The Mission of the Church: James W. Thompson’s New Book

Eucharist-Mission1As I mentioned in the last post, James W. Thompson, a professor at Abilene Christian, just published The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ.

He begins by reviewing several popular theories of church mission.

Having observed the numerous attempts at reimagining the church, I am convinced that the most basic questions are not being asked. In the various strategies for reinventing the church, the theological identity of the church is assumed but not examined. The crisis of the church pertains not only to the loss of numbers but also to the fundamental question, what kind of church should survive? That is, what is the purpose of the church?

Thompson, James W. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 2). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I think this is exactly right. The need for church growth is assumed and is assumed to apply at the local congregational level. This seems obvious, but don’t we first need to be certain that our church is the sort that God would like to see grow? I mean, long before we get to growth, we need to cover faithfulness — and the church growth literature assumes faithfulness. But not all churches are faithful and not all deserve to grow. Some would serve the Kingdom better by dying — or, better yet, changing.

Thompson doesn’t go there (so far as I’ve seen so far in my reading), but we also assume that the local congregational model that we have is God’s model for how to do church. And it isn’t. In the First Century, there was only one congregation per city. The church met in multiple locations, normally houses, but these weren’t autonomous house churches. Rather, a single congregation under a single eldership met in multiple, perhaps 100s, of locations.

Consider the Jerusalem congregation. It was just one congregation, and yet it begin with 3,120 members. We are soon told it grew to have 5,000 adult male members (Acts 4:4). That puts total membership at maybe 20,000 thousand or more. Almost all Jewish men were married, and they usually had children very quickly after marriage. That at least triples the number. Add in widows and multiple children, you get 20,000 as a pretty conservative number.

And yet they were under a single eldership (apostleship/eldership, more precisely), meeting in the Temple courts but also in houses. A First Century house would hold no more than 30 — and that would be for someone pretty well off. (Today’s houses aren’t that much different. Try to hold a Bible study with 40 or 50, and unless you live in an unusually large house, it’ll be pretty uncomfortable.)

So that’s something like 700 locations in which 20,000 people met weekly for instruction and encouragement and worship (not mutually exclusive categories). Imagine the logistical problems! And yet despite how very difficult it must have been to keep up with who is meeting where, making sure the apostles rotate among all the houses, making sure a new convert finds a place to meet, etc., the church seems to have never questioned the necessity of meeting as one.

We observe the same phenomenon in Ephesus. In Acts 20:17, Paul addresses the elders of the church (singular), and yet Paul had been there for years and this was surely a church much larger than 30 members. They had elders! But just one congregation meeting in multiple houses.

In addition, there are arguments based on the Greek suggesting that the references to a “church meeting at [a person’s] home” really refer to the part of the church meeting in that house. I cover the material in these earlier posts. Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3.

If this is true (and it makes a whole lot of sense), imagine how God reacts to the constant competition and sheep-stealing that takes place in every town with more than one church. Imagine how deeply flawed our thinking must be when having dozens — even hundreds — of congregation in the same town under separate, competing elderships strikes us as good and holy — or more precisely, so obvious that we don’t even consider whether it is good or bad. To us, it just is. It’s part of our Christian worldview — invisible and so unexamined because we’ve never known a better way.

Reflect a bit deeper. The vast volume of Paul’s writings is directed toward his desire to unite Gentiles and Jews into a single church — not just in theory but in the very same congregation sitting around the very same table. It required a huge cultural and worldview (or paradigm) shift for both Jews and Gentiles. It created powerful counter-reactions, even violent protests at times. But Paul saw it as absolutely compelled by the gospel. It wasn’t merely a noble aspiration. It was how things had to be. Nothing less would do.

Let’s consider the case in Pauline, that is, Jewish OT terms. God promised Abraham —

(Gen. 17:4-7 ESV)  4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.  5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.  6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.  7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

(Gen. 18:17-19 ESV)  17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,  18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?  19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 

(Gen. 22:17-18 ESV) 17 “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies,  18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 

God’s promise to Abraham was to bless “all the nations” through Abraham. But there’s a subtle point in 17:5: Abraham is to become “the father of a multitude of nations.” If you combine the promises, then Abraham is to be the father all the blessed nations — being all nations. And in Paul’s gospel, this is exactly what happens. We’re all baptized into Christ, we are grafted into Israel, and we become a single nation — Israel. The children of Abraham.

And if we’re one family, all spiritual heirs of Abraham, we really should share a table.

The prophets picked up on this theme —

(Isa. 2:2-5 ESV) LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,  3 and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.  5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD. 

(Zech. 9:9-10 ESV)  9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

(Mic. 4:1-4 ESV)  It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it,  2 and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  3 He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;  4 but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

One of the central, driving themes of the gospel is unity — across the planet. And we can’t even manage to be united with the other Churches of Christ in town. And it’s not the fault of the gospel. It’s our fault.  Indeed, many among us don’t even desire  unity because the price is too high. Just like the Judaizing teachers who opposed Paul, we love our traditions and the sense of superiority that comes with being right. Division is our means of feeling superior. Which proves us to be sinners.

