Degrees of Syn: Partnerships that Matter
Tony Cooke

Degrees of Syn: Partnerships that Matter by Tony CookeIf I heard someone say, degrees of syn, I would assume he or she was talking about how some sins are supposedly more serious than other sins. For example, gossip might be considered less serious than murder, and shoplifting a candy bar might be considered less serious than robbing a bank. However, that’s not what I’m referring to—I’m referring to syn, not sin.

Syn is a prefix. It was in Greek, and it is in English. It means with or together, and it is used in English in such words as synchronize, synergy, synonymous, synoptic, and even synagogue. In the Greek language, it was one of Paul’s favorite prefixes—he used it more than fifty times to indicate teamwork and togetherness. When the New Testament uses the word fellow (as in fellow laborer or fellow worker), it is based on this Greek word syn.

It is important in life and in ministry to know who is with you, and to what level or degree they are with you. Have you ever had someone that you thought was a committed friend, but later found out they really weren’t? What about a person you thought was a loyal church member or staff member, but they quickly proved otherwise? I realize that people can step away from a church or a staff for positive reasons and in a positive manner, but it is still important for teams to be cohesive and working toward a common purpose. The following all involve the word syn in the original language.

  1. Fellow Disciples (John 11:16)
  2. Fellow Citizens (Eph 2:19)
  3. Fellow Heirs (Eph 3:6)
  4. Fellow Workers (Sunergos is the Greek word from which we get our word synergy)
    • Pricilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3)
    • Urbanus (Rom 16:9)
    • Timothy (Rom 16:21,1 Thes 3:2)
    • Apollos (1 Cor 3:9)
    • Titus (2 Cor 8:23)
    • Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25)
    • Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement (Phil 4:3)
    • Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus (Col 4:10-11)
    • Philemon (Phm) 1
    • Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Phm 24)
  1. Fellow Servants
    • Epaphras (Col 1:7)
    • Tychicus (Col 4:7)
  1. Fellow Soldiers
    • Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25)
    • Archippus (Phm 1:2)
  1. Fellow Prisoners
    • Aristarchus (Col 4:10)
    • Epaphras (Phm 23)
    • Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7)

Stop and think about these various terms. It stands to reason that every true believer is a fellow disciple, fellow citizen, and fellow heir with you. Those terms seem to describe all Christians. However, not everyone fitting those three descriptions will take the additional steps and become fellow workers, fellow soldiers, etc. Think of it this way:

  • Fellow disciples, citizens, and heirs receive with you.
  • Fellow workers and servants labor with you.
  • Fellow soldiers go to war with you (not against you, but with you)
  • Fellow prisoners are willing to suffer with you.

Here’s another way to look at this. Paul refers to a young assistant named Epaphroditus as “my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier (Phil 2:25). While Epaphroditus filled these three roles, not everyone will. In other words, not everyone who is your brother is going to be a fellow worker or fellow soldier.

Similarly, a pastor wants every church member to be a tither and generous giver, a dedicated volunteer, and a person who uses their influence to witness to outsiders and bring them to church. Realistically, though, we realize that not everyone will step into all of these. We share that same goal as Paul; we want to “present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Col 1:28), but we can only take people as far as they are willing to go. Like so many other things in life, we simply have to do the best we can with what we have to work with, and take people as far as they are willing to go.

Here are some thoughts that leaders will be wise to recognize:

Some relationships (partnerships) don’t turn out the way we would like. In Philemon 24, Paul referred to Demas as a “fellow laborer.” However, when Paul was awaiting execution in Rome, he wrote, “Demas has deserted me because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim 4:10a). Most every pastor has experienced the disappointment of having someone leave for wrong reasons. My friend, Rick Sharkey, made a great statement a few years ago about pastoring. He said, “We want to think that we will be everyone’s ultimate destination, but usually, we are just a part of their journey.”

But it is also important to keep in mind that sometime people do leave for right reasons. In the second half of that same verse, Paul writes, “Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus has gone to Dalmatia” (2 Tim 4:10b). We assume that these two men had gone out on other ministry assignments. As leaders, we have to recognize that God’s assignments on peoples’ lives will not always keep them working with us, and that’s OK.

Some relationships fail, but are later restored. A classic example of this involves Paul and John Mark. Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but abandoned them halfway through the journey. When it came time to take their second missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to give Mark (his cousin) a second chance, but Paul was unwilling to do so. Acts 15:39-40 states, “Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas…” Feelings were no doubt intense at this point, but many years later, Paul instructs Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). This is something we should keep in mind when things don’t work out. Even if separation occurs, it’s important to be open to restoration. This is why it is important not to burn bridges unless it’s absolutely necessary. I have seen people plant negative seeds in leaving, and that made future restoration difficult. Consistent with this idea, Joseph Joubert said, “Never cut what you can untie.”

Not everyone is necessarily called to the highest levels of service and commitment. As leaders, we naturally want to see everyone be committed and to serve, and to a degree, that’s good. However, we have to keep in mind that God doesn’t call everyone to intense levels of service. For example, Mark 5:18-19 states, “he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.’” While we want to see everyone loving and serving Jesus, not everyone is called to the five-fold ministry or to the foreign field. Some will serve Jesus by loving and being an example to those at home and in their immediate sphere of influence.

Some are called to higher levels of “syn” (partnership and teamwork) with Jesus than others. The rich young ruler, for example, refused to pay the price that would have allowed him to walk in a higher level of cooperation with Jesus. It’s important, though, to realize that Jesus didn’t call everyone to the same thing or call everyone to the same standard. He told the rich young ruler, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22), but he simply told the other man to “Go home” (Mark 5:19).

We need to greatly value and appreciate those who walk with us and help us—those who walk in a high level of “syn” (partnership) with us. Paul treasured, cultivated, and valued his partners in ministry. He knew that he could not accomplish what he needed to by himself. He referred to both Timothy and Titus as his son in the faith. In prison, he was comforted by the fact that Luke was with him. He called Priscilla and Aquila his “co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus” and said, “They once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them” (Rom 16:3-4).

In their excellent book, Anointed to Be God’s Servants, Henry and Tom Blackaby write:

Paul’s life was a guided life, not a driven life. As such, God not only directed where he should go, but with whom he should he go. He was a single man, whose God-given task was impossible to accomplish alone. God involved dozens of other men and women, adding their unique perspectives and abilities to the effort. The many dimensions of companionship seen in the life of Paul are very informative and equally eye-opening to those in ministry today. In fact, his entire life and ministry reveal how God purposed for him to have companions and assistants in ministry. Companionship in ministry is not only descriptive of Paul’s life, but prescriptive for every Christian in the kingdom of God.

This holiday season, take some time to thank God for the various people that he has brought into your life to help and assist you. If you’ve had some disappointments, turn that hurt over to God and realize that even when people fail, God never does. One time, Paul faced significant disappointment. He writes in 2 Timothy 4:16-18 (NLT):

The first time I was brought before the judge, no one came with me. Everyone abandoned me. May it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and gave me strength so that I might preach the Good News in its entirety for all the Gentiles to hear. And he rescued me from certain death. Yes, and the Lord will deliver me from every evil attack and will bring me safely into his heavenly Kingdom. All glory to God forever and ever! Amen.

Thank God for those times when people do well and we benefit from their friendship and loyalty, but if they fail, remain thankful that you have a God who never does. Likewise, let’s endeavor to be faithful friends and helpers to others as well.