Decisions and the Mission of the Church

Acts 15:22-35

22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. [34] 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.

My wife grew up in rural Nebraska. It isn’t often that I meet someone that grew up in a smaller community than I did. So when I met my wife I knew I needed to marry her, because that was one of my criteria for the perfect spouse. Okay, there may be a few other reasons I like her as well.

Virginia seems like a foreign land to a person born in Nebraska. Here we have not only mountains, but hills. She grew up with wide-open prairie land. We have buildings in our cities, and trees in our wilderness areas. She grew up where a 640-acre section (a one mile wide by one mile long continuous piece of property) of land was the norm. Roads in her home community are laid out on one-mile grids, labeled by letters going one way and numbers going the other.

One thing that I really don’t think about is just how little wind we have here in the Shenandoah Valley. The mountains, trees, and buildings break up the wind and we don’t feel the full force of the wind. But if you go to Nebraska, you notice the wind. Wind is one of those things that you don’t always notice when it is absent, but if you aren’t used to it, you will surely notice it when you experience it.

As you drive along the straight roads of Nebraska, you will often see large turbines out in the middle of nowhere. There are entire fields filled with the gigantic windmills. Their purpose is to simply try to make use of the wind to generate electricity. They maybe don’t look the nicest, but entire cities in Nebraska are powered by these wind turbines. Granted, those cities are really small, but they operate on the power of the wind.

In John’s gospel we find a strange story about the resurrected Jesus. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that a man who was killed three days earlier and has risen from the dead is doing something we might consider weird. But still, this is unique.

John 20:21-22 says this: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

He’s been in the grave for three days, you have to think he had some objectionable breath.

In the biblical languages, both Greek and Hebrew, the same word is translated as breath, wind, and spirit. In Hebrew that word is ruach; in Greek it is pneuma. This is where we get the words “pneumatic” and “pneumonia.” So when John says that Jesus breathed on the disciples and said “receive the Holy Spirit,” it says that Jesus pnuema-ed on them and said for them to receive the Holy pnuema.

In Acts 2 we find the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon the church. We are told that the believers were all gathered together in one place. Then in verse 2 we read, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

Wind, breath, and spirit. Obviously, not all wind is the Holy Spirit, but the Bible uses the wind as a metaphor to describe the Holy Spirit. You can’t see the wind, but you can see the effects of the wind. The wind is powerful, powerful enough to knock you down, powerful enough to provide energy for an entire city. But you can’t catch the wind. All you can do is learn to work with it.

In Acts 15 we find our friend Barnabas again, and as we often find him in the first 15 chapters of Acts, he is with Paul. This time they are trying to figure out what to do with Gentiles who are coming into the church. Ultimately, the question comes down to, Do they have to become Jews first? Specifically, do they need to be circumcised? Paul and Barnabas say no, others say yes. It may seem rather unimportant to us today, but remember that circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament.

At this point in their careers, Paul and Barnabas are working as missionaries, going from city to city, preaching and teaching. They know that this is not a decision that they can or should make on their own. So a group of leaders gathers in Jerusalem for what we often call the “Jerusalem Council.” Paul and Barnabas bring their case for the full inclusion of Gentiles to other leaders of the church. Among these leaders we are told are some of the original apostles; James and Peter are named. There are also some who are simply called “the elders.” Still others are called “prophets.”

The Greek word translated as elders here is presbuteros, which is also often translated as bishop or presbyter. This is simply a reference to a more experienced person in the faith.

When there was a difficult decision to be made, Paul and Barnabas didn’t simply make that decision on their own. They asked other leaders for their input. They included the elders, the disciples, the prophets, and other representatives from the church. You might call this the leadership team for the early church.

There has been much made lately about the five-fold ministry of the church. This ministry is often based on Paul’s teachings in Ephesians 4:11 that “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers [to the church].” These are all important roles in the church, and I wouldn’t want to lead a church without these people present.

I would also say that this is not a complete list of church leaders. The elder/presbyter from Acts 15 isn’t listed, and neither is the deacon, that we find in Acts 11 and other places as well.

However, I have a concern about those churches that say that they follow the five, six, or seven-fold model of ministry. My concern is that we really don’t know what these people did. We don’t have a job description for most of these roles, and who really knows what an elder or deacon is supposed to do, anyway?

The word “deacon” literally means a servant. Aren’t we all supposed to be servants? When I think of the ministries of the church, I like to think of a Venn Diagram. Venn Diagrams show how multiple things are both unique and yet also overlap with one another. So there is a role in the New Testament Church called deacon, but all other leaders are also called to serve one another.

There is a really good example of this in Acts 6. We find a story here about a certain group of widows who are not being cared for properly. So the 12 disciples decide to name a group of seven men to look after the widows. The text doesn’t call them deacons, but it would be appropriate to call them servants. The first of these servants is a man named Stephen.