(Jer. 9:23-24 ESV)  23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches,  24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” 

(Gal. 6:14 ESV)  14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

In short, and this is me, not Thompson or Wright, as we read the passages about the church’s mission, we need to read “church” as meaning “all Christians in my hometown working together.” It’s not about you. It’s not about your congregation. It’s not about your denomination. It’s about the church — the bride and body of Jesus. And there’s only one.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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18 Responses to The Mission of the Church: James W. Thompson’s New Book

  1. David Himes says:

    You suggest that the early house gatherings were not autonomous, which I guess is technically correct. But do you think they really took attendance? Did they try to keep track of visitors? Did they worry about “new members” making a connection?

    I rather doubt that. In fact, I suspect it’s more likely that the gatherings were remarkably autonomous, with elders acting more like counselors and mentors than like a board of directors.

    In that context, it is easy to understand why “shepherd” was an applicable analog. Just contemplate what it’s like to “herd sheep.”

  2. Dwight says:

    Jay, from my studies you are exactly right. The guise of autonomy is really a cover for competition and separation among churches. We see the church as this in its ultimate form even when it doesn’t fit any of the NT models.
    There was no autonomy other than people doing what they needed to do within their area. One assembly didn’t tell another assembly what to do, because those assemblies were largely households and those gathering with them that could be in another town the following day and not bonded groups under a specific name.
    And when we get to the elders we are very myopic in our vision of them. Elders existed long before Christianity came along in the Jewish society and when the church was established in every town they were there and it was to be a good thing. The elders as David suggest were “more like counselors and mentors”. They were to be approached and active, but not directing people in things the people were already supposed to be doing in their lives. The elders didn’t direct people in their giving, but sometimes aided in getting the gifts to the people in another town. People gave, not only when Paul commanded them to give to him on the first day of the week when he would get the funds, but at all times. It was a prime directive of being a saint.

  3. Jim H says:

    The early church believed that the second advent was was coming very soon, perhaps in the lifetime of those (house churches) who composed the “local” church.

  4. John F. says:

    I think it quite likely that most of the greetings in Romans 16 were “house” groups of which Paul was aware. What is all too common is the autonomy of congregations within a geographical area. Congregation A elders strongly, repeatedly, lovingly counseled an adulterous couple who refused counsel, divorced their mates and married — then were accepted w/o question at a sister congregation. Sad indeed, because direct rebellion leads to damnation. And yet, an episcopacy is rife with its own problems.

    Too often, we think of reimaging the church to OUR desired outcome. It is NOT our church, but the church belongs to Christ

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Jim H wrote,

    The early church believed that the second advent was was coming very soon, perhaps in the lifetime of those (house churches) who composed the “local” church.

    This has been commonly taught for the last 100 or so years, but N T Wright recently pointed out that there is no evidence among the early Christian writings of surprise or disappointment that Jesus didn’t show up when expected. Zero. Therefore, when we read certain NT passages as asserting an early return by Jesus, we aren’t reading them as they were read by the apostolic and early church fathers.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I doubt that the Jerusalem church took attendance with quite the same zeal that we do, but Luke occasionally announces the membership in Acts, and he got his numbers from some source.

    The logistics that amaze me are how they handled the teaching ministry. With hundreds of meeting places, how do you make sure everyone is well instructed in the word? How do the apostles visit the various meetings just to know their members? How do you make sure a new convert finds a place to meet?

    They may not have been as number obsessed as we are, but they would have been teaching obsessed — as we see from Acts 2 and other passages. Instruction of converts was very important to the early church — and hard to do when you start with 3,120 members and are rapidly growing.

    “Shepherd” in the ancient world did not mean “comforter” or “counselor.” The sheep went where the shepherd led — period. Sheep don’t get a say or vote. In the OT, “shepherd” is most commonly used to refer to God or the king, when not referring to a literal shepherd. That is, to the ancient mind, “shepherd” had positional authority — and “elder” even more so. The elders of the city were the equivalent of our city council + city court. “Overseer” is defined in the Greek as a position of authority.

    In Acts 15, we see the apostles and elders gathered to make a momentous decision for the church. And while there was support from the members for their decision, the debate was conducted by the leadership. It wasn’t a men’s business meeting.

    Now it was not quite the same as a board of directors, but neither was it just some good ol’ boys who set a good example. The terms they chose had a significant history in the OT, esp “shepherd” and “elder.” The Jews were, at the time, subject to the authority of the elders in the Sanhedrin — who had very real positional authority over the Jews — and yet that’s the term the church chose for its leaders. It marked the church as a city within a city, an alternative community with its own elders in contrast to the Jewish elders — and elders who honored Jesus’ teachings about servant-leadership. But the church elders were in some sense empowered to lead. In fact, in Acts, we see them leading by making extremely importantly theological decisions, by taking on the teaching of the church from house to house, by overseeing the expenditure of donations.

