In 312, after his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine I (ruled 312 – 337) declared himself a Christian; in the following year he proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom. Since the emperor pronounced the Christian god as his god, this god was elevated, eo ipso, to the god of the empire. With Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379-395), the process of the Christianization of the Roman state, begun with Emperor Constantine, led to a nationalization of the Church when, in 381, he forbade the conversion from Christianity to another religion and then, ten years later, put an end to all pagan worship within the empire and had the pagan temples destroyed or turned into churches. However, Constantine’s successors had already banned pagan sacrifices in 341, and in 346 had decreed the closing of pagan temples, although in 361 Emperor Julian the Apostate (ruled 361 – 363) undertook the last, unsuccessful, attempt to create a Christian-pagan synthesis and had the closed temples reopened.
It is hardly surprising that the Christian Church first expressed thanks for its sudden recognition as the state religion with a certain submissiveness and gladly accepted ‘golden chains’ in the form of financial support from the state.
Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 38
Notice how after only a few short decades of religious freedom, the Church in the Roman empire found itself no longer in the frying pan of persecution, but now in the fire of being the official religion of state power – and financially-dependent on that state.
“Make sure they know their commitment doesn’t have to be forever to be meaningful.”
I recently shared this tip with a friend who was struggling to build a core team for a new church plant in eastern Kentucky. He had another informational meeting coming up, and since I wouldn’t be able to make it, I was eager for those at the meeting to be free from the false choice of a never-or-forever commitment to living and serving in the mountain town chosen for the church plant.
Many tend to view a commitment to missions or church planting as a life calling to a certain place or people group. And for some, it is. Church history says that Timothy eventually settled in Ephesus, ministering there until he was martyred as an old man. Patrick gave his life to Ireland. But for Paul and others who were part of his apostolic band, several months or years here and there seemed to be the norm.
For lead church planters, there is an important distinction to understand between the planter-pastor calling and what can be called an apostolic planter calling. Planter-pastors aim to plant a church and then to pastor it for the long-term. For those who are called to an apostolic planter ministry, their leadership over the church plant is meant to be temporary from the beginning, and they aim to go on planting other churches. These planters have a gifting that echoes that of Paul, where churches are started and then handed over to long-term elders, and it’s in this sense that I’m using the term apostolic, without here getting into the debates about whether there is an actual apostolic gifting or office for the church today.
Having been involved with both North American and cross-cultural church planting, it’s curious to note that the planter-pastor approach is the dominant model and assumption for North American church plants, while the apostolic planter model is the dominant model and assumption for planting churches cross-culturally. The conversations tend to be very different in these two spheres of church planting regarding what is necessary for a church plant to be successful. Preaching is a great example of this. For North American church plants, a strong gift of preaching is held up to be absolutely necessary. But for cross-cultural church-planting, preaching is often downplayed or even jettisoned altogether. Given these drastic differences, there needs to be more cross-pollination between missionary planters overseas and church planters in North America who are planting in their own language and in near-culture contexts. This is necessary so that neither are stuck in their own echo chambers. But that is a separate post.
What I want to focus on today is that just as some lead church planters are called to a life commitment and others to give a much shorter time, so the members of a church planting team can also be called to either kind of commitment. But perhaps because the planter-pastor model is the dominant one in North America, those considering joining a core team of this kind of church plant tend to assume they are being asked to commit decades to the church plant and focus city. This is, understandably, a very big ask. So it’s no wonder that many church planters heading to hard places in North America have a difficult time recruiting a team.
Yes, some will be called and gifted with a life-long commitment to a new church plant and new city. But this kind of long-term calling will not be the case for everyone, and is not necessary in order for team members to make a meaningful contribution to the church plant. The mid-term category for missionaries serves as a helpful example here. Many will go overseas for one to three years and then return to their home countries. Not only is this a very formative time for them, it can also be a crucial support for the long-termers on the ground. And eternally-significant ministry can take place in that kind of time frame as well. Gospel seeds can be sown and friends can come to faith and discipled. Churches can even be established.
If this is the case overseas, why would it not be the case when church planting team members will be ministering in their own language and in a near culture? While studying the local culture will still be important, this kind of church planting has the massive advantage of the team, from day one, already being fluent in the local language – with the exception of some local slang and idioms, of course. This is still just enough ignorance to be dangerous, but you can’t get away from every possibility of risk and embarrassment in this kind of service. Nor would you want to, since everybody ends up more humble and happy when they can laugh at themselves.
Calling for mid-term length commitments, say one to five years, might not only free up more people to commit, but could also keep them from unnecessary shame and disorientation when they are a number of years in and are burnt out, or simply need to transition to a setting that’s healthier for their family. Being in a season ourselves where our family’s health raises a lot of questions about our future in Central Asia, it can be profoundly disorienting to rethink the next several decades when we had thought the path before us was more or less clear. Whether overseas or in city church plants in North America, many families end up needing to make significant moves somewhere in the five to ten year range. This often has to do with kids getting older, the costs of serving in a hard place piling up, and some kind of natural human cycle where we get restless and tend to lose hope of real change actually happening in this particular range of years (check out the most common years for divorces to take place). Rather than recruiting all teammates with a decades-long vision, there may be some wisdom in anticipating these dynamics and calling for shorter commitments as well. That way, even if someone decides it’s time to transition after their five years are up, this is a chance for celebrating their faithfulness, rather than an unexpected blow to the team that yet another member of the core team is leaving.
There are downsides to calling for midterm commitments. Investing in midterm teammates can take a long time, so it’s a blow when all that investment feels like it’s leaving after only a few short years – and then you have to do it all over again with someone new. That kind of turnover on a team can be discouraging and heavy. Wisdom is needed to make sure this is actually paying off. But when we remember that we are not just investing in these teammates for what they can do for the work, but we are investing in them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, those who will go on to serve elsewhere, then we can better bear these costs. We might not see as much return on the investment as we had hoped for in our local work, but we can trust that all faithful sowing will eventually bear fruit, both in the person themself as well as in the future churches they are a part of.
