Here’s a cultural truth: we bring to our reading of scripture whatever values we currently hold. Our eyes and hearts are sensitized to recognize the things we already agree with, and to ignore those things which run counter to our convictions (and yes, I will readily acknowledge that I do it, too).
And here is a cultural challenge for those who live in North America: part of taking the yoke Jesus offers is our continued association with other believers. This association is more than friendship—it is a calling to become part of the people of God. When God graciously saves us, he also has a plan to plant and nurture us.
The first three verses of Acts chapter 13 are clear beyond cultural leanings—Paul and Barnabas were fully invested in the body of believers at Antioch. The church in Antioch was a powerful testimony of a multi-ethnic community that embodied the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Just look at the very diverse list of people in leadership at Antioch.
Paul and Barnabas were a part of a leadership team who heard the voice of the Spirit together and, even after hearing, prayed and fasted together before ordaining two of their own to mission the “mission field.” Then to drive the point home the Scripture reports that at the end of this journey Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church and gave a report of what God had done (Acts 14: 26-28).
From time to time someone I don’t know comes to me at our church—I’m one of the pastors—and says to me, “I need a ‘covering’ for my ministry. Will your church be my covering?” My response is usually something like “Yes! We’re all about releasing people into their calling and ministry. Why don’t you hang out with us for six months or so and we’ll consider laying our hands on you and asking for God’s blessing on your calling.” It only takes about two weeks, and usually that guy is gone!
Is six months too long to get to know someone and—together—to affirm God’s calling on someone? How about ten-to-fourteen years? Depending on how you read Galatians, Paul indicates that he was a part of his local church for a considerable length of time. Take just a moment and compare Acts 11: 19-26 with Galatians 1:11 - 2:5. These two passages show a man possessed by the sovereign call of God, who displayed radical obedience to the voice of the Spirit, and still respected the Church. I’m willing to give way to an interpretation that comes up with the shortest possible length of time, but that’s still more than a decade. And then there’s always the danger of comparing ourselves to Paul, the giant of the faith who influenced Christianity more than anyone other than Jesus Himself.
It’s true that the Apostle Paul had a unique and powerful ministry on the road. It is also true that he did more than “preach the gospel.” The record of the book of Acts and the epistles is that he planted churches. Everywhere he went he shared the good news of Jesus and, significantly, established bodies of believers to provide a context for living out the gospel. Each of his letters testifies to this second fact—establishing churches. Even the letters to Timothy and Titus are about corporate church life. That leaves only the letter to Philemon, which was likely read out loud in front of Philemon’s home church.
So are pastors simply those who are out to prevent people from following God’s sovereign call? It must be recognized that there are probably pastors out there like that. But most are trying their best to follow a Biblical model of church-life as they understand it. Even if local church leadership is lacking in some way, should we ignore the example of Scripture just because other people have not fulfilled their roles?
Part of Spirit-led Bible study is to ask for the grace to open our hearts to His value system, not ours. And in North America and Europe, we should be on guard against Biblical interpretations that simply affirm our biases. It is deeply ingrained in our culture: "be yourself." But Jesus came not only to save us for heaven, but to save us from ourselves.
Here’s my prayer: “Gracious Lord and Savior, please save us from being ourselves.”