Will I choose “the robe” or “the towel” in partnership with indigenous ministries?

Jesus washing Peter’s feet, by Ford Madox Brown
Jesus washing Peter’s feet, by Ford Madox Brown

Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility is a wonderfully rich book describing the challenge and promise of Christlike servanthood in cross-cultural settings. But it’s not only helpful for people who serve full-time in cross-cultural ministry. Elmer’s book is also great for anyone engaged in partnership with indigenous ministries … or going on a short-term mission trip … or who simply wants to be more like Jesus in their everyday relationships. Everyone would benefit much from this read, simply because servanthood is so contrary to our nature.

The message of this book is partly based on John’s gospel, chapter 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him …

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  –John 13:3–5, 12–17 (ESV)

Dr. Elmer says that a vital question for Christ followers centers around the metaphor of the robe versus the towel: Will I serve God in the way of the robe or the towel? Jesus took off his outer garments, his robe, representing authority and lordship—and instead took up the towel, and washed the disciples’ feet. Footwashing was a common practice in that culture, but it was always a job reserved for the most lowly of servants. Nevertheless, Jesus chose the towel. Elmer writes…

Jesus came to earth occupying two roles: (1) Lord and Christ, and (2) humble, obedient servant. He alone is Lord and Christ. But he taught and exemplified humble servanthood, the role we are to occupy—the way of the towel. The problem arises when his followers choose to follow him in his kingly role and not in his servant role. They gravitate toward the robe while resisting the towel. The Lord Jesus Christ alone wears the robe. His disciples are to follow him only in his humble, obedient servant role—maybe even his suffering-servant role.

I understand this. I gravitate toward the honor of the robe and while resisting the humility of the towel. But as I abide in Christ, another way is genuinely possible: the way of servanthood.

Isn’t this is the essence of healthy cross-cultural partnerships—Christ-centered servanthood? We in the west have such a tendency toward an attitude of superiority. It’s natural. A mindset of superiority is usually not explicitly stated by westerners, but non-western Christians can easily sense when westerners visiting their country come across as having more money, better ideas, better spiritual wisdom, more ministry experience—an attitude of superiority rather than servanthood. Ironically, westerners often have more to learn from them than the other way around. At Mission ONE, we believe that in a healthy cross-cultural partnership, we are learning together, from God and from one another.

This book by Duane Elmer can offers clear guidance about specific behaviors and practices so that we can actually live out “the way of the towel.” Those practices are openness, acceptance, trust, learning, and understanding—all culminating with truly effective serving. The book is structured around these practices; I love the definitions, the practical life stories, the clear principles, the Christ-centered theology. Thank you, Dr. Elmer, for the great service you have rendered to the church through your book.

Will I choose the robe or the towel in my life? Will the way of the towel be what characterizes how I partner with indigenous minsitries? By God’s grace, and by abiding in Christ, I want to choose the towel, don’t you?


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