Starting something new is a tricky thing. This is just as true of churches as it is of anything else. There is a very subjective sense of momentum and growing stability that can make all the difference in others buying into the vision and taking the risk to join a church plant. Given this fragile dynamic, the simple presence of a few more faithful people can make all the difference in the early years. For those unsure about long-term callings or doubtful that they could in good conscience commit to decades, hearing that they can make a real difference by giving a specific year or three might turn a “No” into a “Yeah, by God’s grace, I think I can do that.”
It may not be forever. But that doesn’t mean means it’s not meaningful. After all, Paul only spent three years in Ephesus, and even less time elsewhere. The choice need not be never-or-forever. A few good years sown in faith as part of a church plant in a hard place may yield more of a harvest than we could ever anticipate. We may not be able to give decades, but could we give a year or two or five? It’s a worthy thing to wrestle with.
Since Christianity was, by 381/392 at the latest, the state religion of the Roman Empire, conciliar [council] decisions served as civil laws, as soon as the emperor ratified them. Local bishops were the first to perceive this, as they were obligated to uphold the opinions declared orthodox by the councils. Opposition to conciliar pronouncements led to civil sanctions; dissenting bishops were sent into exile and replaced with orthodox ones. However, since the bishops often had at their disposal a strong following, dismissal by force could not be carried out immediately, for the threat of revolt was too great. This was all the truer when, in the traditional hotbeds of unrest in the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, anti-Byzantine nationalistic reflex arose. During the tumult of that time there were many casualties, and in the case of the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria, Proterios, even murder: an angry mob killed the unfortunate patriarch in 457 in the baptistery of his cathedral. Other prominent victims were Flavian, the deposed archbishop of Constantinople, who was so badly injured by monks and soldiers at the so-called ‘Robber Synod’ of 449 that he died of his wounds three days later; and Bishop Severian of Scythopolis, who was murdered in 451 on the return from Chalcedon. For these reasons, in the large cities communities often remained divided, each with their own clergy and their own churches. Although a canon law assigned only one bishop per city, for a time Antioch had four vying for power! It was in this patriarchate that the battles between Miaphysites, Dyophysites and Melkites loyal to the emperor raged most fiercely.
However, the intensity of these theological disputes – unimaginable to us in the twenty-first century – cannot be explained just on the basis of political circumstances. As W. Klein has aptly stated, at that time ‘dogma was not yet the specialized science of a few theologians, but rather the stuff of everyday conversation, and it resembled modern disputes over party politics.’
Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 37-38
Notice the knock-on effects of an earlier period of Christian nationalism. Local bishops forced to uphold the official state doctrine, or risk civil sanction or exile. Backing for other rival doctrines fueled by anti-nationalist sentiments. The physical assault and murder of church leaders, whose pronouncements were now just as political as they were spiritual.
Those now calling for a return to Christian nationalism would do well to chew on the times in the past where it has indeed been tried, and so often led to the corruption of the church and the loss of its spiritual power. There is a better option, what Baptists have called the spirituality of the kingdom of God.
My local friends in Central Asia really believe in authority. We could generalize and say that most Eastern cultures lean this way. They view society as hierarchical and they understand each tier of authority going up the social pyramid to be both necessary and worthy of great respect. They can teach us a lot about honoring authority. However, they also hold very strongly to the view that some kinds of tasks or service are not only below a leader’s dignity, but even shameful for him. Leadership is to be honored and supplied with its privileges. However, leaders are not to bring shame on themselves or their community by stooping to do the dirtiest, most menial jobs. Humble service is for those on the bottom, not those on the top.
My Western culture, on the other hand, is thick with anti-authoritarian feeling. Authority and hierarchy are often viewed through the crude lens of oppressor/oppressed. Westerners want to believe that the true nature of society is flat and egalitarian. Hierarchical leadership is to be done away with when possible, and only tolerated when necessary. The real thing, the West feels, is for us all to treat one another as equals and for no one to feel that they are above the most basic, even dirty, work. In Western society, we express these values by sometimes mocking our leaders (keeps them in their place) and by often glamorizing the work of the little guy. Even in the Church, the teaching of mutual service can be wielded in such a way as to deny the goodness of authority.
Interestingly, in John 13, Jesus honors authority while also transforming that authority through humble service. In doing so, he holds two things together that we tend to drive apart.
 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Notice how Jesus says in verse 13 that his disciples are right to call him teacher and Lord. Jesus, by washing his disciples’ feet, is not doing away with the hierarchical relationship that exists between himself and his disciples. They are right to honor and respect him as their leader, and he does not want them to lose sight of this. However, he has just done something positively scandalous for a Jewish religious leader of the first century – he has washed his disciples’ feet. This was a job not only reserved for slaves, but for gentile slaves. Jesus, the respected authority, humbled (even shamed?) himself and did one of the dirtiest, most dishonorable tasks of all. Then in verses 14 and 15 he tells his disciples that he wants them to serve one another in this same way. Here Jesus models and commands something that breaks the leadership paradigms of all fallen cultures: servant leadership.
This passage serves up a rebuke to both the East and the West. The East is rebuked for its penchant to privilege leaders so that they exist to be served, rather than to serve. Pride and entitlement in leaders is called out, but interestingly, not their role. This is where the West then gets rebuked. Leaders and their roles are still to be respected. The values of humble servant leadership do not negate the reality or the goodness of a world full of hierarchies. Jesus does not support some eventual Christian future where the priesthood of all believers means leadership is no longer necessary nor honored.
The balance that Jesus models so well for us is one in which leaders are honored, but they respond to this honoring by embracing sacrificial and costly service. This service in turn generates more respect, and that respect spurs on more lowly service, in a dance of sorts of mutual submission. Ancient Roman patrons were known not to address their clients as such, but as “friends,” meaning equals. But Christian leaders are called to go even further than this, not merely using different titles to communicate that they are gracious patrons, but embracing work that actually puts them lower than their followers.
