A Commentary by John Stott

Acts 12:25-14:28 Conclusion

c. Divine Faithfulness
Indigenous principles rest ultimately on the conviction that the church belongs to God and that he can be trusted to look after his own people. So before leaving the Galatian churches, Paul and Barnabas committed them (members as well as elders) to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust (23b), just as previously they had urged the Antiochene converts ‘to continue in the grace of God’ (13:43).

These are the reasons why Paul believed that the churches could confidently be left to manage their own affairs. They had the apostles to teach them (through ‘the faith’ and their letters), pastors to shepherd them, and the Holy Spirit to guide, protect and bless them. With this threefold provision (apostolic instruction, pastoral oversight and divine faithfulness) they would be safe.

Although Roland Allen did not specifically expound this passage in Acts, or appeal to it, it is surely significant that he developed the same three arguments. Fist, “St Paul seems to have left his newly-founded churches with a simple system of Gospel teaching, two sacraments, a tradition of main facts of the death and resurrection, and the Old Testament’. Secondly, he ordained elders by combination of election and appointment. And thirdly, he trusted the Holy Spirit and so ‘did not shrink from risks’. ‘He believed in the Holy Ghost…as a Person indwelling his converts. He believed therefore in his converts. He could trust them. He did not trust them because he believed in their natural virtue or intellectual sufficiency. But he believed in the Holy Ghost in them. He believed that Christ was able and willing to keep that which he had committed to him.’ He must therefore ‘retire from his converts to give place for Christ’.

Rolland Allen lived and worked in the heyday of colonialism, when missionaries tended to be paternalistic. ‘Everywhere’, Allen wrote in 1912, ‘Christianity is still and exotic (sc. Plant)… Everywhere our missions are dependent…Everywhere we see the same types…We desire to see Christianity established in foreign climes putting on a foreign dress and developing new forms of glory and of beauty.’ Bishop Lesslie Newbigin agrees with him. Missionaries have to distinguish, he writes, between the tradition (what we have in fact received) and the tradendum (the essentials which must be passed on). Roland Allen ‘waged war against everything that had been confused with these essentials, everything that makes missions look like a piece of western imperialism – the whole apparatus of a professional ministry, institutions, church buildings, church organizations, diocesan offices – everything from harmoniums to archdeacons’.

Of course Roland Allen was not the first to raise these questions. In the middle of the last century those transatlantic friends, Henry Venn of London and Rufus Anderson of Boston, both cherished the vision of indigenous churches. In an 1851 memorandum Venn wrote of ‘the settlement of a Native Church under Native Pastors upon a self-supporting, self-governing and self-extending system’. He specified four stages in this development until at last ‘the Mission will have attained its euthanasia’. Anderson used the same three ‘self’ adjectives but in the opposite order, and saw the establishment of churches as the beginning not the goal.

The Venn-Anderson-Allen theme is not immune to criticism, however. First it is not radical enough in relation to the church’s identify. Their three principles were ‘self-supporting, self-governing, self-extending’, but the authentic selfhood of a church goes beyond finance, administration and evangelism to the totality of its cultural self-expression, including its theology, worship and lifestyle. Indigenization (local autonomy) should lead to contextualization (cultural identity). Secondly, it is not imaginative enough in relation to missionaries. Henry Venn thought that, once the national church was established, missionaries should leave. But no. The call for a moratorium, issued in 1974 by John Gatu, the Presbyterian leader in Kenya, was not intended to mean that missionaries are redundant, but rather that some missionaries hinder the national church’s growth into self-reliance. Once the church has established its own selfhood, however, then foreign missionaries will be welcome as guests, to work under national leadership, to offer specialist skills and to demonstrate the international nature of the church. Thirdly, Roland Allen’s vision is not flexible enough in relation to its expectations. The selfhood of churches is attainable at different rates in different circumstances. Probably Allen did not sufficiently recognize the unique position of Paul’s Jewish and God-fearing converts, who already had a strong Old Testament background in doctrine and ethics. Joachim Jeremias wrote of Judaism as ‘the first great missionary religion to make its appearance in the Mediterranean world’ and of the ‘unparalleled period of missionary activity’ that followed. In consequence, the Christian missionaries found proselytes and God-fearers everywhere. ‘The overwhelming success of the mission of the apostle Paul, who in the space of ten years had established centers of the Christian faith throughout almost the whole of the contemporary world, depended partly on the fact that everywhere he was able to build on ground prepared by the Jewish mission.’ It is doubtful if after only a few months Paul could have appointed elders in a congregation composed entirely of ex-pagans and ex-idolators. In such cases there would almost certainly have been a period of transition from mission to church, while elders were being taught and trained.

In conclusion, and reverting to the first missionary journey, its most notable feature was the missionaries’ sense of divine direction. It was the Holy Spirit of God himself who told the church of Antioch to set Barnabas and Saul apart, who sent them out, who led them from place to place, and who gave power to their preaching, so that converts were made and churches planted. The sending church had committed them to the grace of God for their work (14:26), and on their return they reported ‘all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles’ (14:27). True, he had done the work ‘with them’ (literally), in co-operation or partnership with them, but he had done it, and they gave him credit. The grace had come from him; the glory must go to him.

Tomorrow: The Council of Jerusalem 15:1-16:5

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.