Samuel Maverick (1803-1870) was a Texas lawyer so preoccupied in his business that he failed to brand his cattle. His neighbors soon dubbed his large herd of stray, unbranded calves “mavericks” and in time the term came to mean an independently minded person.
To many, this is the perfect description of a missionary. He’s an individualist, a free spirit, and a dissenter, roaming the foreign fields without the branding of any higher authority save God himself. Off he goes to distant lands, a cowboy throwing caution to the wind—a kamikaze itching to make his mark.
The heroes adorning his wall are men like David Livingston—pioneer explorer to Africa—and Robert Morrison, the father of Protestant missions in China who sailed for the Orient alone. And couldn’t one add St. Paul to this list, for it was the apostle who wished bachelorhood upon everyone (1Co. 7:7)?
Truth be told, the New Testament model of missions is nothing of this kind. A quick survey of Acts reveals over a hundred proper names, many connected to Paul. Just as Jesus surrounded himself with disciples, Paul hemmed himself in by a large troupe of fellow laborers. The number of Paul’s friends is astounding.
Scripture uses a number of titles to describe his colleague’s gifts and duties, including: brother (Rom. 16:23), kinsmen (Rm. 16:7), servant (1Co. 3:5), fellow-slave (Col. 1:7), worker (Rom. 16:12), host (Rm. 16:23), fellow soldier (Phile. 2), and partner (2Co. 8:23). This list shows that Paul’s friends didn’t sit around idly as the Maverick Missionary ran the show. Instead, they were full of vim and vigor, not working for Paul but with him. They were God’s co-workers (1Co. 3:9).
Though Paul encircled himself with scores of colleagues, he devoted much of his time to a smaller group of men. He most likely led Timothy to Christ when in Lystra (Ac. 14:16-20), enlisted him three years later as a teammate (Ac. 16:1-3), and pruned him as one of his most trusted confidants. Paul took Titus with him to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:3), trusted him to deliver the “letter of tears” (2Co. 2:4) and bestowed on him the warm title of “partner and co-worker” (2Co. 8:23).
Paul served with Barnabas on their maiden missionary voyage, Luke in Philippi, Tychicus in Ephesus and Colossae, Apollos in Ephesus and Silas after the split with Barnabas. Perhaps surprisingly, a fair percentage of Paul’s fellow workers were women, as a brief survey of Romans 16 shows.
Among the lessons we can gather from this, here are three. First, Paul was not an individualist who eschewed companions and partnerships. This doesn’t mean he was never lonely or alone, only that deep relationships were a priority. Second, the bulk of Paul’s coworkers came from the new churches he had established. He didn’t sit around waiting for party invitations but instead initiated personal alliances by winning sinners to Christ and befriending them.
Third, Paul went out of his way to do whatever possible in making his friends look good. He reminded the Corinthians in a letter not to treat his young protégé with contempt (1Co. 16:10-11). He praised the young Titus behind his back (2Co. 7:6-7) and urged the Philippians to welcome his pupil Epaphroditus with open arms (Phil. 2:29).
Indeed, missions today can be lonely work, but this should never be due to relational indifference. Missionaries would be wise to imitate Paul’s thirst for companionship and disdain for self-sufficiency. Though modern media aids us on this point, the task of camaraderie still demands two rolled up sleeves.