As we begin to read the story of the church in the Book of Acts we find prophets among them. The first story involving prophets was at the young church in the city of Antioch. Here the message of Jesus had spread through the Gentile population of that city and a powerful church was started among them. A team of prophets came down from the church in Jerusalem to minister to them. One of these prophets, named Agabus, prophesied about a great famine that was coming. The outcome of this prophetic ministry was a dynamic outpouring of help for the Jewish background believers living in Judea who were suffering great poverty. (Acts 11:27-30)
The next time this church in Antioch is spoken about we find that prophets are now a part of the church’s leadership team. It is in this context that by the Holy Spirit prophetic revelation is given to send out Barnabas and Paul into the apostolic work God was calling them to. This was the launching of an incredible wave of church planting out from that church into other nations of the world. (Acts 13)
As churches multiplied among non-Jewish peoples in many different places, a controversy arose among some of the Christians with a Jewish background. They still were arguing that these non-Jewish believers should be called to submit themselves to Jewish laws and practices as a part of their commitment to Jesus. A council was called in the church at Jerusalem to settle this issue. There it was determined that it was not God’s plan for these new believers to have to take on Jewish religious laws and customs as a part of their commitment to follow Jesus. Some men where chosen to carry this instruction to the churches and make sure all understood clearly this foundational apostolic teaching. Barnabas and Paul, who were apostolic, were sent along with two prophets, Judas and Silas. So this important ministry among the churches was to be carried out by a team of apostles and prophets. (Acts 15:25-33)
It becomes clear that prophets had a vital role among the churches of the Book of Acts. These men were leaders. Paul says in the Ephesian letter that the Ascended Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry. (Eph. 4:11) Every church needs exposure to all these gifts Christ has given to his church in order to be fully equipped to fulfill the mission of Jesus and grow to full maturity as the people of God.
Throughout the Bible we encounter the presence of prophets among the people of God. The first person in the Bible to be called a prophet is Abraham. Interestingly this happens in the rather unflattering story in Abraham’s life when he and Sarah travel into the land of Gerar and Abraham purposefully deceives the king of that land into thinking that Sarah is simply his sister when in fact she is his wife. After King Abimelech took Sarah as his own the Lord intervened in her behalf by visiting Abimelech in a dream in order to keep him from sinning by having sex with Sarah. (See Genesis 20)
Then the Lord instructs Abimelech to go to Abraham and return to him his wife. After that he is told to receive prayer from Abraham because he is a prophet! Abraham does pray for Abimelech and God’s judgment averted away from him and all his household.
How is it that Abraham is called a prophet in this story? It certainly cannot be based upon his wonderful performance and actions here. This answer to this question lies in the relationship Abraham has with God and this relationship is purely the result of God’s gracious calling upon his life. God had spoken to Abraham and revealed himself to him. It is on this basis alone that Abraham is called a prophet. It is on this basis alone that Abraham is able to intercede for Abimelech.
A notable thing in this first story about a prophet in the Bible is its cross-cultural nature. Here Abraham, who has come into relationship with the Living God as a result of God’s revelation of himself to him, is speaking with a pagan king who has not enjoyed this relationship in the same way (although it seems like Abimelech was doing better in character development than Abraham at this point). Through Abraham’s coming to him he has begun to know this gracious God of Abraham. This encounter with God is not based on Abraham’s performance but on the very nature of the God Abraham has come into relationship with. This is the first thing in the Bible we learn about what a prophet is!
The presence of prophets and prophecy in the stories of the Bible is seen as a sign of God’s blessing and presence among his people. The writer of the Book of Lamentations speaks of the dark days after God’s judgment fell on the city Jerusalem. God’s hand of blessing was removed from the city because of the rebellion and sin of the people. One of the indicators that God’s Presence was no longer there in blessing was that the prophets no longer received any vision from the Lord. (Lam.2:9) The lack of prophecy was a sign of God’s disfavor.
The Second Century AD, Christian apologist, Justin Martyr used this same understanding about prophecy in his dialogue with a Jewish rabbi named Trypho. In his attempt to convince him that Jesus is truly the long awaited Messiah and that now the people of God are those who put their trust in him, he said to Trypho: ‘from the fact that even to this day the gifts of prophecy exist among us Christians, you should realize that the gifts which had resided among your people have now been transferred to us.’ (from St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho; Chapter 82)
"A team is a small number of people joined together in relationship with complementary gifting who are committed to a common vision, with clearly defined goals for which they hold themselves mutually accountable."
The church at Antioch was a team of prophets and teachers. There were five in number and was international in its cultural background with a mission understanding that involved activity. It was therefore an apostolic (sent) community.
I received a book years ago called The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. It's a book about Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 1909 polar expedition that reached farther south than anyone ever before him. The Endurance expedition (1914- 1917) brought a 22-foot open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. This was one of the greatest epics of survival in the annals of exploration.
However, what the book really demonstrates was Shacketon’s team-building ability. He was able to draw levels of ability and leadership out of His crew that were incredible. They moved forward in spite of impossible weather conditions, daily attempts to get sightings for knowing their positions, and the worst living conditions of any crew in history.
