by Harold R. Cook
Some time ago I read in the pages of a mission magazine that came to my desk an amazing statement. The writer was emphasizing his “conviction that the church, not the mission board, is the sending agency.”
Some time ago I read in the pages of a mission magazine that came to my desk an amazing statement. The writer was emphasizing his "conviction that the church, not the mission board, is the sending agency." He added that according to the book of Acts, "the church at Antioch accepted responsibility for the Apostle Paul." Then he went on to say that "in the 11th chapter of Acts Barnabas heard of Paul, sought him out, brought him to Antioch and helped him serve an internship in that church of not less than one year."
"In the 13th chapter," he claims, "the church exercised its proper place as the local body of Christ by recognizing and assessing the gifts of Paul (and others). It then was informed about the needs of other areas. Because of this it enlisted men who could meet the need; it authorized, then commissioned them to go, identifying itself with them, and then sent them out to the work."1
A simple reading of the account in the Acts will reveal that he didn’t get all of this from that account. Yet, his statements merit serious consideration because they represent a trend in current evangelical thinking about missions.
Another writer insists that "the local assembly becomes the mediating and authoritative sending body of the New Testament missionary."2 A third writer says, "For all his apostolic authority, Paul was sent forth by the church (God’s people in local, visible congregational life and in associational relationship with oilier congregations) and, equally important, he felt himself answerable to the church."3
These men are deeply concerned that the local church assume a more active role in the carrying out of the church’s mission. But this hardly justifies reading into the New Testament text what is not actually there. Nor does it justify treating a New Testament church as if it were structurally similar to one of our free churches of the twentieth century.
The whole argument is based on the example of one New Testament church, that of Antioch. No other church fits that pattern. Almost the only Scripture passage used is Acts 13:1-4, followed by Acts 14:27.
Let us look first at Acts 13:1-4 and see what Luke actually says. He tells us that there were prophets and teachers ministering in the church at Antioch and gives their names, including Barnabas and Saul. While they were worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit told them he had called two of their number for a special task. They were to set them apart for that task. So after the five had fasted and prayed, the other three laid hand on Barnabas and Saul and sent them on their mission.
Note first that the church as such was not involved in this action. It was only these prophets and teachers who were involved. Some would contend that the church was involved by implication, since these were the leaders in the church. But this is pure presumption. There is absolutely no indication in the text that these men were acting on behalf of the church. Nor did their ministry in the church necessarily qualify them to act for the church. They are not named as elders or bishops of the church. Even the later tradition recorded by Eusebius that lists Peter as the first bishop of Antioch passes over these men as officials of the church. They are more like the prophet Agabus mentioned in Acts 11:28, who ministered temporarily in Antioch. So any proof that the men represented the church in their action is completely lacking.
Their laying on of hands, in view of our current practice in the commissioning of missionaries, does look something like an official action. So it deserves attention. What did the laying on of hands signify in the New Testament?
Basically, of course, as in the case of the sacrifices in the Old Testament, it bears the idea of identification. But this is quite broad. We need something more precise. Actually we can distinguish four meanings of the act in the New Testament.
First and most commonly, through the laying on of hands vital force is communicated from one person to another, especially for healing. We find this particularly an the Gospels, in the accounts of the ministry of Christ. He laid hands on the sick and they recovered. He prophesied that his followers would do the same thing (Mk. 16:18), and there are examples of this happening in the Acts.
Closely related to this is the communication of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, as in the case of the Samaritan believers in Acts 9.
Of course, neither of these could apply to the situation in Acts 13:3. But there are two other meanings to the action in the New Testament. In Matthew 19:13-15 we have the account of Christ laying his hands on the little children by way of blessing them. Then, in Acts 6:6, we see the apostles laying hands on the seven when they were appointed. In I Timothy 5:22, Paul warns Timothy not to lay hands suddenly on any man. Both of these refer to the appointment of men for a ministry in the church. Which of these two meanings, blessing or appointment, is in view in Acts 13:3?
It seems to me that the first is by far the more likely. Appointment presupposes superior authority to make the appointment. But the three certainly did not have any authority other than that which Barnabas and Saul also enjoyed. In fact, when the believers in Antioch had wanted to send relief to the brethren in Jerusalem, they did it through Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29, 30).
Some will object, "Doesn’t the fact that ‘they sent them away’ (Acts 13:3) imply authority?" Yes, it would, if the Greek verb translated "they sent them away" actually meant just what the English words seem to mean. But it doesn’t.
There are three basic verbs in Greek that are most commonly translated "send" in English. Two of them are almost synonymous: pempo and apostello. The first means simply "send" – any sort of sending. The second means "send forth" and is the verb from which the noun "apostle" comes. Apostello is used in Acts 11:30 for the sending of Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem with the contributions from the Antioch brethren. Pempo is used in Acts 13:4, where Luke says that they were "sent forth by the Holy Spirit" on their first missionary journey.
But the verb in verse 3 is neither of these. It is a different verb, apoluo, which means literally "release" or "dismiss." This verb is never once used in the sense of an authoritative sending of individuals on a mission, or with a task to perform. So it really should be translated, "they let them go," or more freely, "they wished them Godspeed."
There is a very good reason why different verbs are used in verses 3 and 4. It is abundantly clear in the whole passage that it was the Holy Spirit who called the two men and on his own authority was sending them forth on their mission. The only responsibility of the others in Antioch was to go along with the Holy Spirit, setting Barnabas and Paul apart for this new task and letting them go with their blessing. They neither chose them nor sent them, and certainly they had nothing to say about what they were to do, nor how.
But some will insist, "Didn’t Paul and Barnabas feel themselves answerable to the church at Antioch, when they made a report to it about their missionary work?"