What might this kind of lowering look like? In the West, it might mean staff pastors sometimes helping out with different tasks that are commonly delegated to the interns or to volunteers, similar to how in Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, the high king of Anniera was known to often go out and work the totato fields alongside the farmers. In Central Asia, it might mean a pastor refusing the seat of honor, and instead sitting closer to the door, or helping to clear the dishes from the floor after a meal is finished. Yes, the leaders of the church need to be free from waiting tables in order to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer, but this shouldn’t mean a complete separation from the kinds of service that would be our equivalent to foot washing.
“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15)
True leaders should be honored while also engaging in service that is viewed as below them – yes, as even shameful.
When modern dictators fall the societies they ruled tend to flounder and splinter. This is because they have previously been gutted. A dictator, in order to increase and maintain his power, needs to systematically weaken all other institutions of civil society that might serve as independent centers of power and organization. So he goes after religious institutions, the media, voluntary societies, other branches of government, etc. He will often permit a shell of these institutions to continue, but will appoint loyal cronies to head them up so that they no longer pose any legitimate challenge. The longer this goes on, the more a society is gutted of healthy systems and structures that it could use to organize and unify itself once the dictator is removed. Like some kind of ravenous fungus, a strongman consumes and replaces healthy systems and institutions as he feeds off his people, slowly choking the organizational life out of society.
This explains why certain Middle Eastern countries have done so poorly since the removal of their dictators in recent decades. During long decades of dictatorship, true civil society was turned into a zombie of its former self or driven underground. Often, the only network of institutions strong enough to endure the long stranglehold has been the conservative mosques, buttressed as they are by their religious ideology. Thus, when a dictator of a Muslim country falls, the West’s hopes for the emergence of a unifying liberal coalition are disappointed again and again. They liberals can’t seem to organize effectively, and it’s no wonder. All the institutions of the liberals and moderates were practically destroyed ages ago. Into this power vacuum then steps the Islamist fundamentalists, the only ones placed to organize and take over the uprising – even if said uprising began as a majority liberal movement.
An interesting parallel exists here between these political realities and the state of many churches in the Middle East and Central Asia – indeed, anywhere in the world where the culture tends to reward domineering leaders. As in society as a whole, a strongman over the church tends to take the rightful place of other legitimate systems and structures. Look at the few churches that exist in these areas, and you will notice a curious absence of things like healthy membership, responsible giving and finances, congregational accountability and discipline, and plurality of leadership. Instead of covenanted members, belonging to the church is equated with those who are loyal to the strongman. Instead of transparent finances, the pastor controls all the money. In the place of congregational discipline for its own members, you have the favor or displeasure of the leader. And there is no healthy plurality, just one charismatic, domineering personality that leaves no room for any legitimate pushback or accountability.
If we return to my preferred napkin diagram of a healthy church (described in a previous post), we see that a strongman completely replaces all of the characteristics of a healthy church that we would see in stage two, in what I’ve called an organized church.
Now, this diagram is simply a tool I’ve used to quickly summarize the characteristics of a healthy church as they relate to the typical stages a church plant goes through. Not all of the characteristics are rigidly sequential, but I would contend that the three stages of Formative, Organized, and Sending are a common pattern in how church plants develop – and, for our purposes today, that there is a qualitative difference between what is present in a formative church and what is there in an organized church. That difference lies in the intentional organization and systematization of what had previously been a gathering of believers functioning more organically.
A bible study that has really taken off might gather regularly for fellowship, worship, teaching, prayer, and discipleship. They might share the gospel regularly with their friends and neighbors. All of these things are biblical and good. And while they can be organized into systems, they don’t have to be organized in order to be done well. They don’t demand careful planning and organization. They can exist in an organic fashion for a very long time with only basic plans put in place. The same cannot really be said for the characteristics in stage two. These require careful thought and planning and implementation if they are to even exist in a church plant. And they will not ever exist in a healthy way without great intentionality that leads to the birth of good systems. In fact, to simply wing the structures of stage two is to play with deadly fire that will burn many.
This required intentionality and creation of systems and structures explains why the elements of the organized church stage are absent or so underdeveloped in many house churches. These characteristics are complicated and time-consuming to figure out and it’s simply easier to keep punting their development until some future date. Often, there is a great deal of ignorance about how to actually begin to teach and then roll out things like membership, plural leadership, and discipline. This is why groups like 9 Marks focus so heavily on reviving both the knowledge and the practical details of good ecclesiology for the Church. Even those committed to these things in principle can often botch the implementation. I’ve often heard it said that the number one mistake of reformed church planters and church revitalizers is appointing elders too quickly.
However, this is so far assuming that the church planters, missionaries, and members want to see these systems developed. But often, past experience and current methodology commitments mean that the preference is for things to stay organic and natural (And this often has roots in Westerners’ own cultural moment of being post-institutional). Stage two will just happen naturally, it is claimed, as the Spirit eventually gets around to leading the locals into how to be a biblical church. Missionaries can live in a fantasy where the kinds of intentionality and organization required in their own culture for the church to function well are actually considered bad, or at least not really necessary in the more pristine cultures of foreign lands. Some even view focusing on the characteristics of stage two as bad for church multiplication, the kind of thing that leads to the terrible “I” word that is alleged to kill movements of the Spirit, institutionalization.
When you pair these Western postures with cultures already prone to domineering leadership, you get a lethal cocktail. The missionaries aren’t interested in pushing for organized church characteristics in their church plants. They want things to stay organic and rapidly multiplying. Locals, never having before known the power of a spiritual family organized in a healthy way, default to how their families, mosques, and government are run – strongman rule. Soon, a strongman does emerge who then goes on to make the church his own little fiefdom. The missionaries become perplexed and discouraged at what has happened, and either fall in line themselves or are eventually run off when the strongman feels they are a threat to his monopoly. The end result is a sick church, one without biblical membership, giving, leadership, or discipline. Biblical mission, often the final characteristic to be developed, will also never happen through this kind of church where a spiritual dictator has settled down to feed on the sheep.