  7. Jim H says:

    Interesting. Years of exposure to some traditional teaching is not always a good thing

  8. Larry Cheek says:

    If you have identified places in scripture that project these concepts, “by taking on the teaching of the church from house to house, by overseeing the expenditure of donations.”
    I must have a different version that did not spell that out thoroughly. I could have believed that many of the Christians received gifts which allowed them to be teachers who did not require the direct supervision of an Elder. Stephen, would be one excellent example. Unlike sheep in a flock of sheep, I do not believe that God’s Children were as ignorant as the animals called (sheep), in that they required almost constant supervision. Where was that gift of the HS that each child was to receive? In fact I only read of a very few occasions that an Elder was identified as being active in a position of directing the sheep to do anything which they were not already doing.
    I did locate a place where Elders were involved in an act of distributing funds which was sent to them.
    Act 11:29-30 ESV So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. (30) And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
    But, “overseeing the expenditure of donations”? The church at that time has never been identified in scripture as using any donations for anything except the relief of the poor, needy or widows. The modern church has developed a system which never is shown as an example in the early church.

  9. John says:

    Jay, in regard to your response to Jim H; throughout history, even into the present, most people who expect an immanent return of Jesus are not shocked or disillusioned…they simply keep believing until their last breath.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    (Acts 4:32-37 ESV) 32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

    In Acts, we see the apostles taking on the same role later ascribed to apostles and elders or just elders. In fact, in later NT books, Peter and John refer to themselves as “elder.” In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council is made up of apostle and elders, and chaired by James, brother of Jesus, an elder but not one of the 12. They don’t seem to have had a hierarchy in which elders were subordinate to apostles. Rather, the apostles, at that time and place, served in the role of “city” elders to the city of God, the church, along with other qualified men.

    The church’s money was given to the apostles “at their feet” meaning given in submission to them to decide how to use the money — although it was clearly used to provide for the needs of the church members. This is clearly a role of positional authority.

    We soon see —

    (Acts 11:29-30 ESV) 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

    The elders in Jerusalem (likely including the apostles) were clearly given authority to decide how to spend these funds for the benefit of providing relief to the Jerusalem Christians. Again: positional authority. There was a reason the elders were chosen as the recipients of these funds — being that they were charged with handling funds for the relief of the Jerusalem members.

    Now, I agree that we are given little else on the subject of handling church funds, but there was obviously much more going on. If you read the activities of the apostles in Jerusalem in early Acts, they were very busy men. Compare this with what Paul says about the support received by the 12 in 1 Cor, it seems very clear that they were supported by the church. How could they have earned a living while actively leading a church of over 20,000 members, teaching, going house to house, overseeing benevolence funds, being jailed regularly by the local authorities, etc.? And they had been supported by donations while with Jesus for 3 years — based on donations of various good people.

    And how was Philip the Evangelist supported? Who paid for his meals while he traveled to Samaria to preach? When he taught the eunuch? Again, it seems very likely that some members of the church were assigned duties so that the church supported them — rather like we support ministers in full-time service in much smaller churches.

    And can you imagine how much time it took to oversee the support of the poor among 20,000 or more members, when so many had financial difficulties? There had to be some way to know what people’s needs were and to prudent disburse funds. Of course, as is true of all churches, some money was donated privately, member to member, but what is described in Acts is a system that ran through the apostles/elders, who decided how to spend the money.

    Consider —

    (1 Cor. 9:1-14 ESV) Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? 8 Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

    So we know the church supported not only apostles but anyone who proclaimed the gospel for a living, such as Philip the Evangelist, the apostles themselves, and some of the elders at Jerusalem. And the church leadership oversaw funds for the relief of the poor. And they had some system of paying for the food that made up the love feast — perhaps it was strictly covered dish, but it seems from Acts 6 that the widows were being supported out of church funds, overseen by the deacons as aids to the elders.

    We see in 1 Tim 5 a more formalized order of widows being supported by the church. SOmeone had to manage this program, decide which widows were eligible, what works the widows should engage in, how to support the widows — whether to care for them with cash distributions, that sort of thing. Paul lays out a set of rules for the ministry, and clearly assumed that someone would oversee it. And Timothy wasn’t going to be there forever — and he had just been instructed to ordain elders and deacons. Consistent with Acts 6, it seems likely that the deacons would have assisted the elders in caring for the widows.

    So they had a leadership system in place. Elders, shepherds, overseers had positional authority to make administrative decisions. It wasn’t just a free flowing, organic system that had no chain of command or structure.

    Moreover, I would strongly contest the modernist assumption of many Churches of Christ that there were all sorts of implied rules and limitations on what the church could and couldn’t do with church funds. It was a system that developed based on need and mission — not reading implied authority or lack of authority from silences. The mission defined the system — and benevolent care by the church for its own members was a foremost mission — a mission the modern church has largely abandoned.