The answer depends on what one implies by that phrase, "answerable to the church." If it means simply that the missionaries still felt themselves to be a part of that company of believers and so ought to recount to them how the Lord had blessed and used them on their trip, well and good. It is the same thing that today’s missionary does when he returns to his home church after a term on the field.
But if the phrase means that the Antioch church, as a sending agency, exercised its right to require that the men report to it on their missionary activities, that is another matter. In fact, it involves another distortion of the Scripture record. There isn’t the slightest hint that such a requirement was ever made. On the contrary, the initiative for the gathering mentioned in Acts 14:27 came not from the church but from the missionaries. It was they who wanted to encourage the hearts of the believers by telling them how the Lord had blessed their ministry, and particularly how Gentiles had responded to the gospel. The text says specifically, "they…gathered the church together."
One further note. If the Antioch church had constituted itself a missionary sending agency, surely there would be some further evidence of its missionary activity after this one trip. But this is completely lacking. Luke tells us that Paul himself decided on his second missionary tour. And when he and Barnabas had a falling out, he chose his own companion and set forth. At the end of this second tour he reported first, not to the church in Antioch but to the one in Jerusalem. Antioch was still in a sense his home base, so the Scripture says briefly that "he went down to Antioch" afterwards and "spent some time there" (Acts 18:22, 23). Only once in his epistles did Paul make a reference to Antioch. That was in Galatians 2:11, where he told how he had reproved Peter for compromising with the Judaizers.
So the one New Testament passage that many adduce to support their claim that the organized church is the scripturally authorized missionary sending agency offers no such support. The church itself did not claim that authority, nor was its authority recognized. Moreover, apart from this one incident there is not even another hint in the New Testament that the church ever acted as a missionary sending agency.
In the first five centuries of the Christian era I have been unable to find any instance where the church, as a church, ever officially designated and sent out missionaries. Adolf Harnack says something very similar: "During the first centuries there is no evidence whatever far organized missions by individual churches; such were not on the horizon."
There is another basic reason why the church at Antioch could not have acted as a missionary sending agency. It was not equipped to do so.
As already mentioned, we do have a tendency to look at the Antioch church as if it were like one of our churches today. It is a common failing to look at historical situations and events in the light of our accumulated knowledge and experience, our present attitudes and understandings. It takes real effort to recapture in some degree the thinking of an earlier day, to understand the situation that prevailed.
Note first that the church in Antioch was not an organized body. Nowhere in the New Testament is it even hinted that it had a pastor, bishop, elders, deacons or any other church officials. It did have "certain prophets and teachers" who carried on a voluntary ministry with no special authorization other than the leading of the Spirit. They preached and taught, but did not attempt to govern.
Second, there is a great probability that the church was not a single congregation. In a huge city of possibly 500,000 people the refugees from Jerusalem would have to find homes and employment where they could. They had no common meeting place such as the temple in Jerusalem. Rather, they would have to meet in private homes, as they did in other cities, including Rome (Rom. 16:5).
This explains several things. One is the ministry of the five prophets and teachers, none of whom seems to have had the preeminence. They could circulate among the congregations. Then there is the fact that when Barnabas and Paul returned from their trip, they had to call the church together to tell their story. If the church had been in the habit of meeting together, there would have been no need for this special gathering. Finally, how could Peter withdraw from fellowship with Gentile believers in a single congregation without causing a big uproar (Gal. 2:11-14)? But with several groups meeting in different places, some predominantly Jewish, he could get away with his pretense for a time.
Actually, every reference to Antioch in the New Testament speaks of "the disciples," "the brethren," "the multitude" and never of an organized church. So the idea that the local church is the divinely ordained missionary sending agency finds absolutely no support in the Scriptures.
Who, then, does send the missionaries? Acts 13:4 leaves us in no doubt: the Holy Spirit. Looking at other instances, note that it was the Holy Spirit who sent Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:29). He sent Peter to Cornelius Acts 11:12 ). He kept Paul from going into Bithynia (Acts 16:7), but led him to Macedonia (v. 10).
It is strange that we have so little confidence in the Holy Spirit. Stranger still that we do not read our history carefully and realize that when the church has brought things under control, it has tended to stifle rather than stimulate the work. At best, as in the council at Jerusalem, it tags along behind and grudgingly acknowledges what the Spirit is doing.
Missionary work in the early days was far from regimented. Instead of a well-planned enterprise manned by personnel specially selected, appointed and sent out officially by the churches, we see two things. First, a large part of the work was carried on by the voluntary witness of ordinary Christians who shared their faith with others. Second, there were many who believed they were led by the Holy Spirit to go from place to place spreading the gospel at their own expense. The Didache, one of our earliest extrabiblical documents, calls these itinerant teachers "apostles" and gives instruction how to distinguish the true from the false. In the third century Origen wrote how some "make it the business of their life to wander not only from city to city but from town to town and village to village in order to win fresh converts for the Lord."
What shall we conclude? Is it then wrong for the church to send out missionaries? Far from it! Our only contention in this article is that it is wrong to claim that the organized church is the one agency prescribed in the New Testament for the sending of missionaries. On the contrary, the one indispensable is the sending by the Holy Spirit. If the church acts in accord with the Holy Spirit, well and good. But if not, the Spirit will still send forth his missionaries, whether individually, as in the early centuries, or through independent societies, as in more recent years. These societies are not an aberration, as some would have us believe. Rather, they are modern attempts (often faulty, to be sure) to follow the scriptural principle of letting the Spirit do the sending as in the early days.
1. David H. Clark, editorial in the United Indian, Spring, 1971.
2. George W. Peters, A Biblical Theology of Missions (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972 ), p. 219.
3. Paul S. Rees, editorial in World Vision, April, 1974.
4. The Mission and Expansion o f Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol. 1, p. 486.
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