If we do not plant churches with a willingness ourselves to lead in the development of stage two characteristics, we do a great disservice to the local believers we are claiming to serve. Like a society naively asked to go vote after decades of dictator rule, we set them up for failure. A power vacuum will always be filled. And in strongman societies, little dictators spring out of the ground like so many narcissus flowers in the Central Asian fields of spring. Local churches all over the world desperately need systems of healthy giving, leadership, discipline, and membership. How will they know what these structures look like if we do not intentionally teach and model them? Or do we really believe that these systems will somehow contaminate indigenous churches more so than the inevitable strongman who will take over in their absence?
Should stage two characteristics of a healthy church be contextualized? Absolutely. And yet here we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. An imperfect effort to contextualize a system of membership is far better than never initiating formal membership because we are afraid of some kind of Western contamination taking place. Covenants can be modified for the pressing needs of specific contexts. Membership lists and vows can be oral rather than written and signed. Leadership can be chosen and honored in ways that are locally sensitive. The Scriptures provide ample room to carefully apply the principles of church organization to a given culture. “All things should be done decently and in order,” (1 Cor 14:40) does not mean you should simply copy/paste the systems of First Baptist Church back home. But it does mean we should give serious attention to the right ordering (organizing) of the church. As Paul said to one church planting team member, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). What was asked of Titus in his cross-cultural setting is still asked of us today.
Strongmen will never coexist peacefully with healthy systems that can hold them to account. They will always seek to prevent their emergence or to choke the life out of them if they are present. On the other hand, the best way to prevent the people of God being ruled by these domineering men is to order the church wisely, even if this involves great intentionality and careful organization. Protecting the church means organizing it so that it might fully display the glory of God – not only in its organic love and obedience, but also in its wise systems and structures.
“Now that I have have this comprehensive power of attorney for you, I can legally get you a second wife – even without you knowing. Better watch out, when you come back from out of the country you may have a second wife, ha!”
Mr. Talent* conveniently dropped this news after several of us on the team had finished the POA process with him, meaning that he could now hold this over each of our heads. Thankfully, being a believer, Mr. Talent understands now that polygamy is a sin, despite his joking. Even before coming to faith, his first marriage had been difficult and had fallen apart, and he is also of the local demographic that would resonate with the ancestral proverb that “a man with two wives has a liver full of holes,” i.e. become a polygamist and embrace a life of pain.
And yet polygamy continues in our corner of Central Asia as a relatively normal thing among a sizeable minority of the population. Why does it still happen when polygamy is technically illegal in our area and when the culture itself has proverbs that speak to its danger? For something that is so foreign to us in the West (at least for now), it’s helpful to understand the justifications used by other societies for polygamy so that we can more skillfully oppose it with biblical truth.
The overwhelming majority of locals in our area are Muslims, and this means that a religious motivation is ready at hand for anyone who desires to marry an additional wife – even if this religious reason serves as a thin veneer for the true motivation. After all, the founding figure of Islam, Muhammad, had around twelve wives (there’s some disagreement about the actual number, and our local imams say thirteen). Being the supposed prophet and founder, Muhammad is held up as the ideal Muslim. So if a Muslim man wants to live like the prophet, and thereby be blessed, he will traditionally consider polygamy as a logical way to do this. However, only the prophet is allowed a dozen wives. Normal Muslims are limited to four.
Justifications in Islam for this polygamy in Muhammad’s life vary, but the most common one that I’ve heard is that it was an act of social justice, since so many wives had become widows in the holy wars that led to Islam’s founding. This doesn’t explain why Muhammad married seven-year-old Aisha, his favorite wife. Nor does it explain why he took his adopted son’s wife to be his own, conveniently receiving a divine revelation declaring adoption an un-Islamic concept in order to make it seem like he was not actually marrying his son’s wife (thereby making adoption among most Muslims a shameful thing to this day). But I digress, the logic for this first reason for polygamy among Muslims skirts these issues and simply maintains that Allah has blessed polygamy in the life of the prophet, and thereby in the life of faithful Muslims who commit to caring for each wife equally.
This Islamic sanctioning of polygamy means it often takes place in spite of the laws of the country where the couple resides – laws often viewed as Western and infidel-influenced. Polygamy is illegal only in the region of the country where we’ve been residing, but it is legal in other regions. So, local men who desire an additional wife will travel down south and work things out there, often with a wink from their local Islamic authorities, who are supposed to be abiding by the law and not encouraging polygamy at all. This dynamic is also present among some Islamic refugees in the West, where a man might fill out his paperwork as having one wife and one “sister” in order to bring both his wives with him to the West. He’ll set up two households in his new country, and live as a polygamist under the radar.
Another very common reason for polygamy among the Muslims in our area is infertility. Similar to stories of the Old Testament patriarchs, a man will often take a second wife if his first wife has proven unable to conceive after a given length of time. This is because children, and male heirs specifically, are so highly prized in the culture. We knew a village family in this situation, where a new wife had recently been acquired because the first wife seemed to be infertile. Again, similar to the stories of Rachel or Hannah, the public shame the first wife experiences in this kind of situation is almost unbearable. The presence of the second wife would serve as an excruciating daily reminder of her shame and and failure. If the medical issue resides with the man, he may keep taking on new wives, blaming each one in turn for what is actually his biological problem. Thankfully, modern medicine is making this kind of situation less common, as long as the man isn’t too proud to accept what the doctors are saying.
Surprisingly, it can sometimes be the first wife who pushes for the husband to take a second. This is because the first wife is often given a promotion of sorts when a second wife is taken on. The veteran wife will often get to hand off the more difficult housework and cooking to the second wife. Or the first and second wives give the hard labor to the third, etc. This could be viewed as compensation of sorts for the embarrassment of the husband taking on another wife, but can also be pursued in a sadly practical way for a marriage that’s unhealthy anyway. If the relationship is already cold and practical, why not get some help around the house? Similarly, one of my wife’s close friends desires her husband to take on a second wife primarily so that she can be free of his sexual demands. Having an additional wife might even provide some relational connection for a lonely wife who is disliked by her husband and his extended family. Just as the wives of a polygamist can often be bitter rivals, they can also become friends who support one another when both are stuck in the same situation, married to a bad man.
