One of the leaders in Uganda that God has put me with to organize my ministry is a bishop of a number of churches that he has planted over a period of many years. He has been a very good gift to our ministry. Gail and I both like this endearing man very much and recognize that the Holy Spirit put us together.

His oversight of so many churches makes him a “bishop” in their way of organizing things, or an “overseer,” as some would call him. This man is a humble servant, and he is so entirely Ugandan/African that I have learned much from him about how Africans think and how their culture works.

Clergy Food - A delicious feast for the leaders while the students eat rice and beans.

Clergy Food – A delicious feast for the leaders while the students eat rice and beans.

One of the areas where we have consistently butted heads in an entirely friendly and mutually teasing way is the matter of “clergy food.” Clergy food always appears at the lunch time during the conferences – the people get rice and beans, but the bishop and I and several of the pastors all get beans and rice and matoke (ma-tow-kee) and greens and cabbage and chicken and fish and beef. Sometimes Gail and I feel ashamed of the variety of foods we are served while all the rest of the people are getting plain rice and beans.

When I teach the church planting conferences, I teach the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This doctrine states from scripture that all Christians are equal priests before God with direct access to Him through Christ (1 Peter 2:5, 9). The emphasis is that all Christians are equal before God, and that the New Testament does not teach classes of Christians in the church. In other words, Jesus spoke nothing about a clergy caste of leaders in the church who are above the rest of the Christians and who hold most of the privileges and all the responsibilities for ministry. Rather, the apostles spoke of churches organized under leaders who would train them to do the work of the ministry and build them up so that they could do it. Jesus said those who would be great in the Kingdom of God would be the servants of all. So we teach a clergy-free church with servant-leadership where every church member has gifts, ministries and callings, not just some special group of leaders within the church.

Gail and I often feel somewhat compromised when, right after I have spent an hour expounding this teaching to the church leaders, we sit down to lunch and are fed great and glorious piles of wonderful clergy food while all around us they are fed only rice and beans. The bishop and I have discussed this many times, each taking the opposite side of the argument and each enjoying the gentle and loving nature of the debate.

The bishop’s position is that Uganda has cultural hospitality customs that must be adhered to so that the host is required to serve special food to the guests as a way of honoring them. I have always known there was a hole in this argument, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. This time at lunch on the first day of the conference, we found ourselves sitting near the rest of the crowd with their rice and beans, and we were served delicious fried fish, greens, cabbage, etc., etc.

That first night we prayed about this, and I finally found the flaw in the bishop’s argument which I had subconsciously sensed: most of the people at the conference were also guests of this church. Very few of them were members of the host church. So if the host is required to honor the “guest” with special food, then isn’t he obligated to honor each guest in the same manner?

The next day, I asked the bishop if we could continue our discussion as we ate our lunch. At that moment he was in the act of guiding the servers as they set the clergy feast in front of us. He sat down and smiled and said, “Yes, but you will not persuade me to be un-Ugandan,” which was his dry-wit way of engaging the battle.

I responded with the insight from the previous night, “You teach me that correct hospitality is to honor the guest with special food. I acknowledge this wonderful principle and thank you for teaching me this.” I paused. Then I said, “But I have one question for you. Aren’t most of the people gathered for this conference guests of this church? Most have come from churches in other villages to receive this teaching, and they are not members of the hosting church. So shouldn’t we honor all of them who are guests equally?”

This fine man is a very serious Christian and a very serious Ugandan as well. I admire the passion of a man who will travel by boat from island to island, planting churches among people who have no access to churches because of their isolation. Here is how this very seriously committed Christian leader responded to my question. He held my eyes for a moment with a shocked look of realization dawning on his face. Then, without word or hesitation, he grabbed a bowl of fish in one hand and a bowl of greens in the other, rose from his seat and personally began serving the other people. He did this until all the clergy food was equally distributed.

It is said that actions speak louder than words. This unassuming man, whom I love dearly, has now shouted the gospel of Jesus Christ to the sky in front of me. He has shown me by his immediate silent service that his concept of hospitality has suddenly expanded to include all the believers and not just the musungus. His instant obedience to the truth, when he finally saw it, honored Gail and me more than the clergy food ever could have.