We’re familiar with partnerships. We’ve seen the power of partnerships in the worlds of business, entertainment and throughout history.
There was Antony and Cleopatra, Currier and Ives, Bonnie and Clyde…How about Smith and Wesson?
In the business world, there was Hewlett and Packard, Richard and Maurice McDonald, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Don’t forget Ben and Jerry.
There was Gilbert and Sullivan, Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, Penn and Teller, as well as Seals and Croft in music and entertainment.
Partners are also important in the work of the gospel. “Partners in the gospel” are the very words Paul called the Philippian believers in the opening words of his letter to this infant church plant. To appreciate this partnership, look at Philippians 1:3-6:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
What do we see outlined regarding partnership from these brief words from Paul to the Philippian believers and us today?
Some Partners Are Known
There are partners who are known. In this case, you have the familiar partnership of Paul and Timothy that began in this letter. There are also other names of duos who are part of the fabric of our faith. There was Moses and Aaron, Samson and Delilah, Elijah and Elisha. In the New Testament, there was Paul and Barnabas, as well as Paul and Silas. These partners are familiar to believers then and now. Their names are prominent; they are known.
Throughout the history of the church, partnerships abound. There was Charles Finney and Daniel Nash, Moody and Sankey, Ockenga and Graham. These are significant partnerships used by God in the lives of many people.
Yes, some partnerships are known; but on the other hand, we also see the opposite in this short letter.
Some Partners Are Not Known
There are lesser known partners in the work of the gospel. As for some partners, we’ll never know their names. Such is the case with some of the Philippian believers. Paul said about them, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” The you is plural, but there are no particular names cited.
From this letter, we are familiar with Epaphroditus, Euodia and Syntyche, but even at the end of the letter these unnamed people—these silent partners—are only recognized by the name “saint” (v. 4:21). They may be lesser known, silent partners; but nevertheless, they are viable partners.
There’s a certain humility we don’t want to overlook that’s evidenced in this passage, an acknowledgement that none of these folks ever will be recognized in a crowd, let alone cited in the apostle’s letter. Some partners are not known, but they remain partners in the gospel.
A number of our students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary are involved in a program that enlists supporters who help fund the students’ education. There are hundreds of these folks who are unknown partners in the gospel.
There are men and women who generously and sacrificially give to our students who aren’t known by anyone on the faculty or by our president and trustees. Yet they are the people who help pay student tuition, which contributes to our salaries and pay the electric bill. Some partners in the gospel aren’t known similar to the unknown and unnamed partners in the Philippian church.
We Either Are Known or Unknown Partners in the Gospel of Jesus Christ
We tend to put the spotlight on the known partners—especially the big donors at churches, colleges and seminaries—and neglect the impact and importance of the unknown partners.
I recently wrote some entries for a new church history encyclopedia. I did my doctoral work on the life and preaching of A.J. Gordon, a Boston Baptist pastor and cofounder of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Have you ever heard of the partnership of Gordon and Stebbins? Probably not. For most unknown partners, the recognition stops at the first name and ends before the “and.” If we fill in the blank after Gordon, we probably would leave the blank empty because we aren’t familiar with Stebbins.
George C. Stebbins was a musician who served briefly as the music director at Clarendon Street Baptist Church in Boston, where A.J. Gordon was the pastor. Stebbins isn’t a household name. He doesn’t have a school named after him. He was a musician—and a good one. He was an unknown partner in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He later wrote songs for George Pentecost, D.L. Moody and Fanny Crosby. He was a partner.
The tension between being a known and unknown partner in the gospel came to light more poignantly for me while researching preaching and character. There’s something within our souls that wants very much to be acknowledged, to be recognized. To a certain extent, that’s often healthy and needed. To commend or thank others privately and publicly is good. A person blossoms when thanked.
I discovered there are preachers who are not satisfied with being unknown. They are compelled to be recognized. They want to be known.
I mentor students and remember asking one of the first students I mentored almost 25 years ago what he wanted to do in ministry. He said, “I want to be famous.”
I’m happy to report that his request has not yet been fulfilled. What we see in the church among some preachers is a discomfort with being unknown coupled with a rise of the cult of personality. The church has become about them, and the ministries are theirs rather than the Spirit’s. “This is my church. This is my ministry.” The question for us is: Are we comfortable remaining unknown?
The passage we’re looking at doesn’t make a big deal between the known partners of Paul and Timothy and the unknown partners in the Philippian church. We don’t want to make a big deal either, for Paul simply was thankful; we can be thankful, as well. It has to do with humility. When we develop a posture of humility it really does not matter if we are well-known or silent partners in the gospel. The key is to be partners in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For more than 20 years, I partnered with Haddon Robinson in the teaching of preaching at Gordon-Conwell. Everyone inside and outside the seminary knew who Haddon Robinson was. Nobody knew me. That really didn’t bother me; I was comfortable living in his shadow. I wasn’t Haddon Robinson. I knew I never would become Haddon Robinson, and that was OK. I was blessed to be his partner in this task of training men and women how to preach.
I don’t know where you are in your reflections on partnership. You may be a known partner or not known. Either is fine, as long as you reflect the humility of Christ.
Partner in the gospel George C. Stebbins understood this truth, and it is reflected in the sentiments of his hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” for which he supplied the music while Adelaide A. Pollard wrote the words. This humble tune reflects the words of submission to the Lord in the partnership of the gospel. The words pray:
Have Thine own way, Lord!
Have Thine own way!
Thou are the Potter,
I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.
Let’s be thankful that we are partners in the gospel of Jesus Christ, whether known or unknown.