    Now, the elders were in part “shepherds” because shepherds were a people charged with the care of sheep — feeding, watering, etc. A shepherd might leave home for months on end to wander in the wilderness with his flock of sheep in the desert, being charged foremost with bringing the sheep back safe and sound — and wooly. They were to be well fed and watered so that they’d produce the wool for the owner’s benefit.

    But the notion that “shepherd” does not imply positional authority is contrary to scripture and the culture of the day. It’s now how shepherds in fact operated. They were unquestionably in charge of the flock, and the flock was to be submissive to the shepherd — which is the nature of sheep. Goats do not so easily follow a shepherd. But sheep line up and obey. It’s not my metaphor, but it’s time well spent to read how the OT and NT use “shepherd.”

    As I mentioned yesterday, of course, the NT elders/shepherds/overseers were charged to be servant-leaders under the teaching of Jesus. Jesus drew a stark contrast between how leaders in the Kingdom would lead vs. how leaders led in the world. But he never said that leaders don’t get to lead.

    Just so, in Acts 15, we see the apostles and elders debating theology. The entire church supported their decision — and I have no idea how 20,000 people were involved in the process. But it’s an over-reach to assume that the decision was just made by the people and the elders and apostles sat back and watched the rest of the church hash it out. The decision was made by the leadership and supported by the congregation.

    (Acts 15:6 ESV) 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

    (Acts 15:22-23 ESV) 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.

    The decision came from “the brothers, both the apostles and the elders.” Not from the church as a whole, even though the whole church supported the decision.

    So I reject the commonly held view that “elder” is not an office and has no authority other than to set a good example. I think that ignores a great deal of scripture. On the other hand, Jesus was deadly serious when he said,

    (Matt. 20:22-28 ESV) 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    True Christian leadership is cross-shaped, servant leadership. All the functions I have just ascribed to elders are servant roles. They teach for the sake of the church, not themselves. They set doctrine for the sake of the church, not themselves. They handle donated funds for the sake of the church, not themselves. The apostles and at least some elders and deacons were supported by the church, but they did not retire rich and live in mansions. They likely lived the same lifestyle they had as disciples of Jesus — they owned their clothes and lived in borrowed housing — because the Spirit might call them to some other part of the world tomorrow. I think they lived lives of great simplicity — but not just because they lived on church support. They were Christians in a poor country seeking to convert the poor — and so they lived like the people in their church.

    Thompson has a chapter on servant-leadership that I’ll likely cover before we finish the series on mission. He correctly, I believe, argues that leadership was shaped by mission (not vice versa) and the Spirit gave the church the leaders it needs for the mission the Spirit was sending the church on.

    Ultimately, flawed, broken humans, even with grace and the Spirit, need leaders — which is why the Spirit gives leaders and why leadership is a gift of the Spirit that should be honored. I grant you that we often mess this up horribly — but the solution isn’t to deny that elders/shepherds/overseer have very real and substantial authority. Rather, we need to seek out from among us leaders who have been equipped by the Spirit to lead as Jesus would have them lead.

    I would agree that wise leaders delegate and allow others to make decisions and use their Spirit-given gifts in God’s service. I’m not at all insisting on a rigid, top-down structure. A large church simply cannot operate in such a fashion, and so therefore Jerusalem did not. But it took even the apostles time to learn to delegate and to empower others to make decisions. This is not a rigid, rule-bound system or “pattern.” Rather, the mission drove the leadership structure, and the leadership structure changed to meet the changing needs of the church. The Spirit gives freedom — but not so much freedom that no one is in charge. Rather, the Spirit raises up leaders through his gifting, and the church recognizes those gifted to lead by setting up whatever structure the mission requires.

    Sorry for rambling on so. There is a real, palpable tension between the servant-leadership model Jesus requires and the fact that organizations require leadership to function at all. We just need to remember that Jesus is the perfect exemplar of servant-leadership, and yet the Son of God, King, has all authority in heaven and on earth. He is not a servant-leader for lack of positional authority! Rather, he is the ideal servant-leader because he uses his authority solely for the benefit of others. His humility is not that he can’t make a decision but that every decision is for the sake of the greater good, regardless of personal cost.

