- Is the building necessary?
- Does a gathering need to have staff pastors and/or ministers present to be considered an official “church” gathering?
- What are the essential parts of a church “service”?
By way of summary up to this point, our focus on leadership development has revealed that alongside the apostolic twelve we have found the addition of more help in serving (the seven from Acts 6), more recently the mention of elders in its first Christian sense from Acts 11:30, and a mention of additional apostles (at least Paul and Barnabas), which we will see more clearly in this post. Each of these necessarily inform our understanding of leadership in the early church, though it is clear that the gathered congregations are empowered as the primary decision makers (recall both Acts 6 and Acts 11).
Turning now to our next passage under consideration for gatherings of believers, Acts 12:12-16, the context arises out of the continued persecution in Jerusalem resulting in the death of James and the imprisonment of Peter. After Peter is rescued by the angel of the Lord, he goes to the house of John/Mark’s mother. Arriving there, we find a gathering of believers praying, identified by our familiar phrase, “many were gathered together.” We have no information concerning the presence of apostles or really any of the previously identified “leaders”. We are simply told that these believers were gathered together for prayer. Peter’s statement to them, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers” is informative for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it would seem that they, James and the brothers, are not present with this group’s prayer meeting. Also, at some point, there is an apparent transition from Peter as spokesman to James, the brother of Jesus, in some capacity (see also Acts 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19, 2:9).
Next, we turn our attention back to Antioch (Syria), which as we may recall from chapter 11 was the location for Barnabas and Paul’s teaching ministry for a whole year, but also where they were commissioned by the congregation to deliver the relief (diakonia) to Jerusalem. As mentioned, in Acts 12:25 we find that they have returned to Antioch and have brought John/Mark with them. This leads to our next passage of interest, Acts 13:1-3, where we find Barnabas and Saul mentioned alongside a small list of prophets and teachers. The scene is an occasion where the gathered Antiochian church was worshipping and fasting when the Holy Spirit calls for Barnabas and Saul to be set apart. The congregation then fasts, prays, lays hands on them, and sends them off (the implication of fasting here suggests an extended period). The congregation once again is seen as the delegators of authority, which ultimately resides with the Holy Spirit. Despite their yearlong teaching ministry, the Holy Spirit calls for Barnabas and Saul to be set aside and it is the congregation that administers this commissioning, sending the duo out for a second time. It would be odd for us in our age to send out our staff pastors, those who were educated and salaried, away from the congregation. Our practice today is to hold on to the professional, experienced minister and send out the young, inexperienced “missionary”. The exact opposite happens here in Antioch.
At the conclusion of this missionary journey, we find a significant summary statement in Acts 14:21-23 related to our previous excursus on elders.
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Acts 14:21-23
In this passage we find the appointment of elders (previously defined), by both Saul, now Paul, and Barnabas. It is significant to note that the appointment of these elders was made on the return trip into areas where they had previously ministered, the conclusion being that believers in these towns had time to spiritually mature in the Lord.
There are at least four observations here worth mentioning regarding elders, supplementing our earlier study. First, that they were appointed, what exactly is meant by this? Second, that there seems to be a plurality of elders. Third, that they were appointed in every church. Fourth, the qualification that they had believed in the Lord. Summarizing these in a different way, we are given the how, who, where, and what concerning elders. While three of the four observations seem straightforward enough, it is the first one that requires a closer look. As Strauch points out, though the churches existed without the appointment of elders (more on this later), it is clear now that some structure is required. Additionally, he notes a very literal translation of this phrase would be, “having appointed for them church by church, elders,” highlighting the significance of each, individual congregation. The difficulty here surrounds the meaning of appointed, whether this refers to a formal ordination or whether it was more so a recognition. Second, what role did the congregation play here, since we have already seen them as being the primary decision makers. Much debate revolves around this role, some side with a defense of the apostolic appointment of elders and others siding with the congregational vote (raising of hands). While we probably cannot settle the debate in this post, we do have prior examples of congregational appointments in Acts, most notably in Acts 1:15, 23-26; Acts 6:2-3; Acts 13:2-3. That a different word is used in each instance, and ours here in chapter 14, may lend itself towards an argument against a technical, formal, ordination process.
Next, we find the duo, now referred to as apostles (Acts 14:4, 14) returning to the believers of Antioch (Syria), where they had originally been commissioned, “and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled.” At this, we find them gathering the church together for the occasion of giving their testimony of the work that God had done through their missionary travels. For the purpose of our study here, we ought to ask ourselves, did the believers at Antioch fail to gather while Barnabas and Paul were away on either journey? That would be an absurd conclusion. Though it is dangerous to make observations from silence, nevertheless, it would seem reasonable to conclude that the gatherings at Antioch continued without either Barnabas or Paul.
Finally, our last passage in this section is the familiar, but oft-debated, Acts 15. The opening of this chapter sets the context in Antioch, as we have just seen Barnabas and Paul’s return. In verse 1, we learn that some men from Judea had come to the Antioch believers, teaching the necessity of circumcision for salvation. This leads to a third commissioning of Paul and Barnabas from the congregation at Antioch. Upon their arrival in Jerusalem we read of the following: “they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders.” In this phrase we see three parties, the church, the apostles, and the elders, all mentioned together. Perhaps an argument for parity among the three distinctions could be made from this. Regardless, it is significant to note the combination of apostles and elders will be repeated throughout this chapter. If the apostles and elders held final authority by means of their position, then one must ask why the rest of the proceedings documented in Acts 15 are even necessary. Why not just make the decision that circumcision is not required for salvation and declare it final? Rather, we see Peter stand up and address the congregation, the assembly’s response in Acts 15:12, then Barnabas and Paul’s speech, followed by James’ in Acts 15:13. In Acts 15:22 we arrive at a summary conclusion that is reached between, again, “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” who commission Barsabbas and Silas to accompany Barnabas and Paul with the decision letter for Antioch. Concluding this section, we see this group gathering the whole congregation to deliver the contents of the letter, followed by a mention of Judas (Barsabbas) and Silas – who were prophets, encouraging and strengthening the believers with their words.
Thus far in our survey we have been introduced to apostles and have seen an expansion of leaders beyond the twelve to include the seven, elders, and additional apostles. Given this range of leadership, we still find the congregation as the primary decision makers in their locality and a conspicuous absence of professional ministers or pastors. Not only that, but it is clear that gatherings of believers have been called churches without the presence of elders and that gatherings took place without any oversight from the leadership roles we have seen thus far. With that, we will turn to our last section from Acts chapters 15:36 – 20:38.