In our recent blog series we have been examining the response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic. We began with a look at several areas where the virus has left us exposed, personally, professionally, and pastorally. Our focus from that initial post has been on what we are calling the general evangelical response to the virus. By in large, it appears as though the virus left most of us scrambling for how to respond and the majority attempting to regain some semblance of the status quo. With that, we’ve asked three primary questions: 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”? It is towards our second question that we turn our attention in this post.
To answer this, we will approach it from the angle of leadership development in the book of Acts. In doing so, we want to know whether gatherings of believers are required to be run by professional ministers in order to be “official”. Are the ministers doing all of the work while the congregation passively observes? Further, are we able to see any hierarchy between clergy and the laity.
For our examination of Acts, we will group the book into three sections, primarily arranged around the development of leadership. First, from Acts 1:15 to 11:18, second, from Acts 11:19 to 15:35, and third, Acts 15:36 to 20:38. The last several chapters of Acts document the final days of Paul’s ministry, specifically his trial and return to Jerusalem.
In our opening chapter of Acts we arrive at one of the key phrases for us, coming together. Here we find that the 11 disciples, after the death of Judas, had come together, at the ascension of our Lord. After that, they joined the women and Jesus’ brothers for prayer without the superintendence of their Lord and Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Yet, we recall His parting words to them in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” These words most certainly telescope out of the earlier promise in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Therefore, we must ask, are they truly without a Shepherd? No, for certainly Jesus remained with them as He promised.
Next, we arrive at our first section, which begins with the primary focus upon Peter as the presumed spokesman of the disciples. We see this from the opening chapter of Acts and it continues until his report of gentile inclusion to the Jerusalem church in chapter 11 (afterwards we see him transition out in Acts 15). In the opening passage, Peter, along with the eleven, “together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” are gathered together in an upper room for prayer. This is followed up with a summary statement, “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers…” (Acts 1:15) where Peter speaks to the congregation of 120 concerning the replacement of Judas.
Following this, in Acts chapter 2, we find them “all together in one place” on Pentecost without clear mention of their activities. Peter again stands up and delivers a sermon, not to the “all together” rather to those who had gathered at the sound of the rushing Holy Spirit. It is not the first church sermon, as some suppose, rather it is an evangelistic proclamation to unbelievers, which demands a response, “Repent and be baptized.” Acts 2:37-41 At the conclusion of this narrative of Pentecost, we again reach our familiar summary statement from Acts 2:42-47. Significant for this topic is that they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, not strictly to Peter by the way.
Perhaps it is too soon in our study to ask, but the question may arise, “Are today’s pastors in the line of succession from the Apostles”? In other words, are we today to be devoted to the teaching of pastors as the first century believers were devoted to the teaching of the Apostles?
In the next several chapters, the emphasis is upon the evangelistic ministry of Peter throughout Jerusalem. While we find him healing at the temple gate and preaching the gospel at Solomon’s portico (Acts 3), he and John called before the council of rules, elders, and scribes to explain themselves for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 4), we have only one clear instance of a believers gathering towards the end of chapter 4. At the release of Peter and John, we find them joining a group of believers gathered together who collectively lift their voices up to the Lord in prayer. Again we have witness of the Holy Spirit followed by the statement, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” This is concluded with another major summary statement concerning the unity and commonality of the believers in Jerusalem. In this passage we have evidence of a group of believers gathered together without the presence of Peter, who then later joins them, and collectively they offer prayers to God, collectively they are filled with the Spirit, and collectively they continue speaking the word of God with boldness.
As our first section continues, we find additional focus upon the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem, specifically overseeing discipline at the falsification of alms promised by Ananias and Sapphira, followed by an interlude in Acts 6-7 and Acts 8-9, which highlight significant shifts in the overall book, before concluding with the multi-chapter testimony from Peter on the inclusion of gentiles in the promises of God. In Acts 6, an interesting dilemma arises because of the rapidly growing number of believers and the inability of the twelve to minister both physical and spiritual needs. We see the twelve summon the full number of disciples, presumably the entire congregation of believers in Jerusalem.
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers,pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. Acts 6:2-6In this passage, many have seen the establishment of the office of deacon to serve alongside the office of pastor/elder/bishop, but that’s not exactly what happens. The twelve were not freeing themselves up to preach Sunday morning sermons in the Jerusalem church, they were freeing themselves up to continue proclaiming the gospel throughout Jerusalem to the unbelieving Jews. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly difficult to meet daily needs. These facts build upon the summary statement found in Acts 4:32-37 but specifically verse 33, “giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” and verse 34, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” It was this dual mission that was becoming increasingly difficult, therefore they requested the Jerusalem congregation to select men from among them to help.
Edit: I failed to highlight from this passage the significance of the congregation selecting the seven to serve, a point we will find repeated in Acts.
Many have presumed that Peter was the supreme leader, or even vicar of Christ, in these early years after the ascension of our Lord. But that is simply not the case. It is clear from Acts 11 with his defense of gentile inclusion, that though he had a prominent role in the preaching of the gospel throughout Jerusalem, he was not viewed as the authoritarian in the Jerusalem church. For our purpose here, we are unable in this first section to definitively answer the question of whether or not the gatherings needed to have staff pastors and/or ministers present to be considered an official church service. What we can conclude, however, is that up to this point, we don’t find a staff pastor or minister, certainly Peter wasn’t, yet we do find several instances of believers gathering. In the next post, we will focus on the second section from Acts 11:19 to 15:35.
Note: I’m trying to be concise here; yes, ‘deacon’ is the noun diakonos found in 1 Timothy 3:8, 12, however it occurs 27 other times in the NT not translated as ‘deacon’ or ‘office of deacon.’ In our passage above, Acts 6:1 the word is the Greek noun diakonia; in Acts 6:2 it is the Greek verb diakoneo; in Acts 6:4 it is the noun diakonia again. More on these distinctions at another time.