The New Testament records of the relationship between churches and the servants of God who went forth from them in gospel service indicate sufficiently the mind of the Lord in such matters. He might have sent His servants apart from church relationship, but this was not His will. While the first missionaries went forth in simple dependence upon Him for guidance and support without being under the control or direction of a human society, yet there remained a definite connection between them and the churches with which they had been associated. In our last article we made some reference to this in the case of
We are told that the church at Antioch ‘committed to the grace of God for the work’ these two brethren, Acts 14. 26 R.V. The circumstances in which this took place are recorded in the preceding chapter. These prospective missionaries had for some time been ministering to the Lord in the church when the call of the Holy Spirit came: ‘Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them’, Acts 13. 2. In response to this, after a time of fasting and prayer, the elders, (In the context it is the prophets and teachers who laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. Eds.) representing the church, ‘laid hands on them’ and ‘sent them away’ (or rather, ‘let them go’). This gives evidence both of deep exercise of heart before God and of the great importance which the local church attached to the going forth of the Lord’s servants from their midst. The question might have been raised whether there was need to fast as well as pray concerning the matter when the will of God and the guidance of the Spirit were so clear. Was there anything more required than merely to obey the command to separate those who had received the call, to hold a farewell meeting and speed them on their way? Certainly more was felt to be necessary for the fulfilment of the will of the Lord. That there was fasting demands our careful consideration. The fasting was not a perfunctory rite nor an act of formal asceticism; it was a spontaneous expression of self-humiliation before God, under a sense of the great responsibility attaching to the ministry to which He was calling His servants! The exercise of heart concerning it found a fitting accompaniment in either partial or complete abstinence from food for a time. The church took no superficial view of the sending forth of missionaries. The fact of a call from God forbade that; it laid a weight of responsibility upon the hearts of His people which demanded even more than prayer. Nor must we omit to notice the significance of the
in this passage. This was not a matter of ordination for the ministry; Barnabas and Saul had already received their divine ordination. They had for some time been prophets and teachers in the church from which they were now setting out. The act of laying on of hands bears directly upon the subject under consideration; upon the relationship between the church and those who were proceeding from it with the Gospel to regions beyond. The church, in recognition of the call and appointment by the Holy Spirit, thus gave through its elders a public expression of its identification with the servants of the Lord in the work that lay before them. Nor did the association of the labourers with the church at Antioch cease with their departure. This is clear from the fact that, upon the fulfilment of their service, they returned thither, ‘gathered the church together’, and ‘rehearsed all that God had done with them’, Acts 14. 27. By the same assembly Paul and Silas were commended at the outset of their second missionary journey, and thither again they returned at its close. The interval between the second and third journey was spent in the same church, and from it Paul set out for the third time. Thus throughout the greater part of his missionary activities there existed a close relationship between the servant of the Lord and the assembly from which he went. The call of God came to these servants of the Lord, and the church commended and encouraged them; the same call, summoning fresh labourers to the field, still makes itself evident in the assemblies of His people. Have they become accustomed to take a lower view of it than did the assembly at Antioch? Is missionary service regarded today with a less serious sense of responsibility than in earliest times? Is the call less divine, or the work of less importance, because of the absence of the apostolic element? Is there less claim upon us for prayer and fasting now than there was in the times of the apostles? Surely, the contrary is the case! Do not these questions deserve the serious attention of all who genuinely have the cause of Christ to heart? The Lord has called
to take a definite part in helping forward the Gospel. His command, ‘Go ye … and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you’, Matt. 28. 19-20, R.V. was not limited to those to whom He was immediately speaking; for He said, ‘and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world’. Clearly His word holds good for all His followers until the age reaches its close. The commission could not imply that all were to go in person to other lands; it does, however, indicate that all have a part to fulfil in the great work. An assembly in which God calls an individual to go forth in missionary work, and gives to the saints an evidence of the call, may well rejoice in the privilege afforded of taking part in this way in the furtherance of the Gospel in addition to the regular testimony in the immediate vicinity. Other assemblies in the same locality, who have had experience of the life and service of the worker now called to go forth, likewise have the claim upon them of this fellowship. Thus it was that Timothy was commended; he was ‘well reported of’, Acts 16. 2, not only by the brethren in his own assembly in Lystra, but also by those at Iconium in the same district. The privilege of an assembly in being instrumental in sending the Gospel by a representative to a remote country is no small one. At the same time, the responsibility involved in commending a worker is very great. When a labourer goes forth in simple dependence upon God for his maintenance, the assembly which commends him thereby associates itself with his conviction that God is so leading him. A commendation, therefore, carries with it the responsibility, first of assistance in any necessary preparations, and then of the continuance of fellowship, as God may enable, throughout the period of the service in which the worker is engaged. The missionary, though at work in another land, is still identified with the assembly from which he went forth. The work carried out is not merely that of the labourer abroad, it is work in which the assembly is collectively engaged. The missionary is not the servant of the assembly; all are fellow-servants of God. Was there not partnership between him and his fellow-saints in service before the call came for the labourer to go? The change of his sphere has not broken the bond of church-fellowship in service; on the contrary the sphere of the assembly has only been enlarged. Let not distance and time diminish the apprehension of the association. The fellowship should be abiding, not only in fact but in realisation. The
should mean more than that an interest will be taken in the work of the one commended. Taking an interest in the work is a poor way of expressing it; the true view is that of fellowship and co-operation. The work may be near or far away; it is, nevertheless, work undertaken by the assembly with which the labourer is identified. A recognition of this will prevent the elder brethren of the assembly from laying hands hastily on a candidate. Commendation cannot rightly be given unless there is an absolute conviction on the part of the elders, as well as of the prospective worker, that the Lord has called the latter to go; and the conviction should be based, not only upon a verbal statement as to the call, but also on the proof of the candidate’s fitness, consequent upon the character of the work in which he has been already engaged. But behind this there is the necessary qualification of a good report both in the home life and in such avocation as the candidate may have been following. If incapacity has been displayed in the latter, how can it be expected that anything different will be shown in the spiritual work of the Gospel? What will not do for the ordinary business of this world, cannot surely be suitable for the work of the mission field. Timothy had a good report, and this means more than a good testimony as to his capacities in Gospel service. There was the character of his life behind his oral testimony. Then again, one who is going forth with the prospect of serving with fellow-labourers who have been in the country before him, should be expected to have given evidence of his ability to work harmoniously with others, and of a readiness to act in a spirit of subjection to senior workers and to listen to their counsel.
These are some of the considerations which will weigh with elder brethren, who, acting on behalf of the assembly, have before them the question of the commendation of a worker. Where such a one has been proved and approved, how happily can the saints commend their fellow-labourer to the Lord for His guidance and blessing, conscious of the smile of His approval and assured of His power in the life and work of His servant in regions beyond!