Shackleton had a single-minded determination to do what was best for his crew. What made the Shackleton team work was his insistence that getting a project done was more important than who does the project, controls the project, or gets credit for the project. His biographer writes, "The mystique that Shackleton acquired as a leader may partly be attributed to the fact that he elicited from his men strength and endurance they had never imagined they possessed; he ennobled them." (p.194).
Shackleton refused to discriminate between the weak and the strong, the sick and the well. They would all survive or none survive. So what’s the result of such an approach to being focused on a mission as a team? The Endurance crew is a testimony of such valiant commitment as a team: They all survived.
Remember our definition:
Jesus connects leadership to the model of the Trinity. He built his team of 12 disciples within the context of community and having mission as its chief characteristic. Jesus clearly reveals this missional aspect when he said, "As the Father has sent me so send I you" (John 20:21).
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for his team of disciples was one in which Jesus prayed that the model of Trinity, the relationship between Father and Son, would be manifested in the team.
Jesus prayed that the culture of the community of the Godhead, one of harmony, love, mission, serving, equality, giving (community), would manifest within them. There is no hierarchy in this prayer for the team.
He also prayed that the purpose (mission) " that the world may believe that You sent Me" (John 17:21) might be the life and focus of this team. Something of the way they were together as a leadership team would have huge ramifications to those they served.
Jesus connects the model he manifested (John 17:13-18, 22-26) of His relationship within the Trinity to what He desired this team to become and to also manifest.
John (one of the 12) states in 1 John 1:1-3 that this is exactly what they did. "What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life-and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and manifested to us-what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." (John 1:1-3)
John states the life of the Godhead that had been manifested to the disciples and that they had, in turn, proclaimed and demonstrated (or borne witness) of that same fellowship of the Godhead. John is saying that the life and fellowship of the Godhead had become the model of their service to the church. John then states that he expects the same fellowship and connectedness will exist between the church and the leadership team.
In John 17, Jesus’ prayer establishes a priority, character, mission, and a model to follow (which is seen in the Trinity). Jesus’ prayer is directed toward this work that he had given himself to…that of team building (John 17:6-26). This prayer clearly states that teamwork and team building was the principal part of His earthly ministry (see John 13-17).
In giving himself to team, Jesus secured His continuing and growing influence on the world. He did not invest the future of His Kingdom on the superficial impressions of the minds of the crowds. He invested the future on the convictions of twelve team members (John 17: 14-19). Jesus continues to invest the future in us, his followers, in today’s world.
My own spiritual journey has, in many ways, been a pursuit for meaning in church leadership. As I’ve viewed scripture, what becomes clear is the model of team-leadership; a leadership functioning together in community and mission. Team leadership is a model reflected in the Trinity. Jesus demonstrated team leadership during his earthly life and ministry.
It is necessary that church leadership be reflective of biblical models rather than cultural ones. Both today’s church and its leadership must be strong, steady, biblical and theologically sound. Scripture emphasizes Spirit-led, Spirit-gifted, collaborative team fellowship and amazingly today's western culture is receptive to such a leadership style.
We must realize we are shaped by previous generations. In 1991, mission theologian David Bosch of South Africa noted (in lectures at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan) that churches shaped by the Reformation were left with a view of church that was not directly intended by the Reformers. This view resulted from the way that they spoke about the church. Those churches came to view the church as "a place where certain things happen." The Reformers emphasized as the "marks of the true church" whereby a church exists wherever the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.
Over time, these "marks" narrowed the church's definition of itself toward a "place where" idea. The church became less of a community and the bearer of missional responsibility throughout the world. The church became "a place where" Christians gathered for worship and where the Christian character was cultivated. The church became a building where certain things happened. The leadership became a professional class, educated to carry out the church's organizational and authoritative activities. One would "belong to” and "attend" a church. The church was located in a facility for its activities with little relevance to a world outside that facility. The Reformers and those that followed believed that the commission to disciple the nations had been accomplished in the first century. The church ceased to be missional.
Later the colonial expansion of European nations began to raise questions as believers encountered people who had never heard the gospel. This gave rise to voluntary missionary societies. Mission continued to be conceived as something that happens at a physical or social distance. The missionary movement throughout the 19th century did not alter the concept that church was "a place where" certain things happen.
In the latter half of the 20th century with major renewal, the church has begun to be reconceived as a community, a gathered people brought together by a common calling to be a “sent people” (David Bosch). During these transitions, para-church organizations have developed as the institutional church changed slowly. New churches were still heavily influenced by the era of modernity (which highlights the autonomous self and promotes independent churches) and could not meet the challenge of mission. Churches need to see that "they can do together in multiplied fashion what they could never accomplish on their own."
The recent return to Ephesians 4 ministries brings us into a restoration of the missional church community. The church brought together and motivated by an apostolic company returns to its original purpose as a “sent people”.
We are now more able to view the church as a community, a gathered people, brought together by a common calling and vocation to be a sent people. This “definition” of the church, of who we are as God’s people, helps us realize what our life together is all about.
There’s more on how church leadership has been affected by the Reformed perspective in my next post…
Confluence is a place where the reformed, the charismatic, and the mission-minded converge to equip and serve the church to transform communities. Our authors are mostly leaders in the Newfrontiers family of churches. Read more.
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