Early Signs of Leadership Training Development in Acts

In my previous post we began to consider the leadership training in the book of Acts. While we are familiar with Peter and Paul in their work of expanding the gospel through church planting, Luke also clues us in on others involved in this work, some by inference and others by name. This post will begin to take a look at the initial signs of leadership training development in Acts with the Jerusalem Church, Barnabas, and the Seven and their connections. Two more posts will follow on Acts (D.V.).

Potential leaders had to learn to follow before leading. The consistent pattern in Acts never separated evangelism and discipleship as though the former succeeded in producing new believers even if the latter were neglected. “The goal of mission,” Johannes Nissen rightly notes, “was the formation of a new community in Christ.” In obedience to Jesus Christ’s command (Matt 28:19–20), the disciples baptized and instructed new disciples. Donald Hagner points out that the “therefore” in Matthew 28:19, connects the assignment of disciple making to not only the disciples but to every church that comes after them. The Great Commission’s emphasis falls on the hard work of nurturing in discipleship rather than proclamation, evident by the clause —“teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:20). The atmosphere for training leaders to engage in mission and to strengthen local churches permeated the experience of discipleship. Those that launched out in church planting had a foundation for pastoral work established in the Christian community’s discipling ministry.

The Jerusalem Church

The Jerusalem church’s experience in Christian community exemplifies development of a missionary heart. Although that first church is sometimes slighted for lack of intentional church planting in comparison to the Antioch church, it still laid the foundation for the scattered saints (Acts 8:4) to proclaim the gospel and plant churches outside the environs of Jerusalem.

The atmosphere surrounding the Jerusalem church breathes of gospel expansion. The new Christian community’s regularity in teaching the apostolic doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42) laid groundwork for not only living out the gospel in their cities but also expanding it. Floyd Filson’s significant work on early house churches as the basic unit for Christian community indicates that the rooting of the Christian movement in this structure gave later missionaries, like Paul, a clearer vision for how to plant churches outside Jerusalem. He wrote that Paul likely had the objective when entering a city to win a household to Christ so that it “could serve as the nucleus and center of his further work.” This practice could have been true of others. Since the gospel was central to the instruction in these early Christian communities, the natural desire would be to see it spread. The planting of churches in communities that Luke mentions in passing, e.g. Lydda and Joppa, strongly suggests that those planting the churches were nurtured in pastoral leadership within the framework of the Jerusalem church.

The Emergence of Barnabas

Barnabas’ integrity and dependability as a disciple proved strong enough to convince the apostles to accept Saul as a brother in Christ. This testimony indicates that Barnabas had strong relationships with the Jerusalem church leaders. The act laid future groundwork for the broader expansion of the gospel into the Roman world, although at the time, there may have been little thought of the far-reaching impact Saul’s ministry would have in the early church.

Although Barnabas did not initiate gospel work in Antioch, his credibility in pastoral work made him the apostolic choice to verify this expansion of the gospel and to establish the Christian community in that significant Roman city (Acts 11:19ff). Large numbers of “Greek-speaking persons,” in contrast to Jews, turned to the Lord. Eckhard Schnabel explains that Barnabas was not sent to simply inspect the work, rather “. . . he was sent as coordinator, missionary leader and theological teacher. The young church continued to grow as a result of Barnabas’s work (Acts 11:22–25).” Clearly, the pastoral preparation of Barnabas in the Jerusalem Christian community and possibly earlier as part of the Seventy, set the stage for the expansion of the church through planting new congregations in the Gentile world.

The Seven and Their Connections

As the apostles juggled teaching, administration, and mercy ministry in the Jerusalem church, they began to realize their limitations due to the demands of shepherding the growing church (Acts 6:1–7). The congregational call to action came to put forward seven qualified men to handle ministries of mercy, particularly toward the Hellenistic Jewish Christian widows, so that the apostles might concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the Word. The Seven had Greek names, which could give some indication that they were chosen to serve the Hellenistic widows because they were also Hellenists. Those scattered in association with Stephen, as a Hellenist, might suggest, not a refugee status, but that of missionaries (Acts 8:1–3; 11:19–20). As these believers scattered they preached the gospel that eventually led to establishing new congregations (Acts 8:4–8).

Luke makes a direct connection with the church planted in Antioch and the persecution that arose against the Hellenistic believers in connection with Stephen (Acts 11:19). “Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5) could have been part of that number.

An important question arises in regard to scattered evangelists and new churches. Who trained these believers to preach and establish churches? We are not told of any programmatic structure for developing preachers or church planters. However, Luke simply narrates that these scattered believers preached and planted. This movement suggests the connection between their participation in the Jerusalem church with its ongoing doctrinal teaching (Acts 2:42) and involvement with the leaders in the church, e.g. with the Seven, so that being part of that congregation readied them for the opportunity thrust upon them to preach and plant churches.

Certainly, Stephen and Philip did more than wait upon tables! Stephen offered a clearly articulated apologia of the faith before his martyrdom (Acts 7). Philip preached the gospel in Samaria and established a new congregation with amazing success (Acts 8:5–24). Their ministries of proclamation, along with that of the unnamed Hellenistic believers who preached Christ as they fled persecution, gives evidence that the regular ministry of the Jerusalem church prepared them for more than we may realize.

Was this intentional preparation for evangelism and church planting? At minimum, the Jerusalem church
sought to train the congregation to carry on the Great Commission (Acts 28:18–20; Acts 1:8). Although in Jerusalem that may have simply been adding to the already growing church, once the gospel took root outside Jerusalem, churches
had to be planted in order to fulfill the command to go on teaching the disciples. At the heart of it was the Jerusalem church training the pastoral leaders who would eventually be thrust beyond Jerusalem into the broader world to proclaim Christ and establish new communities of disciples, who themselves would do the same. 

Phil A. Newton
Phil planted South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1987 and continues to serve as senior pastor of that congregation. He previously pastored churches in Mississippi and Alabama. He received his education at the University of Mobile (B.A.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Phil and his wife Karen married in 1975, and have five children and seven grandchildren.
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