Gospel Partnerships (Part 1)
The Philippian Model for How a Local Church Joins in the Global Proclamation of Christ
This is part one of a three part series on how a local church partners in the global mission of God.
Today, there exists much helpful discussion on the role of a local church in God’s global mission. Those who have a high view of local church involvement in missions have written a number of helpful pieces that offer sound, practical advice on what a particular congregation should be doing to engage in the mission of God around the world. However, in my reading of the literature, there remains a lack of biblical justification for why a local church should engage directly in global missions. If God’s Word is our guide then we should seek to model our practice on Scripture. In this essay, I argue that such a model can be found in the book of Philippians.
The Apostle Paul’s tone in his Epistle to the Philippians sets this letter apart from many of his others that we have in the New Testament. His writing to this church reveals a warmth and affection for this congregation unparalleled in the rest of his corpus. Many cite the personal connection Paul has with people this church and the church’s relative health as reasons for the positive nature of this epistle. These answers are true, but they neglect an important source of Paul’s pleasure with the Philippians: their partnership with him in the gospel.
In Philippians 1:5, Paul tells the church at Philippi that he always thanks God for them “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” The goal of this article is to explore what Paul means by “partnership in the gospel” and in doing so to hold up Paul and the church at Philippi as the model for how a church and a missionary partner together to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.*
In what follows, I contend that the book of Philippians provides both the warrant and the model for one way that a local church should join in the global proclamation of Christ. The justification for local church involvement in cross-cultural missions is implicit in the setting forth of the Philippian model of partnership. Commended by Paul, the practice of the Philippians affirms the validity of their method.
First, in outlining their model of partnership, I will examine how the partnership developed between Paul and Philippi. Then, I will look at how Paul and the Philippians together shared the work and the benefits of taking the gospel to the nations. Finally, I assert that this partnership between church and missionary is an expression of sharing the mind of Christ for the good of others and for the glory of God.
Partnerships Grow from Relationships
This letter to the Philippians is clearly not Paul’s first interaction with this church. His depth of emotion and love for this church evidences itself throughout this correspondence. Such affection has grown out of the deep and lasting relationship between the people of this congregation and the Apostle Paul. We have the opportunity through the account of the establishment of this church in Acts 16 to see that this relationship between Paul and the Philippians only blossomed through Christ. It was their mutual love for and faith in Jesus that drew them together. From the bond they had in Christ, the church and Paul partnered together to proclaim the good news of Jesus. The lesson for churches today is that gospel partnerships grow from Christ-centered relationships.
Paul makes his heart for the Philippians clear from the outset of the letter. Already in Philippians 1:3-4, he demonstrates his love for them: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy.” Their lives fill him with thankfulness and joy. He holds them in his heart (1:7), and he yearns for them “with all the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:9). From these opening words, Paul’s pace does not slacken. His love for them seems to fill each word he writes.
The affection Paul has for the Philippian church arises through Christ Jesus. From the details available in the New Testament, it does not seem that Paul and the Philippians would have been natural friends. Ethnic, cultural, and religious differences largely would have kept them separate. What brought them together was the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Acts 16, we read about Paul heeding the Lord’s call to Macedonia and making his way to Philippi. The rest of the chapter records the conversion of Lydia and her household, the casting out of the demon from the slave girl, Paul and Silas’s imprisonment, and then the conversion of the jailer and his household. What drew a wealthy merchant, a slave girl (possibly), a Roman government employee, and an itinerant Jewish preacher together was Jesus Christ. As people responded in faith to the message of the gospel, they developed a supernatural connection. Paul would return to Philippi again on his third missionary journey (Acts 20:5-6), and it seems from the epistle to the Philippians that the communication between Paul and the church continued consistently through Paul’s travels.
Paul rejoices with the Philippians for what the Lord is doing in them and through them. He is delighted that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (1:6). God has been at work in their lives to redeem them, and he continues to work in them. He has saved them and is growing them to maturity in their faith. However, the Lord’s work in their lives is not only for the church at Philippi; he works through them that the good news of Jesus might go forth. Thus, Paul thanks God for what he is doing through the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel (1:3-5). The Lord works through them to advance the gospel. The relationship between Paul and the Philippians is a supernatural relationship. God has brought them together, and his continued divine activity maintains their relationship.
*A caveat should be made at this point. As an apostle, Paul served a particular role during a particular era of redemptive history, and his role is far from completely analogous to a missionary. However, he did serve in a number of missionary capacities such as proclaiming Christ cross-culturally and planting new churches. The uniqueness of Paul’s role is countered by, with all due respect to the people involved, the ordinariness of the church at Philippi. The details we have of this church give us the opportunity for many to see themselves in the members of that congregation, and as such, the model of the Philippians is all the more inspiring for us today.