Monday, April 12, 2010

The Antioch Tradition and a Strategy for this Current Age

By Ben Zemmer

Long after Paul and Barnabas are off the scene, there is significant evidence that the missionary outlook of the church in Antioch continued planting churches as far away as North India (Pasquato and Simonetti, p.48). What kind of thinking and structure sustains mission outlook over hundreds of years as it did in Antioch? Admittedly, the early church was not the picture of perfection. As the centuries passed, what was at first only a hint of error became a gaping hole in the ramparts of Christian theology. In spite of the lurking presence of error, it is fascinating to see traces of the passion and gospel witness recorded in the book of Acts in the continued expansion of the gospel over the centuries in the regions surrounding Antioch of Syria. As one scholar said in reference to the mission outlook of Antioch in the first few centuries of the early church, “it was the local Episcopal churches who sustained the mission in the territories of the Empire” (Baus qtd in Pasquato and Simonetti, p.48). It is important to note the continued involvement of local congregations in the spread of the gospel to the far reaches of the Roman Empire.

It may be fascinating to examine ancient architecture and culture and observe the annals of kings and conquests at the time of the early church, the most important surviving record of the church in Antioch resides in the pages of Scripture.

 Acts 11:19-21 – The persecution following the execution of Stephen scattered believers from Jerusalem to Antioch who shared the gospel and made converts as they went particularly among the gentile Hellenists.

 Acts 11:22-25 – Seeing the growth of the gospel in Antioch the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to guide and strengthen the believers. Needing help in the growing ministry Barnabas sought Paul. Together the two labored among the believers proclaiming the gospel.

 Acts 11:27-30 – It was not only Barnabas who came from Jerusalem for ministering among the people of Antioch. Following the initial growth of the church in Antioch, a flow of leaders (prophets) came down from Jerusalem. Due to their ministry the believers in Antioch desired to send help by the hands of Barnabas and Paul, to fellow believers in Jerusalem suffering from a famine.

 Acts 12:25 – Clearly the mission of Barnabas and Paul to deliver aid to Jerusalem was not a mere drop off operation, but rather involved time in order to complete their service to the brothers in Jerusalem. On their return to Antioch they brought a coworker John Mark

 Acts 13:1 – Luke gives a glimpse into the leadership of the church in Antioch which included prophets and teachers

 Acts 13:2-3 – In the context of worship and fasting the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Paul for ministry beyond the borders of Syria. After more fasting and prayer the leaders of the Church in Antioch recognized the call of the Holy Spirit by laying hands on the two of them (ordination) and sent them out.

 Acts 14:26-28 – Upon returning from their work of gospel proclamation and establishing of churches, Barnabas and Paul reported what God had done among the gentiles. This was a report that was not a mere exchange of information, but rather a reunion of close family whose sweet fellowship required “no little time” (v.28). Luke also makes it clear that it was in Antioch that they were “commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled” (v.26). This adds further significance to the laying on of hands they received at their sending. Luke reminds of an important preceding event namely their commissioning when recounting their return.

The example of the church in Antioch is both a striking and compelling one. Clearly, the outward-looking gospel-centered focus of the church there is normative because Luke weaves Antioch as one of the primary themes in his narrative in Acts. No true church willingly lives in isolation from other gospel believing churches. Antioch had much to benefit from Jerusalem, which in turn had much to benefit from Antioch. Together, the churches in both cities accomplished much for the expansion of the Kingdom of Christ through the proclamation of the gospel and the establishment of new churches.

In all actuality, the differences between the Antioch church in the first century and the gospel embracing church in the western world today are quite minimal. Just as the church expanded in Antioch through the proclamation of the gospel and the establishing of churches, so it does and will today. The western world in recent years has been in the throws of cultural upheaval. Segmented individualism paired with relativist postmodernism creates a wide variety of social demographics. It is tempting for those who have bought into a man-centered worldview, to cater ministries and even entire churches to given social groups (Gibbs, p.69). Because recent generations are increasingly postmodern, Eddie Gibbs argues that the church “authority base must be less positional and far more relational than in previous generations”(Gibbs, p.69). In his opinion, this involves a “flattening of hierarchical ecclesiastical structures”(Gibbs, p.72).

If the Scriptures had nothing to say on the matter this concept might actually be innovative. But instead, such a concept runs against the distinct pattern of church leadership laid out in Acts and the Pastoral Epistles. Instead of removing biblically instituted hierarchy, the church must increasingly call unbelievers who have been disillusioned by sinful use of hierarchy in to close relationship and interaction with the believing community (Belcher, p.101-103). While this must be distinguished from the popular postmodern concept of “belong before believe”, there is great potential to overcome harmful preconceptions about authority by the live and personal gospel witness of believers’ love for one another. The state of the unregenerate heart is exactly the same today as it was in the first century, and since the fall in the garden for that matter. Faithful proclamation of the Scriptures through preaching is absolutely necessary for the growth of the church in this age as it was in the first century (Romans 10, 2 Timothy 4). This proclamation will overflow in a desire to expand the gospel to local communities and globally. This expansion must not be a project of individual churches, but rather a interdependent undertaking of churches of like mind as seen in the relationship between Jerusalem and Antioch. There may be a great deal of variety in the outworking of these concepts, but the heart is still the same: a Christ-centered passion for his bride the church and the expanse of His fame to the ends of the earth.

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