For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?1 Peter 4:17Perhaps we are finding out.
That brief introduction aside, we now turn our attention back to the book of Acts. In Alexander Strauch’s book, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, he devotes an entire chapter to the survey of church leadership development among early believers in the Book of Acts, much like we have been doing here, now into the fourth part, in our attempt to answer the question, “Does a gathering need to have professional pastors and/or some kind of ministerial leader, regardless of the title, present in order to be considered an official “church” gathering?” This is part of a larger, on-going series we are working through in order to help us as Christians better respond in times of pandemic, persecution, and peace for the purpose of maintaining our Christian fellowship regardless of the external circumstances.
Midway through Strauch’s survey of Acts, much like where we find ourselves now, he makes the following observation
Although the churches existed for a short time without elders, they still were recognized as churches (Acts 14:23). Thus, the ministry of elders is not essential to the existence of a local church; the Holy Spirit’s presence is the only essential element. Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, pg. 135Though Strauch moves on from this statement to defend the necessity of eldership, it is nevertheless illuminating because he bases it on factual, historical observations from Scripture. The gatherings of believers did not always have “elders”, but were still considered legitimate gatherings or ecclesia. This corresponds with what we have found so far in our survey, although, as we have seen, growth and development often necessitated the recognition of those spiritually mature believers to guide and guard the flock. One might be able to observe and establish a pattern that in pre-natal, that is to say early birth, and persecution, that is to say times when of necessity the body of believers is scattered, elders would have been less likely to be found. A gathering of believers rarely, if ever, initiates with a board of elders. Before concluding with this as the answer to our question – though we have yet to locate the professional pastor/minister, we turn now to the last section of our leadership development study in Acts beginning in 15:36 and extending through 20:38.
Right away, in Acts 15:36, we read of a fascinating statement from Paul to Barnabas requesting that they, “return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Though not directly applicable to our leadership development focus, it is remarkable nonetheless on at least two points. First, it is noteworthy that although the primary preaching/teaching ministry of Barnabas and Paul was evangelistic, they were not content to simply make converts and leave them as spiritual infants. Instead, they deliberately returned to the cities in which they had preached in order follow-up with discipleship. This is the biblical pattern. Second, the word translated here as “visit” is the Greek word episkeptomai, a verb related to the noun episkopos, which is translated as bishop or overseer in Acts 20:28 (see below); Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1,2; Titus 1:7, and 1 Peter 2:25. By observing the actions of Paul and Barnabas here, it may give us some insights into the duty and function of those called bishops or overseers, which may include visiting or checking in on other believers. More on this concept will be discussed below. As chapter 16 begins, we note the addition of Timothy to the ministry team. This will be significant, because Timothy is given an important, and later primary, ministerial role yet he is never called an apostle, an elder, or even a pastor. Rather, he is called an evangelist and, perhaps surprisingly, a deacon (2 Timothy 4:5).
Moving now to our first passage on the gatherings in this section, we arrive at Acts 16:13-15 and the familiar account of Lydia’s conversion. As we read, Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi. On the Sabbath, which would’ve been Saturday, which we would do well to note it appears to be still observed despite the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul and others find a place dedicated to prayer outside the city gate along the river (this is around 49-50 A.D.). Seemingly, this riverside prayer gathering was of the local women. Significant for us is the apparent lack of synagogue, which as we have seen was the primary place where Paul, et.al. ministered the gospel to the Jews. This could indicate either the lack of building/facility or the limited number of Jewish males (10 necessary) or both. Essentially, Paul heads outside of the city to a presumably rural area where there was a small group meeting for prayer. He preaches the gospel, Lydia responds with faith, and is baptized, along with her household. Nothing more is said about facilities or leadership structure requirements after that.
Skipping ahead towards the end of chapter 18, we read of the first mention of Apollos, who was preaching Jesus without having any apparent connection to the apostles, nor had he received ‘ordination’ nor a title of any kind. After receiving some clarity from Aquila and Priscilla, concerning the way more accurately, we read of Apollos’ significance in preaching (Acts 18:27; 1 Corinthians 3). In addition to Timothy, and now Apollos, it is significant to notice the number of men (and women) that are highlighted throughout the Pauline letters who were involved in ministry, yet they are without apparent position or title.
Next, we see Paul moving from city to city preaching the gospel more frequently in the synagogues, as we alluded to earlier. This pattern of missionary work in evangelistic preaching leads him to the City of Corinth. In Acts 19:1-7, we read that the apostle ‘finds some disciples.’ We aren’t really given any details about their particular gathering, but we do find that Paul questions them concerning baptism, before they are baptized in the name of Jesus. Subsequently, Paul lays hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. From here, the twelve, as it were, began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
At the end of this chapter, we find yet another tidbit of leadership development with the mention of Timothy and Erastus as ‘helpers’ of Paul. The interesting point here is that helpers (Acts 19:22 ESV) is actually the the Greek word diakoneo, which is translated elsewhere as deacon (1 Timothy 3:10, 13). This is another piece of evidence to help our understanding of what deacon means and how it is applied.
