The Antioch Fellowship
For many years I have studied and pondered the things that made the fellowship that Jesus empowered in the first century so powerful and life-giving. The fellowship of believers in Antioch is one of the places these where we get a glimpse of these things. Here are some observations about this fellowship:
- The church was founded by a group that had been scattered by the persecution of Jesus followers in Jerusalem. It was essentially a lay church. It seems right that some leaders in our fellowships should be supported financial by others. But if this creates an organization that exalts the “professionals” above the other sisters and brothers this becomes a negative that undermines the empowering work of the Spirit. There is balance in the leadership team when the laypersons and those being financially supported are equal in responsibility and authority for the work. This keeps the vision connected to the real world and fosters a spirit of submission that helps prevent arrogance and a controlling attitude in the “professionals”. Spiritual awakenings come when the gifted leaders, professional and lay, work together to equip and to empower all the people.
- The Church in Antioch was an including fellowship. The Jerusalem church only included Jews but when persecution came, the new believers from Cyrene and Cyprus went to Antioch and told Greeks about Jesus. Then as we note in a later passage, Simeon, called Niger (literally, the black) was one of the sending elders for Paul and Barnabas.
- They had the touch of Barnabas. Those in charge in Jerusalem were wise in sending Barnabas, son of encouragement. He encouraged everyone. He was big-souled. ‘When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad’—he could rejoice in the work of the Spirit in others. And the Antioch fellowship lived and grew with this spirit of mutual encouragement.
- They also had the touch of Paul. Paul had a charismatic personality and gave a dynamic leadership to the fellowship in Antioch. His passion for Jesus and his passion for others to know Jesus found a home in the believers in Antioch.
- They cared about others. When hearing of the forthcoming famine “the disciples, each according to his ability,” decided to provide help for the believers living in Judea. This became the pattern of the expanding New Testament church and a pattern that the rich North American church has too seldom practiced.
- Equality on a social level was evident in the leadership team. This included, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch) and others of lesser social standing.
- “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers.” The teachers in a fellowship tend to be the ones who want to help us go deep in our relationship with Jesus. The prophets are the ones who encourage us to think beyond our present experience – to go wide. Our fellowships are revolutionary because the message of Jesus brings a radical new beginning to individual lives and to societies. At the same time, the teachers might say: “a good principle is to never invade more territory than one can occupy.” The moderation that the teachers bring means our fellowships expand at the pace of God.
- This fellowship was of one heart and one mind. As they worshipped the Lord in unity the Spirit was able to direct the leaders of the Church in the thrust of Paul and Barnabas into their world-changing first missionary journey. The leaders in Antioch didn’t have to put it to a vote. They went forward when “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . .” And so Paul and Barnabas were sent out by both the Holy Spirit and by their close companions in Christ.
- They practiced mutual submission. The believers submitted to Paul and Barnabas and their teaching. Paul and Barnabas submitted to being sent by the local fellowship.
And even when submission broke down the Antioch fellowship was able to hold good men together who honestly differed. Paul and Barnabas were in such contention over including John Mark that they left on separate missions. The Antioch fellowship did not take sides. They commended Barnabas and Mark as they went to Cyprus and in the same sentence they commended Paul and Silas in their missionary journey. They held the disagreeing brothers together by commending both to the grace of the Lord—and they both needed it!
Prior to this year’s National Prayer Breakfast two hundred of us met in Williamsburg, Virginia for a weekend to explore the ways that we can more closely follow the Spirit in ways similar to this early church as modeled by the believers in Antioch. I was asked to present some ideas. I will not include the whole message but here are some of the things that seem important to me.
Some difficulties our fellowships may have to overcome as we discern our way forward:
- We Own Things! When some of us began in Oregon over sixty years ago, we had nothing except Jesus Christ and each other, There was nothing to control or to be in charge of. Now we have expensive property; significant programs like the NPB and the Cedars; and relationships all over the world. The temptation to want to be in charge of these things is real.
- We are surrounded by a culture that brings out the worst in us. Grasping for power and influence is very obvious in D.C., but it exists in all of our lives and the cultures that surround us. Jesus tells us to beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Very few of us are tempted to legalism – the leaven of the Pharisees, but what about the temptations of power and influence – the leaven of Herod?
- The desire to have a king and the desire to be a king: There is something within us that wants a “King” rather than the direct leadership of God in our lives. It did not work well when God let them crown Saul as king and it has rarely worked well in all the various forms of kingship or queenship since. But the desire to turn responsibility over to this higher authority rests in human nature. And the desire to be king or queen is part of human nature.
Jesus addressed this in his interaction with James and John. They wanted the style of leadership they saw at play in the Roman and religious world – to have positions of authority so they could command others. Jesus said that Kingdom leadership was to serve others and even to lay down your life for others – as He was doing and did in an ultimate way.
- We need to guard against thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. Jesus has millions of followers all over the world who have never heard of us and who are doing just fine as they respond to the leading of the Spirit in their lives. We are not in competition with anyone over market share. If our primary focus is caring for the things God gives us to do, and we are secure in that, we can then bless others who we bump into as we all do the work God has given each of us to do.
- Author Gayle Erwin expresses a danger for us to guard against as we seek to work together being responsible for the things the Lord has given us to do:
“Within a few years of the founding of almost all religious groups, they begin to take on the characteristics of the average business corporation. They are shaped like a pyramid in their authority structure. Efficiency experts begin to determine the functions of church members rather than body structure and spiritual gifts.”
Many of us in this room are operating differently than that. We have changed our thinking from a pyramid to a small group of gifted workers meeting in a circle listening to God about what He wants done. When we have decided, in any given instance, what He wants, then next we discern who has the gifts, calling and passion to take the lead in that area. That way in each endeavor, then in a natural way, the group functions as a pyramid with a lead person. The others in the group provide enthusiastic support because they were part of the discerning process. However, we have much to learn about how to walk with others in this way.
How do we live as a family so that these dangers do not complicate the good Jesus wants us to do? This is my summary:
- Stay focused on Jesus.
- Walk together in small groups in agreement and mutual submission.
- Pray for the concerns of thee world as God brings them to mind.
- Be responsible about the specific work God gives each of us to do.
- Love and encourage all who God brings into our lives.