A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 7. Paul’s Missionary Policy
‘The first and most striking difference between his (sc. Paul’s) action and ours is that he founded “churches” whilst we found “missions”.’ Nothing can alter or disguise the fact that St. Paul did leave behind him at his first visit complete Churches.’ Indeed, ‘in little more than ten years St. Paul establishes the church in four provinces of the Empire, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. Before AD47 there were no Churches in these provinces; in AD 57 St. Paul could speak as if his work there was done.’ These three quotations are from the eloquent pen of Roland Allen, the High Church Anglican missionary in North China from 1895 to 1903, whose two main books ‘Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?’ (1912), and ‘The Spontaneous Expansion of the the Church and the Causes which Hinder it (1927) continue to be read and debated today, and whose principles have been remarkably vindicated in recent years in the very China he loved and served.
Roland Allen’s main assertion is indisputable, namely that on his missionary journeys Paul left churches behind him. This was so fro the beginning. After he and Barnabas had retraced their steps through Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, ‘strengthening’ and ‘encouraging’ the converts, they did not set up a mission organization; they left them and went home. On what foundations, then, did Paul’s indigenization policy rest? There were three.
a. Apostolic instruction
Paul exhorted the church members to remain true to the faith (22), which they had received from him. A number of similar expressions are used in different parts of the New Testament to indicate that there was a recognizable body of doctrine, a cluster of central beliefs, which the apostles taught. Here it is called ‘the faith’, elsewhere ‘the tradition’, ‘the deposit’, ‘the teaching’, or ‘the truth’. Doubtless the two missionaries on their return journey will have reminded the Galatians of it. To some extent we can reconstruct it from the apostles’ letters. It will have included the doctrines of the living God, the Creator of all things, of Jesus Christ his Son, who died for our sins and was raised according got the Scriptures, now reigns and will return, of the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer and animates the church, of the salvation of God, of the new community of Jesus and the high standards of holiness and love he expects from his people, of the suffering which are the path to glory, and of the strong hope laid up for us in heaven. These truths, perhaps already in some simple structure which later became the Apostles’ Creed, Paul left behind him, and then elaborated in his letters. Each church would begin to collect apostolic letters, along side the Old Testament Scriptures they already had, and in their public worship on the Lord’s Day extracts from both would be read aloud.
b. Pastoral Oversight
Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders for them in each church (23). This arrangement was made from the first missionary journey onwards, and became universal. Although no fixed ministerial order is laid down in the New Testament, some form of pastoral oversight (episkope), doubtless adapted to local needs, is regarded as indispensable to the welfare of the church We notice that it was both local and plural – local in that the elders were chosen from within the congregation, not imposed from without, and plural in that the familiar modern pattern of ‘one pastor one church’ was simply unknown. Instead, there was a pastoral team, which is likely to have included (depending on the size of the church) fill-time and part-time ministers, paid and voluntary workers, presbyters, deacons and deaconesses. Their qualifications Paul laid down in writing later. These were mostly matters of moral integrity, but loyalty to the apostles’ teaching and a gift for teaching it were also essential. Thus the shepherds would tend Christ’s sheep by feeding them, in other words care for them by teaching them.
Such was Paul’s double – and only – human provision for these young churches: on the one hand a standard of doctrinal and ethical instruction, safeguarded by the Old Testament and the apostles’ letters, and on the other pastors to teach the people out of these written resources and to care for them in the name of the Lord. Just the Scriptures and the pastorate; that was all. Yet there was a third – and divine – provision.
Tomorrow: c. Divine Faithfulness
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.