer is revived nationalism, an opposition promising liberation from oppression by means of more government regulation, or a tech titan on stage promising life change through their latest generation technology. Men in the church, do you sound like them when you pray and speak in the gathered assembly of believers? Or is there enough different about your public presentation that it’s clear you serve a different God?

And in the realm of the painfully obvious, don’t wear a toga to church and during prayer drape it over your head. A form that risked gospel clarity in Corinth, for us, would at least risk appropriate gospel gravity.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Humble Kabob and Team Unity

Photo by Sara Dubler on Unsplash

We recently moved cities and left our previous team. It was hard to leave because after three years of teaming together, things were good. Now, we had certainly had our seasons of team storming and conflict. Some of them were quite intense. Sometimes we wanted to pull out our hair in frustration at yet another miscommunication or disagreement over next steps. But as we left in preparation to come alongside a different team in a new city, it was hard because we were leaving more than teammates, we were leaving our friends.

There were many things that God was doing in us and in spite of us to keep our team together through those difficult years of seeing a small church planted in our previous city up in the mountains. Some would be unique to us and not reproducible. But there would be a few things that could be implemented by other teams of believers who have a vision to grow towards being a healthy team. Today I want to mention one eminently practical piece of team unity – the humble kabob. Well, not just the kabob, but the idea of regularly eating together as a normal part of team life and culture. As my former team leader put it, at the end of the day, we always enjoyed eating together. We ate together regularly as a team, even if we were just coming from a meeting full of intense debate, even when it was hard to make eye contact with the person you had just upset in the last discussion. We had a favorite local restaurant where we could always go and get a big plate of local spicy kabob and flatbread for around $3. Always followed by hot, sugary Central Asian chai. So yes, that definitely helped.

This principle of eating food regularly together is not rocket science, nor is it a novel idea. But when you dig into the theological significance of breaking bread together, you are wading in deep waters. Consider that the tree of life bore fruit, a meal which when eaten, gave eternal life. The fall into sin came by a meal shared at the other tree, that of the knowledge of good and evil. God enacted covenants with his people through meals, such as that at Sinai with the seventy elders of Israel, and he reminded his people of their covenant relationship through divinely-ordained feasts. God fed his people in the wilderness with miraculous bread from heaven and later we find out that Jesus is the true bread come down from heaven, the bread of life. Did you know that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle repeated in all four gospels? Then we are given the Lord’s Supper as a meal to remember Jesus and to look forward to his return, when history will be consummated with the marriage supper of the lamb. And this is just scratching the surface. You could even say that food is at the center of our very salvation, key to our reconciliation to God and to one another. So it makes sense that it would be an important part of team unity.

This kind of advice could be easily dismissed because of how simple it is. Yet I know from experience that some teams do not have a regular time where they are eating together. And they are worse off for it. I cannot parse exactly what is going on spiritually and relationally when we eat in one another’s presence, but it has to do with trust, peace, friendship, service, respect, and even joy. The mutual enjoyment of sustenance perhaps provides tangible common ground that can complement spiritual common ground, which can make all the difference when the relational side of things is feeling frayed. I find myself recalling a pastor from a more liturgical tradition once waving his hand in a service and saying, “This too is a mystery.” Indeed, a delicious mystery.

Is your team scheduled to regularly eat together? If not, why not? Why not use the restart which emerging from Covid-19 provides us to build in this kind of practice? Experiment. I’ll bet you some kabob that you will be a happier team because of it.