  11. John F. says:

    look at the process
    1) need presented, 15:1 (6:1)
    2) need considered 15:.2 (6:2)
    3) involvement solicited 15:2 (6:3)
    4) decision making criteria established 15:2,6 (6:3)
    5) searching for solutions 15:7 (6:3) Though the apostles and elders were under the inspiration of the Almighty, and could by this inspiration have immediately determined the question, yet it was highly necessary that the objecting party should be permitted to come forward and allege their reasons for the doctrines they preached; and that these reasons should be fairly met by argument, and the thing proved to be useless in itself, inexpedient in the present case, and unsupported by any express authority from God, (from Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1996 by Biblesoft)
    6) solutions considered for acceptance 15:7-21 (6:5)
    7) decision implemented 15:22-23 (6:6)
    If we look at verses 4-7 we can see the process:
    4: Paul and Barnabas rec’d. by apostles, elders, and brethren, and share their message with the entire group
    5: Judaizing teachers make their pitch
    6: Apostles and elders meet in small setting;
    7: much debate: must have been a much larger setting than v.6 for the apostles and elders were surely not debating among themselves – the HS had/was guiding them into the truth of the matter; thus the debate would have been with the Judaizing teachers. That this is so is clear from Peter’s address: “Brethren” and from verse 12, also verse 22.
    How do we handle doctrinal problems – differing opinions – what decides the difference between DIVINE DOCTRINE and mans’ opinion? Who decides? On what basis of authority? This chapter should really be the basis for considering differences among brothers. We will want to look at this chapter closely, and its’ import for today as we seek to understand God’s will for us.
    The “holier than thou” attitude of the Jews toward the Gentile world is legendary. They epitomized racial denigration. To these historically steeped, but now Christian Jews, the path to Christ passed through “circumcision” — the outward sign of accepting all the law of Moses. Paul’s letter to the Galatians likely is written shortly following this, possibly from Corinth on the 2nd journey; it will help to look at Gal. 2 at the same time.
    Look at verse 15:2 “great dissension and debate” is a great understatement. Whether the men in verse 1 and 5 are the same is unclear; perhaps those who had tried to destroy the church from without, now try to control it from within, yet the question raised is the same. They really seek to make acceptance of God’s gift more difficult that it has to be. All should come to God in the same way they had. They sought to change behavior, thinking that “proper” behavior made one acceptable to God. Paul taught that being “in Christ” through faith made one acceptable to God. These things are the defining core of LEGALISM:
    1) Adding requirements to salvation that God did not. (This is perhaps the greatest area of different “add ons”, of which we could enumerate dozens, if not hundreds).
    2) MY personal experience or understanding is the norm that all should follow – the universal standard of action.
    The expectation of perfection in others (Ac.15:10) There are those who seek to place their yoke of expectation on your actions, actions they cannot keep on their own behalf, but you should. They propose impossible expectations of Christian service and family life and social interaction. They dwell on guilt and responsibilities undone. The willing response of love and gratitude is supplanted with “duty”.
    Legalism substitutes behavior for grace: actions mandated rather than attitudes managed based on relationship to God. Legalism teaches that “proper actions” becomes “savings deposits” to buy your ultimate salvation; instead, properly understood, actions and behavior are “thank you notes and love songs of appreciation” for what God has accomplished in Christ for our behalf. To the outside observer there may be little difference perceived, but the heart is completely different. To teach that “behavior after salvation” has merit “toward salvation” is to say that the saving work of God is ineffective without our effort. Our only “work” is belief, the response of faith. That does not mean to say that behavior need not change. Behavior changes “because of salvation”, not to ensure salvation. (PRESENTATION Rm. 12) Forced behavior (either on our own forcing or the mandate or others) results in frustration and discouragement. Legalism makes no allowance for failure, it only condemns. Look at Rom. 7:17-25.
    Can a man earn the favor of God? Or must he admit his own helplessness and be ready in humble faith to accept what the grace of God gives? In effect, the Jewish party said, “Religion means earning God’s favor by keeping the Law.” Peter said, “Religion consists in casting ourselves on the grace of God.” Here is implicit the difference between a religion of works and a religion of grace. Peace will never come to a man until he realizes that he can never put God in his debt; and that all he can do is take what God in his grace gives. The paradox of Christianity is that the way to victory is through surrender; and the way to power is through admitting one’s own helplessness. (Barclay)
    James expressed the right idea in verse 19 “We should not make it difficult for (those) turning to God.” Too often someone is baptized and we are all too ready to “take them to the next step” in their Christian life by teaching them “all things which we (the local Christians) command you.” And yet, at times within the church, we often portray that grace ends at the baptistry, from then on you had better conform (to whatever the action or issue of the moment) to MY/OUR expectations or your salvation is questionable. The legalist becomes the judge of behavior; what can be forgiven before baptism (maybe, if it not one of the seven deadly sins, for certainly baptism cannot wash away ALL sins, only some) surely cannot be forgiven after baptism! We then begin the “painful” process of “we don’t do that, we do it this way” (we are amazed / disappointed / discouraged / angered / sorrowed … when the new Christian does not understand and “loses interest and falls away”) and the fence of tradition can readily smother the presence of the Holy Spirit in the new Christian. May God forgive us.
    May God deliver us from the yoke bearers: Ezek 34:27-28 Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 “And they will no longer be a prey to the nations, NASB
    As in Acts 8, we have the potential for Jewish / Gentile church of Christ split; although this has far greater implications than there; here we deal with the very nature of salvation.
    There is a body of faith and doctrine that led men to salvation in the first century; it will lead to salvation today. WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE to add to the will and word of God? Look at verse
    10. why tempt—“try,” “provoke” ye God—by standing in the way of His declared purpose. to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, &c.—He that was circumcised became thereby bound to keep the whole law. (See Gal. 5:1–6). It was not then the mere yoke of burdensome ceremonies, but of an obligation which the more earnest and spiritual men became, the more impossible they felt it to fulfill. (See Rom. 3:5; Ga 2:4, &c.).
    The “restoration movement” bought into and developed the idea of “direct command, apostolic precedent (2Thess.3:16), and necessary inference”. Where in this “unwritten credo” do we find place for the indwelling and presence of the Holy Spirit? By largely ignoring the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives (to avoid the Pentecostal abuses) we have emphasized the TRUTH to the exclusion of the SPIRIT. Logic and truth without the Spirit is devoid of the life; we end up, in the words of Paul: 2 Tim 3:5 holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. RSV We have used our intellect (and we should use our God given intelligence) to reach certain conclusions regarding things the NT never considers; and then we have placed those conclusions as binding and the test of faith and salvation and fellowship for others. Songs books, located preachers, fellowship halls, one or multiple cups, classes, music, harmony, order of worship, buildings, etc. Each man must act in a clear conscience before God. What violates my understanding of God’s will may be sin for me, but may not be sin to you.
    Paul in Acts 16 circumcised Timothy (because of the Jews), yet to those who would enforce circumcision, to those who sought to bind permissive practices Paul says, “I wish they would mutilate themselves” Gal.5:12. Do you see the principle at work? We may willingly BIND OURSELVES to an understanding or practice outside of those things that brought men to Christ, to the purpose that our conscience and hearts might not condemn us before God, (Rom.14:23) but we have NO RIGHT to bind those things on others. In Acts 21 Paul chose to go to the temple and exercise certain Jewish purification rites, but he DID NOT SEEK TO BIND HIS FREEDOM to honor his historical background on anyone else. Look at Rom.13 in regard to meat, Rom 14:5 in regard to days. The key is “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” Is not Rom.14: 13 an echo of the letter of Ac. 15? Look also at Gal. 6:2
    The real core of legalism is that MY UNDERSTANDING is binding on you if you want to have fellowship with me; and thus we divide, and divide, and divide on matters of opinion that have become to some “articles of faith”. The conclusion in Gal. 5:10 is that Paul has no tolerance for those who would deny your freedom in Christ. Look at Phil. 3:1ff esp. v. 15
    What is the solution to legalism? Understanding the essential nature of Christ as expressed in John 15:4-6 READ (Illustration: light bulb with no power source) When we try to go it alone, we will die spiritually. We may keep “behaving, working, serving, attending, etc.” but without the source of power there is nothing to provide sustenance. This regimen of “do gooding” is tough to maintain apart from power. We feel weakness; we feel irritation; we feel other are not appreciating our “good works”; we feel rejected when other reject OUR efforts to help THEM do good; we feel the need to point out how good, how busy, how much work we are doing. How sad it is. We experience what Paul refers to in 2Tm.3:5 about holding a form of religion but denying the power therein.

