A few months ago I wrote about partnerships for the sake of the gospel. Today, the team I’ll be serving with had a conversation about partnerships and collaboration. The conversation reminded me of the book The Church of Irresistible Influence by Robert Lewis. In it is the story of the building of the Chunnel, the tunnel that underneath the English Channel that connects England with France. It’s the perfect illustration of partnerships or collaboration gone wrong. The French had the perfect word for the Chunnel project: bicephele, or two-headed. There were two mammoth firms built from scratch to complete the project: one charged with finance and operation, the other responsible for building it. Each of these companies was also two-headed: equally French and British.
No one was allowed to take charge. Leadership, more times than not, was reduced to the management of conflict. Said a high-ranking executive, “The project…created a lot of tension because it [was] not geared to solving problems; it [was] geared to placing blame.” The English yelled at the French, and the French yelled at the English. Said another executive, “There were nervous breakdowns galore.”
The problems were primarily from a lack of shared standards. The two countries had a different word for everything. The French had their accounting system, so did the English. The French ran on 380 volts, and the British ran on 420. Instruction manuals were bilingual. There were even two different standards used to measure sea level.
As I’ve reflected on today’s conversation, the shared standard for collaboration and partnership in New Testament terms is the gospel itself; a fellowship for the sake of advancing the gospel, as Philippians 1:5 puts it. As I read Philippians, Paul seems to make the case that the best way to keep partnerships from becoming bicephele is to shoot for a common way of life that keeps that shared standard central. Philippians 1:27-28 describes this ethic.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. (Phi 1:27-28 ESV)
Underpinning this ethic, this manner of life, are several attitudes. Paul says to stand firm in one spirit. And he says to contend as one man for the faith of the gospel. The former would have brought to mind a soldier refusing to budge an inch from his post. We are called to stand firm and not budge an inch from the unity we intrinsically have in Christ. The latter has overtones from the gladiatorial arena. Think of the arena and a group of people in the ring together contending, struggling for a common purpose. On the one hand the Philippians were to stand firm (a defensive posture). On the other hand, they were to contend together (an offensive posture). Both together produce an ethic or way of life that advances the gospel.
The implication for ministry partnerships is clear. The bicephele monster dies if we live this out on our ministry teams and with our ministry partners. May God give each of us a deep desire for oneness in the Spirit and an iron will to contend together for the common cause of the gospel in whatever sphere God has placed us.
Frankly, I struggle with the degree of oneness we are called to. Paul spells out this oneness in the first four verses of Philippians chapter 2.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phi 2:1-4 ESV)
Unity can be expressed by a common way of life, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel (1:27), and also by a common way of thinking. This is the part I struggle with. Be like-minded the text says. Scholars have found an inscription with that word like-minded on an ancient tombstone of a married couple buried together that reads as such, “we spoke the same things, we thought the same things and we go the inseparable way in Hades.” That’s what it means to be like-minded! I can hardly imagine a higher bar to shoot for in terms of how we approach collaboration and partnership. As if this weren’t enough, we are also called to have the same love—to have a common love for one another. We are called to a have a common set of goals—be one in spirit and purpose. And we are to do all this with a measure of humility as we consider those in the partnership better than ourselves, verse 3.
In terms of collaborative partnerships with others, I’m not sure I’ve ever truly experienced this. But I want it. More than anything. And I want the teams and initiatives and partnerships I’m a part of to experience this too. Death to bicephalic partnerships!