A typical meeting of a mission team? (source: www.freeimages.com)

A typical meeting of a mission team? (source: www.freeimages.com)

I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think about what a disparate group Jesus’ 12 disciples were.  We don’t know about all of them, but we can infer things about them from what we know of their professions and what they are recorded in the Bible as saying.  As we know they included the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James & John (Matthew 4:18-21) as well as a tax collector (Matthew) and a revolutionary freedom fighter (Simon the Zealot*).  Peter was larger than life and James & John clearly had short tempers (Mark 3:17, Luke 9:54).  Thomas possibly had a more cynical nature (John 11:16).  The fishermen, while not necessarily poor (they owned their means of production), were probably what we would now consider skilled labourers, as was Jesus himself, while Matthew would have been significantly wealthy, at least prior to joining the disciples (cf Luke 19:1-10).

Most interestingly, in the politically-charged environment of the occupied Levant, Matthew would have been considered a traitor, collaborating with the occupying power by collecting outrageously high taxes.  Every nationalistic Judaean would have hated him, particularly Simon was a Zealot, a fanatic agitating for radical overthrow of the oppressors.  How on earth did those two manage to get along living alongside each other for three year?  Of course there must have been arguments, but they stuck it out.  And that was before they were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I believe there was one crucial factor that drew them together more than their political views would have divided them:  they wanted to be with Jesus.  They wanted to be where he was, and do what he was doing.  And the price they paid for that was to learn to live together.

In many multi-cultural mission teams today there are disagreements over many things: theological, cultural, and social.  They may include questions of missiological practice, ecclesiology, or basic assumptions about what Christian culture is.  These disagreements are significantly exacerbated where there is a clash of personalities, and in any randomly-allocated group of twelve people, there is highly likely to be one person that you don’t get on with.  Dealing with such people can lead to significant levels of stress.

So when we find ourselves in a similar situation, what can we do to make it work?  Here are some simple steps:

  • 1) Look to the bigger picture and recognise that we are all a small part of a large plan
  • 2) Recognise and accept our differences, acknowledging that other people’s different attitudes and values are not necessarily wrong
  • 3) Admit our own sinfulness and self-centredness and ask God to help us become more like him
  • 4) Work hard to understand those we have tension with, learn their story and find out what has made them who they are.

St Paul gives us some helpful hints on our attitude towards those with whom we disagree in Romans 14:

  • Accept one another and do not judge (vv 1, 3)
  • We are all answerable to God for our own attitudes and behaviour (vv 4, 10)
  • Our attitude can cause others to sin (v 13)
  • We are supposed to be building one another up (v 19
  • The Kingdom of God is more important than our disputes (v 20)
Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I was greatly encouraged when one couple reported to me recently that they were having some difficulty in relating to their co-workers, and ask for prayer not that the colleagues would change, but that they would!  This is a godly attitude which recognises that if we want to be with Jesus, and do the things he is doing, we’re likely to find ourselves with co-workers that we wouldn’t naturally choose.  We can make an issue of this or we can get on with the process of adapting.  I have found myself in a similar situation, working alongside people I would not naturally have chosen to be with, but by getting to know them better they have become good friends.

We don’t know the end of the story of Matthew and Simon.  Perhaps they became the best of friends, or maybe they simply learned to tolerate each other.  Maybe Jesus knocked their heads together a few times before they got the message.  But we do know that they stayed together in the same team for at least three years, and even after the death of Jesus they stayed together for at least 40 days (Acts 1:13).  That is because what united them was greater than what divided them.

* There is much scholarly debate about this term.  Some say it may simply mean that he was enthusiastic, but the Zealots were named by Josephus as a sect of Judaism which advocated armed uprising against the Romans.