    The final point is that the “entire” fellowship of believers had input and consideration in the process. Too often modern elderships come out of the “smoke-filled room” (Holy Smoke, not cigarette, of course — cigarette smoke is for the church steps) to announce the decision from on higher ground. That was NOT the case in Acts.

  12. David Himes says:

    Part of my concern about the case you make, Jay, is what seems to be too many assumptions about things we don’t know,

    You comment about the “teaching” ministry. We don’t know they tried t monitor or manage that do we? Certainly they taught, but did they have a curriculum?

    My comment about “shepherd” really has nothing to do with the technical definition, but rather the logistical realities. It seems unlikely that could have exercised any type of central control over much of anything.

    Undoubtedly, when Paul or others sent money, a groups such as the elders would have to deal with it, especially in the context of such a decentralized fellowship.

    In addition, while I acknowledge the historical role of elders in Jewish society, it’s not obvious that Christian elders could function in the same way, given the decentralization. It seems likely, that when people had questions or issues, they would seek out elders for advise and counsel, but when an elder spoke, did the hearer take it as a decision, or as wise counsel?

  13. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay and John F.,
    These are good articles and have suggested that the Elders of the early church operated very much like we would expect them to do today in the world as we know it. But, the environment was vastly different in the early church. First, would we believe that knowledge was not readily available to the sheep of the Shepherd, and that it had to be disseminated through channels? If so what was the HS doing? Only working through leaders? I understood that each Christian was to receive a gift of the HS, I realize that there were different manifestations of the Spirit, but it also seems that messages were being delivered through many Christians who were not in a position of leadership. Second, today leaders (elders) are involved heavily in the physical operations of meeting and fellow-shipping to combine greater and assemblies together. The early church did not seem to have such goals. Many of the duties that Elders perform today just did not exist in the early church. It seems that it was totally acceptable then for multiple small meetings of Christians in even a small city. I am not convinced that there were enough Elders to have a representation at many of the local meetings. During the persecution these small gatherings were a great advantage of the church. Third, there has always admonishments for all sheep to be in submission to the Elders (shepherds), and there is an obligation to let them guide but many times the environment created bu the Elders would attempt to replace the Great Shepherd who has bought and owns the sheep. Therefore, we could liken the Elders responsibilities as fulfilling a job that would be likened to the sheepdog (serving the Shepherd, and conveying his instructions to the sheep). By that illustration, their duties would more concerned with keeping individual sheep from straying from the flock than overseeing the complete flock. To me this would be more concentrated on the spiritual health of the flock than the physical. The guardian of the faith, watching and detecting wolves that were infecting the flock.
    We have discussed very much in this blog about the saving power of faith, but we also need to listen carefully to the messages to the seven churches in Revelation. Which one of them or how many of them were affected by their actions? Faith in believing in Christ was not expressed to justify them, rendering these actions which they were being confronted with as being not condemning. Is every one of those actions a direct reaction to the loss of faith?