The very next story in Acts 6 also includes Stephen, and this is the story that many of us probably know Stephen from. At the end of this chapter and into chapter 7 we find the story of Stephen being stoned, making him the first Christian martyr.

Why was Stephen killed? Was he killed for helping widows? How dare he?! He was killed for preaching, not for serving. But Stephen wasn’t a preacher teacher, or evangelist. He was a deacon! It is clear that these roles in the church overlap. Those who are deacons still preach and those who are elders still help the widows and the poor. These positions aren’t always locked in and separate from one another. The position is about a person’s primary role or calling, not their exclusive responsibility.

I’ll admit that I think that the five-fold ministry is a little too rigid for my taste. Maybe it is because I push back a little against the established way of doing things. Yes, a way of doing ministry may have been successful in one setting, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to do ministry in exactly the same way.

What I think we can learn from the passages like the five-fold ministry from Ephesians 4 is exactly what we learned last session. When Barnabas was called to be the pastor at First Church of Antioch, he invited Paul to join him because Barnabas knew that they each brought different gifts in their leadership roles.

So while I don’t think that we need to have written job descriptions for every leader in the congregation, I do think that it is important to have a good understanding of one’s role. And rather than saying that every church needs to have a pastor, an elder, a deacon, and a prophet, I think it is better for a church to start by asking, “What is our mission?” and “What needs to be done to achieve that mission?”

If you are ministering to people dealing with poverty, one of the leadership roles in your church might be to work with people on budgeting and purchasing groceries on a limited income. If you minister to a lot with single mothers, perhaps parenting classes would be the best way to fulfill your mission. You may not need an official deacon on your leadership team. Maybe what you need is a “nanny in residence.”

The division of the work in the church is important for maintaining our sanity, especially for those who are bi-vocational or volunteers in the church. But this doesn’t always mean that sharing the leadership roles is easier.

It would have been easier for Paul and Barnabas to just make the decision on their own to include Gentiles in the church without requiring circumcision. I’m sure that they made many decisions without consulting the other leaders first. But this one required the input of the entire church leadership.

It isn’t efficient to bring every question to the leadership group, so every leader needs to have the authority to make some decisions. But when a decision affects the entire congregation, it needs to be a group decision.

I like to use the metaphor of the church as an old ship, driven by oars. In my mind it is a Viking ship, but weird things happen in my mind. On a ship, everyone wants to steer. Everyone wants to be the captain. Everyone wants to stand behind the big, wooden wheel and give it a spin. That sounds like fun.

Not everyone wants to row. Rowing is work. Rowing is boring. All you see when you are rowing is the back of the person in front of you. Nobody wants to row, but someone has to do it.

When I apply this to decision making in the church, I like to say that if you want to steer the boat, you have to also row. If you want to make the decisions that will effect where the church is going, you need to invest some physical labor, some sweat equity, in the church.

But we would be making a mistake if we thought of a big Viking ship being driven by nothing but those who are rowing. Remember, these ships have sails as well. And the sails make sure to utilize the power of the wind.

So Paul and Barnabas gather together with the elders, the deacons, the apostles, the pastors, the teachers, and with other leaders from the church. These are the people that have been working for and with the church since its very beginning. They talk about the issue at hand, and they come to an agreement. I cannot emphasize this process enough. Look at verse 28, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

When major decisions are made, we cannot make them as individuals. We consult the group. And most importantly, we put up our sails and consult the Holy Spirit.

It all comes back to the Holy Spirit. Remember that the words we translate as spirit can also be translated as wind and breath. When God formed the first human being out of dirt, God breathed his holy breath, his Holy Spirit into that lifeless lump of clay. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, he breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” When the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost, they heard a sound like the wind coming through the city, and that holy wind, the Holy Spirit, descended upon them, equipping them to be leaders, to be ministers, deacons, and elders, to be financial advisors and nannies-in-residence, to lead the church that was in its infancy.

I believe that it is our job to join the Holy Spirit of God to lead the people of this world into a relationship with God and to make this world more like what God intended for it to be.

So what is our “mission” here at Staunton Mennonite Church? We actually have a mission statement, but those are generally so broad that they aren’t of much use (IMHO). A number of years we invested some time, energy, and money into the Valley Mission. I think that was an excellent endeavor on our part. And maybe we want to keep investing in the Mission.

But we also have opportunities before us to minister to our own children. I hope to meet with the families of the church in the near future to hear what you would like to see the church do as far as youth ministry. We have opportunities ahead of us, and I’m not going to make those decisions on my own!

When Paul and Barnabas were faced with a major decision, they gathered a number of leaders together to discern the future of the church. They gathered all those who were willing to row and asked where they would like to steer. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can steer this church, guiding the congregation into the future God would like us to have.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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