The Primitive Church
There is no reference to the church in the Old Testament. When we come to the gospels, the Lord speaks of it as something still future: “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18 KJV).
In the epistles, we find instructions to existing churches with a plural leadership already in place, something assumed rather than defended. The early book of James counsels sick people to “call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14); Paul writes to the saints at Philip pi “with the bishops and deacons” (Phil 1:1), and Titus is instructed to “appoint elders in every city . . .” (Titus 1:5). Two letters supply extensive lists of qualities that help young churches to recognize elders (I Tim 3; Titus 1). Clearly, a bridge is needed to help us understand the connection between the gospels and the epistles. The book of Acts is that bridge.
In coming articles, I would like to consider the development of church leadership in the book of Acts, especially the six passages that make specific reference to elders (or “overseers”), with the goal of seeing the big picture rather than an over-occupation with fine details. That big picture would be not only a better understanding of the transition from the Lord’s apostles to church elders, but also the value of God’s design for Biblical leadership. Not just a defense of plurality but a sort of flavor of how that plurality looked and functioned in those early days, which of course has strong implications for the church today.
Two added notes about the basic method I will employ:
1) Some students of the Word are unimpressed by “arguments from silence,” and of course these cannot be pressed. However, believing the Acts to be more than simply an historical record of what took place, but part of the church’s manual of instruction for centuries to come, (“all scripture . . . is profitable for doctrine” II Tim 3:16), observations of things NOT said by the writer, and things he seemed to assume can help us understand what he meant.
2) I like to include what might be called “miscellaneous observations” along the way, things that may or may not bear directly on the subject at hand, but may be of interest to some readers as elements somehow related to that “bigger picture.” The reader should feel free to simply pass them by, being assured that significant points will become unmistakable.
The Acts of the Apostles (the book’s full name) was written by a man named Luke who wrote the gospel of Luke. Likely a Gentile and a medical doctor, he was a gifted historian committed to truthfulness in content, and accuracy in methodology.
Many have pointed out that the particular wording of the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus as recorded by Luke in the Acts (1:8) gives a clue, if not the key to the entire book. The gospel would begin in Jerusalem and go out in ever widening circles to the ends of the earth.
Trying to divide the book into sections also suggests that Luke, as a good historian, wanted to answer the primary questions new converts would eventually ask: “How did the churches begin?” “Who were the important names in the early days, and what happened to the apostles?” “How did the message spread?” and “Where did Paul come from and how did things go for him?”
Here is a simple chapter outline that shows four of the major goals Luke had in writing:
i. The primitive (earliest) church 1 – 7
II. Important people 8 – 12
III. Missionary work 13 – 20
IV. Paul’s latter days 21 – 28
The Origin of the Church
Using the four-point outline above, we can summarize the origin and leadership of the earliest churches covered in the first section. After the ascension of the Lord back to heaven, the disciples waited about 10 days in Jerusalem, gathered in an upper room for prayer and fellowship. Chapter 2 records the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and Peter’s great message to the Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the festival. Several thousand people responded with faith in the Lord and were baptized. The church had begun!
In the weeks that followed, the apostles would preach the word, undergo persecution, display God’s power through mighty miracles, and see phenomenal growth of the church as thousands more were saved. The Lord kept adding to the church “daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). In this section, we need only make a few brief observations on the subject of leadership.
Leadership in the early church
In the providence of God, the apostles had a very visible part in the birth of the church. God authenticated them as His representatives or spokesmen for this new “called out company,” which is the literal meaning of the Greek word for church. During this time, the work was confined to the city of Jerusalem, and the apostles were the undisputed leaders of the church.
It wasn’t long before the devil started to oppose the work both in the persecution of the apostles from outside, and more importantly, difficulties rising up from within the professing community of believers. It is interesting that the first two internal problems that the church faced were both essentially about money; one by a scheming couple in chapter five; the other by neglected widows in chapter 6.
Both of these potential threats to the young work were quickly resolved by timely leadership decisions of the apostles. It is significant that according to the record in Acts 6, the apostles quickly acknowledged the problem, saw it as stemming from the expansion of the work (6:1), and appointed younger men to assist them.
The Lord confirmed this delegation of authority by the public laying on of hands by the apostles, and then by enabling the seven chosen men to perform miracles similar to those being done by the apostles. Yet there is not the slightest hint of jealousy or the desire to retain exclusive rights to such power and position displayed by the apostles. Nor did they seek to continue their number (i.e., apostolic succession) but called them servants which is the root word for deacon
These facts help us to understand the mindset of the original apostles. As the work grew, leadership would be needed and was welcomed. Having been part of a working plurality for over 3 years in company with the Lord Jesus who chose them, it was natural for them to continue this pattern.
Before we move into the second section of the outline (“Some important people, chapters 8 – 12”), it will be helpful to take a closer look at those “elderassistants,” the original deacons appointed in Acts 6. There is no record that any of them went on to become church elders, but there are some valuable insights on the general subject of church leadership that should not be missed.
In any case, the early conclusion is justified: the Lord did not leave His church as orphans. As promised, He would come to them and they would recognize His character and shepherd care in those He was raising up to be men of influence in the churches.