  14. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F wrote,

    Though the apostles and elders were under the inspiration of the Almighty, and could by this inspiration have immediately determined the question, yet it was highly necessary that the objecting party should be permitted to come forward and allege their reasons for the doctrines they preached; and that these reasons should be fairly met by argument, and the thing proved to be useless in itself, inexpedient in the present case, and unsupported by any express authority from God, (from Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1996 by Biblesoft)

    I don’t think the scriptures support this point of view. We know that Peter and Paul disagreed sharply over the Gentile question before the Acts 15 council — and yet both were inspired.

    Paul also speaks of men “from James” –

    (Gal. 2:11-13 ESV) 11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

    So although there were inspired apostles in Jerusalem, there were some who taught contrary to the what Council eventually decided — before the decision — and they were closely associated with James and the circumcision party. James was evidently the chairman of the apostles/elders, the brother of Jesus, and yet associated with the circumcision position. If inspiration gave him the answer, why not rebuke these guys immediately and shut them down? And why did Peter give a fig for what they thought?

    The text says,

    (Acts 15:6-7 ESV) 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.

    To assume that the debate involved persons other than the elders and apostles is pure assumption. Nothing in the text suggests any such thing. In fact, every person quoted as speaking in the second session is an elder or apostle. Why is Peter advocating for a position when he presumably is so inspired that he knows the answer and doesn’t need the benefit of the debate? Why argue for a position rather than announce a position — if he’s speaking by inspiration?

    We want to think of the apostles as oracles, whose every word was scripture, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. First, there’s no reason to assume that the elders were all inspired. And yet their wisdom was important enough to the group that they should be included in the debate. Second, God had ALREADY revealed his answer re Gentiles to Peter regarding Cornelius. That was better than inspiration – it was direct, visible action from God. But the group still needed convincing that this is what God intended by those events.

    And yet it was Peter himself who stood condemned in Antioch and had to be rebuked by Paul — even though he was one of the 12 and surely inspired. But we can’t deny that what happened happened. Evidently, inspiration did not make for infallibility when it came to decisions about with whom to eat and not eat.

    (Acts 15:7-11 ESV) 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

    “Them” in v. 7 has as its most recent antecedent “The apostles and the elders.” To assume he was addressing the circumcision party, which was debating against the elders and apostles, is not grammatically sound. But by this time, Peter and Paul had talked, Peter had become convinced, and now he’s arguing for Paul’s side of the debate. Peter was humble enough to accept public rebuke and change his behavior.

    15:6. Those who brought the case to public hearing are now excused for an “executive session” of the church’s “apostles and elders” (cf. 6:1–2; 11:1–2). Too much has been made of the politics of this assembly, whether Luke’s passing reference to “apostles and elders” says anything about a succession of leadership within the Jerusalem community from the apostles to its elders. In fact, the succession to new leadership within Jerusalem has already taken place (see 11:27–12:25). The apostle Peter, who no longer resides in Jerusalem (see 12:17), is present to provide testimony; it is elder James who interprets the evidence in settling the case before the council. Their activity is “to consider” (ἰδεῖν περί idein peri; lit., “to look into”) this matter, which suggests that they have convened as a rabbinic lawcourt to deliberate over an issue of halakhah.513

    Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 208.

    On the other hand,

    Witherington notes that the way to resolve conflict in antiquity was to call a meeting of the assembly of the people (cf. vv. 12, 22), ‘and listen to and consider speeches, following the conventions of deliberative rhetoric’, the aim of which was to overcome stasis (‘conflict’, as in v. 2) and ‘produce concord or unity.’19 The cumulative effect of vv. 3-4 is to show the positive response of many Jewish believers to Paul and Barnabas and their work among the Gentiles, as they reported everything God had done through them (metʾ autōn, ‘with them’, as in 14:27; cf. 15:12).

    David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 421-423.

    There was one debate with the Pharisees/circumcision party. This led to a debate among the apostles/elders. But it was evidently no closed-door session. Rather, the entire church got to hear it all. How long it took the apostles/elders to come to consensus we don’t know, but it was not immediate. It involved “much debate” (v. 7). Nor did they just announce by inspiration the final answer. They hashed it out. I don’t read chapter 15 as a show put on for those in error. It was an honest disagreement that required the question to be discussed at length.

