I have had numerous conversations with single Christians, wondering if their standards for the ideal spouse were too high. Perhaps, they thought, they just need to bite the bullet and settle for that less-than-ideal guy. What’s funny is I have also heard Christians speaking the same way about missions teams and organizations. In some ways, joining with a missionary team is even more sober than deciding who one will marry. The typical married couples in the States will not have to endure the same kinds of stressors that are put upon missionary colleagues. Missionary teams plant churches together, make translation decisions together, and even stitch one another up. Many pursuing missions are aware of this and take great pains to find a team and/or agency that would be a good fit for them theologically, professionally, and relationally.
But what if the ideal team or agency does not come? Is it ever OK to “settle”? And at what point does this settling become compromise before the Lord? Here are some helpful things to think through if you find yourself, or a friend, waiting for that perfect team.
What are the theological deal-breakers?
Dealing specifically with theological issues, Al Mohler presents a helpful way to sort through which issues should be deal-breakers in his article A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity. He says that doctrines should be divided between first, second, and third order doctrines. Below is a brief summary of how he divides up doctrines:
First order doctrines – The fundamentals (authority of Scripture, deity of Christ, justification by faith alone, trinitarian view of the godhead, etc.).
Second order doctrines – Theological differences within the Christian faith which create significant enough boundaries that Christians organize themselves around these doctrines within local churches (modes of baptism, the Lord’s supper, views regarding the spiritual gifts, roles of women within the church, etc.).
Third order doctrines – These are theological differences within the Christian faith that are subtle enough that Christians can be in the same local church and yet have differing views relating to these doctrines (various interpretations of difficult passages relating to the end times, convictions regarding head coverings for women in church, how much a Christian should be involved in politics, methodology in evangelism, etc.).
The issues listed above apply well to those who are staying in the United States, but many of them are less applicable to those working overseas. For instance, in some cultures, women wear head coverings all the time, so disagreement on that practice is a moot point. However, potential missionary teams need to wrestle through everything from translation theories to the idea that they should baptize a believer in secret to avoid persecution from his family.
Further, Mohler’s triage affects missionaries differently depending on their role on the team. For instance, if one is intending on planting a church, then he ought to agree with his team on first and second order issues, down to modes of baptism. For someone involved in medical missions or translation work, however, secondary issues are of lesser importance. First order issues such as the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone are essential if the work is more than humanitarian. As far as third order issues, those issues will likely serve as lively conversation pieces rather than a foundation by which a church is laid.
So, for the aspiring missionary, there is great potential in partnering with those who share first and sometimes second order doctrines, even if there are some differences among the third order doctrines.
Missions is never ideal.
Another thing to keep in mind is that missions is never ideal and it should come as no surprise when we cannot find the ideal team/agency. Missions exists because this world is less-than-ideal. Jesus himself would not have had to come to the earth and die if Adam had never sinned by eating the fruit. Leaving one’s place of origin to enter into a foreign land is directly linked to the sinful state of the world. It is never ideal to leave our crying mothers, our familiar languages, and our welcoming church families. It is very difficult to learn a new language and culture and to live with less-than-adequate healthcare. And yet, Christ’s command to go into all the nations is still clear. And being on a less-than-ideal team is still more ideal than leaving a people group in darkness.
We can learn from less-than-ideal team members.
At times, Christians can be so distracted by our differences that we miss a means for our own sanctification. I have learned faithfulness and passion in ministry from people with whom I have very little in common theologically. And in that, I have found that working with Christians that are outside of my doctrinal comfort zone can actually expose my own weaknesses in ways that I never would have seen otherwise. If we walk into a team humbly, trusting that God’s Spirit is working in all of his children, I think we will be surprised by all that God can do through team members that don’t always see eye-to-eye.
What is the greater compromise?
If the perfect mission agency or mission team is yet to be found, then the aspiring missionary has a choice to make: Either “settle” or stay home. Perhaps the issue is with an agency or teammate that differs on second or third order doctrines. If this is the case, he then needs to ask himself if it would be a greater compromise to go overseas with this group or not go at all. We also need to ask ourselves if our convictions are being used as a tool by Satan to keep the unreached from hearing the Gospel.
The truth is, some people should not get married. Paul said that (at least in some situations) it is better to be single (1 Corinthians 7:7). But, there are some singles that need to be reminded that, just as they are never going to be a perfect spouse, they should not look for a perfect spouse. Missions is much the same. Some people should not go into missions and remaining where they are would better serve the kingdom. But then, there are some who are looking for a perfect opportunity that will never come around. Missions is hard, missions is messy, and particularly in that it involves people, missions is less-than-ideal. Even Paul at times mourned desertion by people on his team (see 2 Timothy 4:10). But if betrayal, shipwrecks, accusations, and fear did not stop Paul from God’s mission, let us follow his example. Let’s not be reckless, thinking that the theology of our partners will not affect their practice. But in wisdom, let’s take the risk and seek to better an imperfect team with our imperfect selves.