The apostle Paul had a dramatic and unique conversion to faith in Christ. As a young man, he was zealously persecuting Christians and was on his way to Damascus to arrest any believers he found there. On the way he was blinded by a light from heaven that was brighter than the sun, and he heard the audible voice of Jesus speaking to him 1. Jesus told Paul he was his chosen instrument, and he was appointed to carry his name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel 2. Paul’s calling occurred at his initial encounter with Christ, and this calling set the course for his entire life. Many years later, Paul would proclaim he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision 3.
For 3 ½ years Jesus invested himself in the original twelve apostles. It seems logical that upon Paul’s conversion he would go to Jerusalem to connect with these guys and be taught by them. After all, they had been taught and trained by Jesus himself. But contrary to logic, this was not God’s plan for Paul. How he learned, and the development of his ministry was kept separate from the original twelve apostles.
For I did not receive it [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:12 ESV)
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. (Galatians 1:15-18 ESV)
Paul’s influence for God is extraordinary. He successfully evangelized the known world of his time and wrote a large portion of New Testament scripture. It’s interesting that God chose Paul for this role instead of one of the original twelve apostles. I can’t help but wonder if it’s not simply a case of God showing that He does things His way and His ways don’t have to conform to our logic or reason. I do know that human nature has a strong tendency to fall into patterns, rely on formulas, and follow traditions. The way God used Paul certainly challenges this tendency.
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:18 ESV)
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22-23 ESV)
The idea of Jesus being the head of the body isn’t an allegory. It’s a spiritual truth with literal application. Since the church is his body, the head can utilize any and every part of the body as he desires. And God designed every part of the body to be subject to Jesus who is “head over all things to the church.” There’s nothing anywhere that compares to the church, which is literally Jesus’ hands and feet here on this earth. And the church should not be compared to or patterned after any worldly organization. It is completely unique, a spiritual marvel designed and equipped by God to carry out his purposes on this earth.
Unfortunately, many church leaders seem to see themselves as the neck of the body of Christ. They operate from the presumption that whenever Jesus wants to utilize His body, He will go through them, and anyone who undertakes ministry without the oversight of church authorities is considered questionable or even dangerous. Usually, it’s not their activity that is questioned but rather the fact that they aren’t operating within what is considered official channels. Jesus encountered this same mentality.
And they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mark 11:28 ESV)
Rather than evaluating what Jesus was doing, the religious leaders of the day were hung up on the fact that he was operating outside their authority.
Some church leaders teach that Paul operated under the authority of the church at Antioch because he was sent out by them. They say this sets a Biblical precedent that to be legitimately sent by God, you must be sent by church authorities. But according to Paul, this isn’t true.
Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead) (Galatians 1:1 NASB)
Although some teach that Paul was sent out by a church, Paul himself makes it clear that he wasn’t. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to side with Paul on this one.
But isn’t there scripture that says they laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them out? Yes, there is. But it means something quite different from how the institutional church likes to interpret and apply it.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4 ESV)
First of all, we must remember that at his conversion, Jesus told Paul he was His chosen instrument, and He appointed him to carry His name to the nations. It’s hard to understand how anyone thinks Paul still needs authorization from men. Secondly, it says the Holy Spirit spoke. Not a man, not a committee, but the Holy Spirit. Paul was already appointed by Jesus, now the Holy Spirit is saying it’s time to begin what you’ve been appointed to do. Thirdly, it says that when they went, they were “sent out by the Holy Spirit”.
So, what does it mean when it says, “they laid their hands on them and sent them off”? This means they prayed God’s blessing on Paul and Barnabas for the work the Holy Spirit was sending them to. You see similar language in Acts 15:33 when some men were visiting Antioch and were later sent off to return to their homes in Jerusalem. It’s a means of blessing, not authorization.
When Paul and Barnabas finished their missionary journey, they returned to Antioch “where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled” 4. To commend is to entrust. The Antioch church didn’t authorize Paul’s ministry, they simply recognized God’s calling and demonstrated their support by entrusting them to the grace of God. When Paul set out with Silas on his second missionary journey, he was, again, ”commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” 5.
It’s rather dubious that people will utilize the phrase “they laid their hands on them and sent them off” to build an extensive, stringent doctrine that for any ministry to be legitimate, it must be approved and oversighted by church authorities. That’s an incredible reach, and it’s the result of looking for something in the Bible to justify how you already operate, rather than starting with the scriptures and letting them determine how you will operate.
Men wanting to control how other men go about serving God and engaging in ministry is a problem so old that it shows up among Jesus’ earliest disciples.
John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50 ESV)
Jesus was the Son of God, operating in complete authority and perfect wisdom. He had twelve hand-picked men that he was preparing to lead his church after his departure. But when it was brought to his attention that someone outside this group was engaged in spiritual ministry, he didn’t feel the need to stop him, or to bring him into his group, or to question or counsel him. He was perfectly fine with this guy operating on his own. If Jesus didn’t feel the need to monitor who engaged in spiritual ministry, why should we? After all, aren’t we supposed to follow his example?
If someone’s actions violate the word of God, then they should be corrected based on the authority of the Bible. But God doesn’t call people to use their personal discernment to determine whether someone else is being led by God. If someone believes their appointed position qualifies them to do this, then they have positioned them self between that person and God.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bible says other people’s input can be very valuable.
Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22 ESV)
For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory. (Proverbs 24:6 ESV)
Neither of these verses is about getting permission; they’re about getting help. Notice how the second verse puts you in a position of ownership; you are waging “your war”. Advisers are to help you succeed and to ensure victory, not to talk you out of doing what you believe God has called you to do. Wise advisers can give valuable insight on how things can work best, as well as warnings about potential pitfalls. But sadly, individuals trying to step out in faith and follow God’s leading will often encounter counselors more intent on discouraging them than helping them.
Mistakes in ministry aren’t the end of the world, and the possibility of this happening shouldn’t cause undue anxiety. We find some examples in the Bible, and it’s helpful to see how those in authority responded and how God Himself worked in these instances.
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18 ESV)
This isn’t a case of misguided good intentions. These people are pretentious and have terrible motives. They are motivated by envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition. Yet Paul doesn’t advocate that these people should be shut down or corralled. Instead, he rejoices that Christ is being proclaimed.
Here’s another example.
Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. (Acts 19:13-17 ESV)
I find this story ironic in a lot of ways. These men are operating from a secondhand knowledge of Jesus, the demons are cocky and combative, and the seven guys who “undertook” this ministry end up running away naked and wounded. This was an absolute disaster! Or so it seems at first glance. Through this disaster “the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled”. God’s ability to work things to serve His purpose is amazing! I believe God would love to have lots of believers out doing spiritual ministry among people. No doubt this would lead to a certain amount of messes and blunders, but I’m convinced God would welcome all of it in a heartbeat. I believe God is far more concerned about things not being done, than He is about the possibility of something being done the wrong way.
Leadership is Biblical and a vital part of God’s church. But leadership portrayed in New Testament scripture looks quite different from the way leadership operates in the institutional church. Acts 6:1-7 gives valuable insight into how those in authority led, and how they approached the issue of others carrying out ministry.
In the early church there was a daily distribution of food to widows, and a certain group of widows was being overlooked and going hungry. Not only is this a problem for the widows; it’s also causing conflict among the believers. This is a pressing matter that needs to be fixed. When the apostles address this situation, they demonstrate a hands-off, minimalist style of leadership. They told all the people, not just other leaders, to pick out seven men of good repute and filled with the Holy Spirit, so they could turn the matter over to them. They gave minimal guidelines then trusted everyone to take care of it. They didn’t hand pick the men themselves or even require the men to be approved by them. They didn’t take oversight of these men to make sure things were being done to their satisfaction. After the people chose the seven men, the apostles laid hands on them, prayed for them, and left the whole thing in their hands. This style of leadership demonstrates faith in other believers as well as faith that Jesus is the head of the body and is building his church just as he promised. They didn’t feel the need for everything to come under their oversight and made sure that it didn’t end up that way.
God designed the church to be a living organism, not an organized institution. The Bible never uses the word member in the context of someone who has made a commitment to be part of a local church. Instead, the word member is used in the context of being a specific part of a body, i.e., hands, feet, eyes, ears; and this image is applied to believers who are part of the body of Christ. Unfortunately, most people identify more strongly with being a member of their church than they do being a functioning member of Jesus’ body.
At first glance, a large institutional church seems like a powerful thing, but in reality, it’s cumbersome and inefficient at utilizing people. A defining characteristic of institutional churches is that nearly everything is done through programs, and programs are limited by their reliance on human organization and oversight. Once in place, programs tend to be static and don’t allow much in the way of flexibility or spontaneity.
Contrast this with the Biblical image of believers functioning as the members of Jesus’ body. They comprise a variety of gifts, graces, and personalities, as well as diverse connections within their community. Imagine how efficiently Jesus, “who is head over everything for the church”, could utilize these people to carry out his purposes since, as his body, they are literally an extension of himself. Believers who are available to Jesus, who can function real-time as his body, will always blow the doors off any program. Instead of focusing on creating and running programs, churches should give themselves to teaching, training, and encouraging people to hear and obey Jesus. Nothing could be more Biblically sound than this. In his last instructions before ascending to heaven, Jesus commanded us to make disciples, and disciples are people who follow Jesus.
It’s not my intent to discredit church leaders or to encourage disrespect towards them in any way. However, it is my desire for God’s people to mature and grow up in every way into the head 6, to embrace accountability to Jesus himself, to nurture a sincere and pure devotion to Christ 7, and to understand that God wants to speak to you, direct you, empower you, and utilize you. Some will think this approach is foolish and even dangerous, but that’s no surprise since the Bible says some people are so given to natural reasoning that they are not able to accept the things of the Spirit of God.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:12-14 ESV)
Imagine if everyone who attended church on a weekly basis, decided to be the church on a daily basis. Imagine if everyone who considered themselves a member of a church, decided to become a functioning member of Jesus’ body. Imagine that beyond making themselves available to church organizers, people made themselves available to Jesus as head of the church. Imagine what Jesus could do with a bunch of people who have ears to hear and hearts to obey.
I’ve used the word imagine a lot, because I know this way of envisioning the church is a stretch for a lot of people. But let’s close with this amazing truth.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is as work within us. (Ephesians 3:20 NIV)
To read Sent By God (part 1) click the following link – https://testeverything.blog/2021/07/17/sent-by-god-the-bruce-olson-story/
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- Acts 26:13-15 ESV At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. (14) And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (15) And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
- Acts 9:15 ESV But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.
- Acts 26:19 ESV “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,
- Acts 14:26 ESV and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled.
- Acts 15:40 ESV but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.
- Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (16) from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
- 2 Corinthians 11:3 ESV But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.