Next we find only our second passage in this section of Acts that concerns the gathering of believers, but undoubtedly one of the most important.
7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted. Acts 20:7-12While we will examine the what of Christian gatherings in the next post from this series, here we want to keep our focus on the development of leadership, especially as it relates to the context of the gatherings. With this emphasis, this particular gathering simply gives us a glimpse into Paul’s encouragement and strengthening of believers. As we will see in the next post, the word used here of Paul’s interaction with the believers is dialogomai, from which we get our word dialogue. Perhaps this indicates the position taken by Paul among the gathering. He was not their pastor, nor an itinerant preacher, rather as a fellow believer and brother in Christ he meets with them to dialogue or have a discussion, encouraging and strengthening them to persevere in the faith.
Staying in this same chapter, we arrive at another significant gathering, though this time it is limited to Paul and the Ephesian elders. This lengthy summary, occurring in Acts 20:17-38, is arguably the most important passage in Acts concerning leadership development. Paul, stationed in Miletus, sends for the Ephesian elders and begins what might be called a succession plan for himself, as he ultimately concludes that they will not see him again. In all of the apostle’s journey’s, he was intentional about returning to the areas where he had first preached the gospel, as we saw earlier. Perhaps no other area had garnered as much attention as Ephesus. Why the elders? Wouldn’t this affirm their superiority over the congregation? Not necessarily, but how impractical would it have been for every Ephesian believer to travel to Paul in Miletus? Instead, it’s probably more accurate to consider the elders as spiritual representatives of the whole body.
In the opening of the speech, Paul reminds them of his own ministry among the Ephesians, one marked with humility, tears, and trials. Furthermore, his ministry was in public and house to house both to Jews and to Gentiles. After announcing his intentions to go to Jerusalem, we arrive at a significant passage for our focus here
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.After having introduced the passage with a summons of elders, here Paul refers to them as overseers. As we have already seen, this word carries with it an implication of visiting others for the purpose of inspection or checking in on. Furthermore, the ESV word translated as ‘to care’ is the Greek word poimaino, typically translated as ‘to shepherd’, as in 1 Peter 2:25, and in some English translations the word to pastor is used (pastor is the Latin translation of shepherd). In this passage from Acts we see Paul summoning the elders and refers to them as having the role or function of overseeing and shepherding.
Shepherd and overseer have an interesting relationship that can be seen in 1 Peter 2:25, with reference to our Lord Jesus Christ. This relationship is more evident in it’s Old Testament background, such as Jeremiah 23:1-4. There are additional occasions in the OT where both shepherd and bishop/overseer are used in conjunction with each other. When this happens, the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, LXX) uses the same word as here and 1 Peter, episkopos, but not as a position or office and not translated as either bishop or overseer. Rather, it is translated as visitation or attended, as in the Jer. 23 passage. This brings up an interesting background point for understanding how episkopos is used in the New Testament, and then helps us understand the nature of shepherding and overseeing in reference to our Lord.
As Paul moves through the message, he passes along a warning of incoming fierce wolves concluding where he began by reminding them of his ministry time in Ephesus.
33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Acts 20:33-35Lest the Ephesian elders, or us as 21st Century readers, think that Paul was working as a professional pastor or minister, charging for his services of the gospel, he reminds them that his intentions were pure, coveting no one’s silver or gold or clothes. Instead, he worked hard with his own hands, as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3), so that he could provide for himself without relying on anyone else which allowed him to preach the word free of charge (1 Corinthians 9:18). In this, Paul provided for the Ephesian elders a pattern, “I have shown you that by working hard…”, furthermore, in doing so it allowed them to help the weak, a sentiment he supports by the word of Christ, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (for more on Paul’s right to, but denial of ministerial compensation see 1 Corinthians 9).
Surveying the Book of Acts for patterns of leadership development is critically essential towards a proper understanding of ecclessiology, or the study of the church. Unfortunately, we are often guilty of simply defaulting to the inherited position, that is, the position of the church we grew up in, were saved in, or that sits just down the street, rather than taking the time to be scripturally informed of leadership in Christ’s church, or gathering. What we have seen in our extended survey has been the presence of apostles; a chosen seven to serve (which we will look at more closely another time); elders – or those who are spiritually mature, as well as their duties to check on and guard; a broad, wide-ranging application of deaconing; a host of people who ministered via preaching and teaching who held no obvious position or title; and finally the significance of the congregational body as collective decision makers. Furthermore, as we saw above, a gathering of God’s people (i.e. church) is not defined by the presence or absence of elders/pastors/bishops or professionals. Rather it is defined by the gathering of God’s people Spiritually united in Christ’s name. Who by necessity needs to be present? The Trinitarian God and His people.
In our next post from this series on Acts, addressing how it informs our response to the present pandemic, we will turn our attention to what believers did when they gathered together.
*For more on the relationship between shepherd and overseer, see this post The Shepherd and Overseer