“And the contention was so sharp . . . ” (Acts 15:39).
The godly unity of the three brethren who labored in Thessalonica presents a near ideal standard which all of us do well to emulate. Who can tell the extent to which that unity contributed to the blessing in the work and the high standard of Christian living attained in the assembly? Truly, unity amongst the laborers is one of the secrets of unity amongst their converts. To all this the sharp contention of Acts 15 presents a great contrast. We learn that even the godly can disagree and that such disagreement can reach alarming proportions.
The preservation of unity amongst workers is a Divine work to which each one has his contribution to make. Given the problems which arise, it must be said that it requires exercise before God and education in His school to know how to act when difficulties arise, and to so act that the interests of the work and its unity are promoted, whatever be the difficulties.
Conditions vary from one mission field to another, but, generally speaking, missionaries are more closely related to one another in their labors than those who serve in the homelands. In general it might be observed that the newer the field, the more closely the missionaries will be involved with one another as they labor in the spread of the gospel and in the up-building of assemblies. It is of the utmost importance that a true and meaningful unity prevail amongst workers brought together by the common interest of spreading the gospel in a given area. But the very fact of being thus closely yoked together may, in itself, make the desired unity more difficult to maintain. What we are like to work with becomes very evident, not to those who listen to missionary reports, but to those with whom we are constantly associated in the work. The fact that all the workers in a given area are of one mind as to assembly matters and methods in the work, while of incalculable importance, does not in itself guarantee that oneness of mind will always prevail.
The desirable unity will only be obtained and maintained through diligent spiritual exercise. If envying and strife is allowed to come in, there will be confusion and every evil work Games 4:16). Few readers of experience who read these lines will not have sad memories of work that was hindered, and blessing that ceased, as those who ought to have known better gave way to strife and contention. Happy is that servant of the Lord who has judged envy in his heart and thus rejoices in the blessings enjoyed by his brethren, even though he is passing through barren times. To such, the work is one, and God’s blessing in salvation is far more important than either his name or fame. Differences of judgment are common, even if they indicate that the standard of 1 Cor 1:10 has not been attained. Misunderstandings as well as hurt feelings arise so easily. Sadly the initial problem may not be the cause of disruption, but rather the unspiritual way in which it is handled. When difficulties are not handled in a godly way, they can easily and quickly grow to serious proportions and become a threat to the work. As soon as something arises which causes strained relationships, true spirituality is put to the test. Where loyalty and brotherly love exist, there will be a rigorous control, in the power of the Spirit, on the thoughts harbored with regard to the opponent. Love will avoid attributing to him many intentions and attitudes of which he is not guilty, and of which he would never be suspected when relations are normal. Integrity as a servant of God will preserve the offended from putting his own interests and case above the interests of the work. Attitudes will be weighed and modes of action decided on, that will be seen to serve the best interests of the work of God in general. The brother who is assured that he has acted rightly, and who very well may have, will lose out spiritually if in bitterness of spirit he takes on some of the characteristics of the professed brother of 1 John 2:11, who is said to walk in darkness because of his hatred to his brother. The harboring of bitter thoughts will all too easily cause a servant to lose his way in spiritual things. If this is allowed to go on without self-judgment and humiliation before the Lord, the consequences will be serious. Others may feel that the case of one or the other must be taken up, and even factions can be created. The end result may be detrimental to the work of God. It was in connection with certain assembly difficulties that Paul used the well known words: ” …lest Satan should get an advantage over us: for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor 2:11).
It is an established fact that the greater our involvement in the work of the Lord, the more clearly will our failures come to light. An obvious example is that of Moses, who would have died with an unbroken testimony for humility, had he not been hard pressed as he labored amongst those rebellious people, and smote the rock instead of speaking to it. So to this day, the pressure of the work of the Lord, the decisions that must be taken, the counsel that must be given, the patience that must be exercised, all strain the qualities of the servant to such an extent that failures come to the surface that otherwise would never have
been evident. This is humbling and indicates the very deep need, for those moving in public service, to live in a spirit of dependence on the Lord, that by the power of His Spirit, grace and wisdom may be given for each and every circumstance as it arises.
It was the writer’s privilege, having come to South Brazil as a young man, to come into such a work as that which has been described, i.e. a new work, which was then only about 16 years in progress. It was instructive to see how those older brethren, though few in number, kept together and talked together of all aspects of the work. Emphasis was on talking to one another rather than about one another. Pleasant memories remain of conversations with those who had experience, and who could give weighty counsel supported by example in those matters which have been presented in these lines. Those who came later to the field have sought by God’s help to follow in the same path.
It has been said that gift, ability to learn a language, and ability to adapt to a foreign culture are all very important for the missionary. This is true, but in the final analysis the quality of his work depends on the life which he lives before God.