Polygamy can also be pursued by extended families in order to increase the standing of each. A poorer family might want one of their daughters to marry a wealthy or powerful patron. The patron’s standing as a holy, powerful, and apparently desirable man is thus increased, and the family of the girl gets a boost in honor and the brideprice money, which would be considerably more in this situation than if she were the sole wife of a man with less status. For example, one aged mullah in our country recently took on a third wife who is thirty-four years his junior. This kind of family status arrangement is likely what is going on here.
A final category of justification for polygamy is often simply the whims and desires of the man. If he is unhappy with how things are going sexually, or in terms of the cooking, or even if he just wants to flaunt his power as the domestic strongman, he might take on another wife. The first wife (or wives) cannot stop him from doing this, though in their own ways they can make him pay for it, hence the proverb about having a liver full of holes. Sadly, much polygamy takes place for no other reason than an already-married man takes a liking to another woman he has seen and decides that he simply must have her. I had to cut off contact with one village friend because he kept calling me, insisting that I translate for him as he flirted with a migrant worker, trying make her his second wife without the knowledge of the rest of his family.
The Bible is not silent on polygamy, though the case made against it is an indirect one. The first polygamist we see in Genesis is Lamech, a domineering and violent man. Then, in the stories of the patriarchs, both Abraham and Jacob become polygamists because of sin – Abraham’s doubting God’s promise and Laban’s deception of the inebriated Jacob. What ensues is a terrific mess, with rival wives, warring children, and men who must repeatedly eat the bitter fruit of their polygamous households. The kings of Israel are then expressly forbidden from taking on many wives in the style of the harems of the other nations, and we see the destruction of polygamy in both David’s and Solomon’s stories, even turning their hearts away from God. As the Old Testament period winds on, it becomes clear that God shows grace to polygamous households in spite of the institution, not because of it. The narratives of scripture are all consistent in their painting polygamy in a negative, worldly light.
At last, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the religious leaders back to God’s creation pattern for marriage – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Two become one, just like Adam and Eve in the beginning. In this passage as well as Paul’s insistence upon leaders being one-women men, monogamy is clearly assumed and polygamy thereby understood to be out of bounds. It may have been tolerated under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant has come, where Christ has one holy bride, not multiple. And this relationship now serves as the pattern for all Christian marriages.
Whatever the justifications of polygamists, God’s word has come to silence them with its indirect yet forceful case. To have multiple wives is to lie about the nature of God’s covenant-keeping love, to lie about the nature of God himself. Believers in Christ are to live in such a way that their marriages are imperfect yet genuine metaphors of Christ and the Church – and as in the recent Western order, to influence society such that the injustice of polygamy is no longer tolerated.
For polygamy is unjust, both to the women whose dignity and agency are violated in polygamous marriage, as well as to poorer and younger and even average men, for whom marriage in a polygamous society becomes less and less attainable. A case could even be made that polygamous societies lead to greater violent conflict, as there is a clear connection in history between nations with a shortage of brides and nations that try to conquer their neighbors. And polygamous societies will always lead to many more available single men than available single women. How can it be otherwise when having multiple wives becomes a status symbol of the religious, the wealthy, and the powerful?
The justifications of polygamists are mixed. Some are good desires, such as the desire to have children, or to get some relief from the never-ending household labor. Christians can recognize the good in these desires and point toward better ways to pursue these goals and to respond when they are denied. Other, selfish, desires that lead to polygamy are to be rejected outright. Hence, knowing what the underlying motivation is for taking on another wife will be key to responding both biblically and skillfully. Why skillfully? Because in polygamous societies, you are the crazy one who thinks that monogamy is the only way to go. For them, polygamy is simply normal, perhaps even good, the way the world is. Helping locals to turn against their own polygamous heritage will be no easy task, but speaking to their underlying motivations will only help in this effort. I’ve laid out here the main motivations for polygamy in our context, but other polygamous contexts will bring with them their own unique justifications that will require understanding and appropriate response.
Polygamy has been around an awfully long time, and no doubt it will continue to pop up various human societies into the future. As it decreases in Central Asia, it may stage a comeback in the post-Christian West. The Church will need to confront it wherever it finds polygamy, lovingly but boldly calling men and women to a faithful monogamy that points back to Eden, and forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb.
In the words of renowned theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The word I am referring to here is church. And when it comes to communication between missionaries and Christians back in their supporting churches, this word is used often, but almost never defined. What often results is a failure in communication that leaves both parties feeling good, but ultimately failing to serve one another well.
Let’s say a missionary or organization reports on a certain number of churches that have been planted. This receives much applause and leads to much rejoicing. And yet what those reporting on the field mean by that little word, church, can sometimes be nothing like what the supporters back home are thinking of when they hear that same word.
Perhaps a Christian or pastor back in the home country hears a missionary report that 1,000 churches have been planted. In his mind, he envisions 1,000 smallish congregations, each maybe several dozen strong, containing diverse believers from a given community who now form a new spiritual family for one another. He projects his image of small church plants which he has encountered in his home country onto the report he hears about this overseas region. The missionary, on the other hand, influenced by a movement missiology, counts a gathering as a church if there’s merely a believing husband and wife who read the Bible weekly with their unbelieving teenage son. Or, he reports a church when two cousins who are secret believers meet up monthly to read, pray, and whisper-sing some songs together. Or perhaps a group of five college students who meet regularly with a local pastor for a time of Bible study.
None of these gatherings are bad at all. Each are worthy of celebration. But that doesn’t mean we can assume they are churches. What is lacking is agreement upon what standard is used to call something a church.