    I am often distressed when I hear of an eldership spending a year in study on issue X or Y — in private — only to issue a white paper position that they expect the church to agree with immediately. If the elders took a YEAR of concentrated study to reach a consensus, why would they imagine the church doesn’t need even more time — as the church, on average, is younger and less mature in the faith?

    So I believe — and have often said — that I believe in group hermeneutics. Hence, this website and unmoderated comments. Hence my many Bible classes where people are welcome to disagree and ask questions. And my refusal while an active elder to engage in private studies apart from the church. Just unhealthy as can be — destined to lead to trouble. We should have enough confidence in each other that the elders can teach and listen and debate in front of the members without worrying about losing face if they change their minds. And if the preacher wants to teach a class filled with elders, he needs to be ready to hear and respond to the hard questions without worrying about his ego. That is, the goal needs to be truth, not image and reputation. Therefore, we shouldn’t try to resolve the role of women or instrumental music behind closed doors. Many of the people who need to be persuaded aren’t there to be persuaded.

    So I suspect we agree as to the ultimate point.

  15. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    David Himes wrote,

    Certainly they taught, but did they have a curriculum?

    I’ll grant you that we don’t have a specific answer, but surely for 3,000 new converts, there was very serious thought given to what the new church needed to be taught. And wouldn’t some common knowledge base be needed for a brand-new movement based on faith in Jesus?

    (Acts 2:42 ESV) 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

    “Teaching” or didaxh (didache) suggests a specific body of doctrine per BDAG.

    The Greek indicates that they gave the apostolic teaching their constant attention (the meaning of the verb itself heightened by the imperfect tense). From the use of the definite article, “the teaching,” it seems that a specific body of instruction is indicated.

    David J. Williams, Acts, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 59.

    The didachē, “teaching,” is to be distinguished from kērygma, the proclamation that the apostles made as they bore testimony to the risen Christ, and from katēchēsis, instruction given to catechumens. The teaching is the basis of Christian doctrine, built on the words and deeds of Jesus himself (1:1; see Luke, 826), on his instruction of the apostles (1:2) and those followers who would become his authenticated witnesses (10:41). This teaching, which appears again in 5:28; 13:12; 17:19, is the reason why Christian followers are called mathētai, “learners, disciples” (6:1; cf. 11:26). It is also the basis of the asphaleia, “assurance,” about the teaching of the church in Luke’s own day, which he himself stated as his purpose in the prologue (Luke 1:4). MS D adds “in Jerusalem.”

    Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Yale Bible, (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 31:270.

    It seems likely, that when people had questions or issues, they would seek out elders for advise and counsel, but when an elder spoke, did the hearer take it as a decision, or as wise counsel?

    Well, probably depended on the situation. When the apostles delegated care of the widows to the Seven in Acts 6, their choices were effective and authoritative. They didn’t merely advise the men’s business meeting to set up this committee. The apostles decided and it was done.

    Just so, when the apostles and elders made their decision in Acts 15, their decision was authoritative — ending the question of whether someone had to be circumcised to be treated as a fellow follower of and believer in Jesus. On the other hand, the decision regarding eating meat sacrificed to idols and eating blood may be more a decision for the sake of expedience rather than an eternal law — but it was binding on those it was given to.

    I mean, if we reduce elders to mere advisors and counselors, we lose the ability to act as a unified body.

    (Jdg. 21:25 ESV) In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

    We’ve all been part of a committee, eldership, church, business, or other organization that failed because its inability to make a decision and pull in the same direction. We’ve all been frustrated at months and months wasted making an easy decision, only to then finally have to act too quickly. Often a bad decision is better than no decision.

    I guess the point is that human institutions need leaders, and leaders can only exist in the presence of followers. If we don’t let our leaders lead, we’ll just spin our wheels.

    (Rom. 12:6-8 ESV) 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

    (1 Tim. 5:17 ESV) 17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

    (1 Thess. 5:12-13 ESV) 12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

  16. Ray Downen says:

    Dwight writes,

    People gave, not only when Paul commanded them to give to him on the first day of the week when he would get the funds, but at all times. It was a prime directive of being a saint.

    I wonder how Dwight knows this for a fact. There is NO MENTION of any collections other than this special one for the relief of the saints in Jerusalem this one time. We can imagine all we want, but to state as fact what we only imagine is not good thinking.

  17. John F. says:

    The larger point at indicated above, is that the entire fellowship of believers were involved in the decision making process — they all had some “skin in the game” and their viewpoints were heard. IN ACTS 6 “SEARCH OUR FROM AMONG YOU”. in Acts 15:12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. NASU
    And in verse 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church,

    So decision making was not behind closed doors. That is the point. Even if I do not like the conclusion, at least my voice / concern / input was allowed and considered. That is beneficial to peace and harmony among the body.

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