The missionary might report 1,000 churches planted and the home audience in one sense hears that 1,000 churches have been planted. Yet they are not actually communicating with one another, because they are not using the word church in the same way. This means that what one envisions in their mind when those words are spoken is wildly different from what the other sees in their respective mind’s eye. The missionary knows that if all the groups of 3 or 4 people meet, this represents somewhere around 3,000 – 4,000 people, a mix of believers and unbelievers, most of whom gather only with those of the same natural household or family. However, the home audience is assuming something more like 20,000 – 30,000 people total, all believers meeting with others from different households. The missionary means 3,000 not leaving the natural bounds of their own network. The crowd understands him to mean 30,000 forming new spiritual families. This is, at best, a failure of communication. At worst, it is downright deception.
This entire interaction can take place without either party acknowledging the great divide in their definitions of the word church. And as long as this goes unaddressed, both sides can leave feeling pretty good about things. But it must be addressed. Missionaries and their sending churches are accountable to one another. This even applies to reporting. If missionaries mean something wildly different from their senders when they use the term church, then this needs to be made public. And for the good of the mission, common definitions and parameters must be agreed upon for when it is appropriate to call a group a church.
This is the point where most Christians realize that they are operating out of experience and assumptions rather than a thought-out ecclesiology. So step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. So far, so good. All church-planting missionaries and all pastors should be able to readily articulate what constitutes a potential church, a true but immature church, a healthy church, or a false church. Please, don’t send anyone to the mission field who can’t do this.
For example, our group of five college students represent a potential or formative church. Despite what certain methodologies might claim, I do not believe that they can biblically call themselves a church even though they regularly meet with a pastor to receive teaching, to worship, and to pray together. Several key ingredients are missing, such as the biblical self-identification as a church (covenanting) and the Lord’s supper and baptism. Now, if they had these elements in place, but no elders, giving, or mission, then they could be a true but immature church. A healthy church is simply one which is well on its way to implementing all of the Bible’s characteristics of a church.
We like to summarize these biblical characteristics into a list of twelve: Discipleship, Worship, Leadership, Membership, Fellowship, Giving, Evangelism, Teaching/Preaching, Accountability/Discipline, Mission, Ordinances, and Prayer.
A useful exercise is to list out these twelve characteristics (or a comparable list which summarizes the data differently) and to try to discern which elements can be present without a group actually being a church. Then try to figure out from scripture and church history where the line is that separates a potential church from an actual church. When I do this, I end up first with a formative church section full of a bunch of elements that could take place in a college ministry, such as teaching and fellowship, separated by the ordinances from a cluster of organized church elements such as membership and accountability/discipline that take place in a true – if still maturing – church. I personally like to then make a third division which separates what I call an organized church from a sending church, since so many churches end up implementing eleven of these twelve characteristics, without ever getting involved in church planting and missions. Again, I’d define a healthy church as one committed to implementing all twelve. A false church would be a church where in either the teaching or the practice a false gospel is proclaimed. Here is a basic diagram of how I have tried to chart things out.
Earlier I mentioned that step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. Step two is simply to then adjust your language accordingly. Don’t call something a church that is not a church. Be intentional in when you make the shift in terminology from group to church. Communicate your biblical rationale for when and why you start calling a group a church so that people understand what you mean by the term. If, like me, you believe that a mere three people could sometimes actually constitute a true church, then explain the biblical and situational rationale for this.
Step three then is to hold your ground. No matter the pressure you might feel to report higher numbers. No matter what the missiology gurus say about how good or bad this is for multiplication. Call things what the Bible calls them, and hold your ground. Sometimes this will mean surprising supporters back home who have projected church buildings, pastors with theological degrees, and certain size congregations onto the biblical meaning of church. Other times this will mean running afoul of the current trend in missiology that your leadership is so excited about. But the way the Bible uses a term is our truest window into the real, eternal meaning of that word. So let’s stick with that, and not deal in the more temporary definitions.
Finally, we must not be shy to ask others how they are defining that word, church. We cannot truly serve one another if massively different understandings of this term are simultaneously taking place while we all clap for the report of thousands of “churches” that have been planted. My sense is that many denominations and pastors would be scandalized to hear what their missionaries are actually calling churches, if they would only press for detailed definitions.
Some missionaries will not want you to press. This is a warning sign. It may mean these missionaries feel that they are superior to the Church back home or that they operate in what could be called a missiology of reaction, where their goal is above all to not do church as they have experienced it back home. Lots of weird missiology is the result of this kind of posture, but not healthy churches that last.
Trustworthy missionaries, however, won’t mind you asking. In fact, they may find your questions downright encouraging. After all, faithful missionaries have thought carefully about these things. Why? Because the front lines force them to wrestle with these things, and to examine their Bibles. But even more so, because they love the local church, and so they honor her with their language.
The words were spoken in a soft voice. The speaker, a silver-haired older man with deep blue eyes, sat just as calm and hospitable as ever in his armchair as he spoke them. But the effect of these words was like a bomb – some kind of vacuum grenade that sucked all the noise out of the room and shut the mouths of a room-full of arguing twenty-somethings.
Well, not all the mouths were shut. Barham’s* mouth was hanging open, cut off in angry mid-sentence. The change coming over him was quite remarkable. His red face was returning to his natural Central Asian olive tone, the deep creases in his forehead were relaxing, and a softness seemed to return to his eyes and even his entire posture.
Somehow, our older host had known just the right words to say to defuse our explosive situation. The words he uttered cut to Barham’s heart, tapping deeply into Central Asian values of honoring the elderly and being a gracious guest. I sat back and exhaled slowly. Our host, pastor Dave*, had once again proven the power of a wise and soft tongue.
Barham, a new believer and a refugee, had moved in with his girlfriend, an American who was also professing to be a new believer. As their friend and community group leader, I had called them to repent and stop living together. When this counsel was rebuffed, we had brought a couple other believers into the situation. This only led to more angry opposition. Finally, we informed them we would be bringing their situation to the whole community group as a step on the way to informing the entire church. Not known to shy away from a fight, Barham and his girlfriend had decided to come to the meeting where we would inform the group in order to defend themselves and to tell us off for our self-righteousness.
In this season our community group was a motley crew of young Bible college students, newlyweds, internationals, and new believers. We were all very young and things were often very messy. We jokingly nicknamed our group Corinth because of the way the Spirit was working powerfully to save and sanctify even as sin messes spilled out on the regular, setting things on fire. This group was where I first cut my teeth in leadership in our sending church, and I was often overwhelmed and very much in over my head.
Wisely, each of the community groups was overseen by one of the elders of the church, who also served as a mentor to the group leader. These pastors would sometimes attend the groups themselves, often rotating between the several they oversaw. Dave was our appointed elder, but every week he was also at our group meetings (perhaps it was clear that we really needed this), though he seldom spoke during the meeting itself. He seemed content to let me do most of the leading, while he and his wife brought a welcome measure of age and gentle wisdom to our very young group.
The day that Barham and his girlfriend showed up to challenge us over step 2.5 of the Matthew 18 discipline process, we were meeting at Dave’s house. This proved to be providential, setting up Dave to remind Barham of this crucial point after the conversation had gotten out of hand. Earlier, I had done my best to handle the awkwardness of Barham and his girlfriend showing up and had also tried hard to be clear, kind, and firm as we responded to their accusations. But things had escalated, and it had practically become a shouting match as I and other believers present tried to speak sense to our friends who were running headlong into sin and ignoring all counsel.
But Dave’s wise word had evaporated all the anger in the room, and opened the door for spiritual sense to prevail. Barham hadn’t been willing to listen to us, his believing peers. But he softened under the gaze and the truth spoken lovingly by Dave, his fatherly host. That day proved to be a turning point, and Barham and his girlfriend did end up living separately again until they were eventually married.
This wasn’t the first or the last time that I saw pastor Dave drop a wisdom bomb, though it was one of the most dramatic. I had begun to see this also happen in elders meetings, where a group of us leaders-in-training were permitted to attend and observe. While other personalities were stronger or more charismatic, the room hushed every time Dave had something to say. There seemed to be several reasons for this. First, he didn’t speak up that often, so when he did, everyone was curious to hear what he was thinking. Second, he was the eldest of the elders present, having spent many years ministering to rural Kentucky churches, having experienced the death of his first wife, and living now with the heartbreak of adult children who were not believers. He had a wealth of experience gained through sorrow, earned on a long road of faithful service. And finally, when he did speak, the presence of spiritual wisdom in his words was unmistakable. Younger men like us who were mainly drawn to the words of the more dynamic leaders in the room watched and learned as those same dynamic men hung on every quiet thing that Dave had to say.
I remember a small prayer meeting from around this time, where Dave was giving a brief encouragement to the ten or so people present. In a season where I was tempted to equate busyness with faithfulness, he told us, “Our Lord led a busy life, but he didn’t have a busy heart… he didn’t have a busy heart.” As Dave paused thoughtfully, I remember wrestling with this small, yet weighty comment, knowing that I for sure had a busy heart, but realizing that my Lord indeed did not. Dave didn’t seem to have a busy heart either.
Proverbs 25:15 says, “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” In other words, do not be deceived, there is tremendous strength in gentle and wise words spoken at the right time. When this takes place, a soft tongue can break even hardest bone – or the hardest heart. I am reminded of Jesus’ gentle words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:17-18, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” These gentle words of the Messiah proved extremely powerful – they brought about not only this woman’s repentance, but the awakening of her village also through her.
I have seen this proverb lived out among very few men. But there are some, like Dave, who know and model the power of a gentle tongue. That tense evening with Barham in Dave’s living room, and every time I have seen him use it since, I have longed to someday have a tongue like that, to be able to break the hard and brittle with a soft word of truth fitly spoken. Like some kind of struggling apprentice trying to learn a new skill, I have tried my hand at it over the years. It’s not usually had the same effect. But there are times where it has seemed to at least not make things worse, and a very few times where someone’s entire demeanor has changed because I responded with gentleness rather than matching their combativeness.
It’s easy to feel like men like Dave are a different breed, some higher rank of Christian who have found the secret skills of wisdom. But then I remember that all wisdom comes from the same source, and that it is not selectively and secretly handed out to a special class of Christian. No, wisdom stands on the street corners, inviting all who would to come and learn from her (Prov 1:20). It is given generously by our God to all who are in need of it and dare to ask again for more of it (James 1:5). There is a trustworthy path to one day having a gentle tongue that can break a bone. And that is the path of asking our Father for wisdom again and again and again – and learning to watch those to whom the gift has already been given in abundance.
Yes, there is power in dynamic, charismatic speech. The Spirit does gift some in this way. But let us not forget the power of a gentle tongue, also gifted by the same Spirit of wisdom. Let us lean in and seek to learn when its softness silences a room and pierces hard hearts. When we are in its house, let us put our hands over our hasty mouths. For there is a power in a gentle tongue that is often overlooked, but is not to be underestimated.
A couple days ago I got coffee with a missionary who has served in East Asia. During one part of our conversation, we discussed a subtle issue we’ve noticed even in otherwise-healthy churches – that internationals and those from other cultures are often overlooked when it comes to both their care as well as investment in their potential. Similar to what I addressed in my post earlier this week, leadership and fellow church members don’t always “see” this particular class of the lowly or the seemingly-unimportant in the same way they “see” those who are same-culture individuals.
This is only natural. Humans gravitate toward those who are most similar to them and with whom they have the most in common. These sorts of people get more of our attention because relating to them is simply much easier – there are fewer barriers to communication and friendship. But therein lies the problem. The Church is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one, a new family built not on shared natural affinities, but on the spiritual affinity of a new birth into a new family where God is our Father and Christ is our older brother.
It’s makes sense that the Jewish Hellenistic widows were neglected in Acts 6. There were pretty significant cultural and linguistic barriers between them and the Judean/Galilean believers that prevented their needs from being as visible to the apostles. But the apostles and the early church didn’t shrug this off as some kind of natural dynamic that should be embraced (“Let’s just plant First Hellenistic Church, shall we?”). Instead, they created the forerunner of an entirely new office in the local church that would focus on the needs of the needy and marginalized. They recognized that they had a major crisis on their hands, that the credibility and faithfulness of the believing community was at stake if its members who were essentially foreign widows – foreigner and widow both being major categories of concern in the Old Testament – got neglected. So, they went and created the diaconate so that this kind of oversight might never happen again. Or, so that when it happens, there are leadership resources devoted to it.
Neglecting the needs of those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds can still happen, even in our healthiest churches – though this neglect is often unintentional. In some churches, care for internationals and those from other cultures gets essentially delegated to a select few who have themselves served in the past as missionaries. When those cross-culturally-skilled believers then go back overseas or otherwise are no longer around, the body at large hasn’t learned to care for internationals, and they can very easily slip through the cracks. Care and investment can be neglected, which looks like international students getting forgotten during holidays, older refugees getting targeted by scammers, and promising young leaders with a vision for their home country being left to figure it out on their own. Again, this is so often unintentional.
What would proactive steps look like in building a church culture that cares well for the internationals among us? Many churches in the West and in global cities will continue to have members who are either refugees, immigrants, students, or business professionals. And this does not seem to be slowing down. Here I want to offer some initial suggestions, though I offer these thoughts feeling that this is merely the beginning of a conversation on how we can all do this better in our various contexts.
First, in our churches we need to be serious about appointing wise, spirit-filled deacons who can be lead servants for the body in caring for the marginalized, including any internationals among us. After all, the origin story of deacons is explicitly tied to fixing issues of cross-cultural neglect in a local church. Do we insist that our deacons have their radars finely tuned for those in the body who come from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, the contemporary equivalent of the Hellenistic widows? What in their deacons meetings and ministry rhythms keeps this demographic regularly before them? Without this kind of intentional focus, again, the danger is that the marginalized from our own culture will accidentally take priority, because there are fewer barriers toward them being seen and heard.
The text of scripture highlights being of good repute, spirit-filled, and wisdom-filled as the primary qualifications for the men chosen in Acts 6:3. These qualifications, along with those laid out in 1st Timothy 3 should be our top priorities when appointing qualified deacons. These are the kind of men who have the character needed to see the lowly, and that is the most important thing. However, many have pointed out that all seven proto-deacons of Acts 6 have Hellenistic names. It’s therefore likely that they themselves were more Hellenistic than Hebrew in their cultural background, and thus chosen as those well-positioned to care for the Hellenistic widows. So, while natural affinity is not the foundation of the church’s unity, here we see that it may be important for mercy ministry to the marginalized. This is because we are simply much better observers of those things in which we also have some experience.
My daughter has type-1 diabetes and uses Omnipod and Dexcom systems for diabetes management. When others walk by us with these devices sticking to their skin, or when we hear their distinctive beeping noises, we instinctively notice, when we would not have noticed before. Why? We now have experience with diabetic devices and are deeply invested in them as a way to care for our daughter. It follows that those with experience and investment in other languages and cultures are going to more intuitively notice those from these backgrounds, and also notice their needs.
Given these realities, it seems wise to appoint deacons from diverse cultures or with missions experience as those with naturally stronger radars for spotting those international members most likely to be overlooked. If you have Spanish-speaking members in your congregations, consider prioritizing the development of Spanish-speaking deacons. If you South Asian members, then likewise. Or, perhaps that retired missionary might make an excellent addition to the team of deacons.
Other than appointing and directing lead-servants, what else can be done to strengthen the skill and gifting in the body for caring for internationals? For this I really only have one tried and true method: get people overseas. Create pathways for both leadership and members to spend extended time immersed in a foreign culture, ideally alongside of missionaries or churches that you know and trust. Again, people notice what they have experience or investment in. It’s remarkable the kind of effect that several months or several years on the mission field can have on someone’s ministry outlook for the rest of their life.
We should get creative about finding ways to get church leadership overseas, and not just for short-term trips. My missionary friend serving in East Asia shared about a house swapping arrangement he had with one of his former pastors. Before the pandemic derailed things, this pastor and missionary were coordinating their sabbatical and furlough so that the missionary family would have housing in the US and the pastor’s family would get to spend six months living in a foreign context. What a great idea! What would it look like for churches to free up their pastors for mission sabbaticals like this? The impact of getting church leadership on the field for extended periods could be tremendous. Whenever I encounter a student whose dream it is to be a pastor, I challenge them to spend a couple years on the mission field first. This is because their perspective on ministry and the church will be dramatically affected by spending time in frontier missions contexts – and yes, they will be more likely to have eyes that see the internationals in their congregation.
But it’s not just – or even mainly – up to the leadership. After all, the work of the ministry primarily belongs to the congregation (Eph 4:12). So, there is a great need to equip the body to care for those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Want to create a church strong in mercy ministry? Make sure there are many accessible pathways for your church members to spend extended time in mission contexts. Short-term trips are a start, but much more profound changes are going to come about by spending several months or longer overseas. They need to be there long enough to experience some negative things, and for the initial shine to wear off. They need to experience what it’s like to be a minority in a strange land, not just a tourist.
What can we do to foster a culture in our churches that cares well for the marginalized from other cultures? I think that pressing into our deacons and getting church leadership and members overseas are some sound ways to start. And let’s not forget the outcome of caring well for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
Caring well for those often overlooked leads to evangelistic power. Of course it does. Spiritual unity among those without natural affinities is a stunning thing.
I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God's children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God's joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.
-Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 174-175
This is a prayer associated with Brigid, the abbess of an Irish monastery in the early 500s famous for its hospitality. This prayer reminds me of Lawrence of Rome, who, when asked in the persecution of 258 to surrender the riches of the church to the emperor Valerian, presented the poor, the crippled, and the widows, inviting the emperor to “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.”
This kind of ancient Christian delight in the poor and the sick strikes me as very different from what I am used to hearing emphasized in my circles. And that makes me curious. Why might that be? What would it look like for us to not just teach a theology of suffering, but to have a culture and language that better reflects the “great reversal” that the New Testament so often speaks of?
In this new year, may our poor also sit with Jesus at the highest place, and our sick also dance with the angels.