Separate Administrative Structures for Church and Mission. Who Really Sent the First Missionaries? A Careful Reading of Acts 13:1-4 (2nd of 5)
The Story of Five Men who were Present when the Holy Spirit Sent Barnabas and Saul to be Missionaries.
Many Christians are of the opinion that the Antioch church prayed and fasted and laid hands on Barnabas and Paul, sending them out as missionaries from the Antioch church. This is nowhere to be found in the Bible. The assumption that “the Antioch church sent the first missionaries” has a remarkable hold on our minds. Our only hope in such a case is to read the Bible carefully to understand what is really there.
The Bible says five men “were worshipping the Lord and fasting” when something historic happened. We know their names. They were Barnabas, Simeon “who was called Niger,” Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen “a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch,” and Saul of Tarsus. The historic thing that happened was this: The Holy Spirit said to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So three men–Simeon, Lucius and Manaen laid their hands on the other two men–Barnabas and Saul and released them (apelusan: meaning “They let Barnabas and Saul go”). Then they bid farewell to each other and let Barnabas and Saul go. You can read Acts 13:1-4 here.
Who sent Barnabas and Saul? The Bible says it was the Holy Spirit. “So, being sent by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4).
Who Actually Sends Missionaries? In Acts 13, the Holy Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas. In John 20:21 Jesus says that God the Father sent him, and “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” God Himself says to Isaiah, “Whom shall we send? And Who will go for us?” Isaiah replies, “Here am I. Send me” (Isaiah 6:8. In Hebrew is שְׁלָחֵֽנִי shelakheni). In many more passages, it is God alone who sends missionaries. This is a great truth, one of the great truths revealed in the Bible. God is the One who calls some to go as missionaries. This is the missio dei, and we should make this truth part of our understanding.
Church leaders tend to admire the Antioch church for sending Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. But a careful reading of the story in Acts 13:1-4 seems to warrant a different admiration. Five men fasted and prayed. None of them was a pastor. None of them was an elder. They were “prophets and teachers.” They did not administrate the Antioch church. It was not a meeting of church leaders. The Antioch church did not send Paul and Barnabas. This will come as a shock to some readers, because Christians widely assume that Antioch is a pattern for how churches should send missionaries. Here is another shock: Is there any reference in the New Testament to a church sending missionaries? No, not one. The church discerns a missionary calling but the Holy Spirit is the One who calls and sends. All glory to God for sending missionaries to take the gospel flint where people walk in darkness.
Later, Paul and Barnabas returned from their first mission trip. Paul gathered the Antioch congregation together to hear his report. The Bible says:
When Paul and Barnabas arrived they gathered the church together and declared all that God had done with them, And how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.–Acts 14:27
What a day of rejoicing it must have been. Paul and Barnabas told them how they sailed for Cyprus and added John to their team. The Bible says “They traveled the whole island,” preaching in the synagogues and encountering opposition and open doors. They sailed for the mainland, what is today Turkey. “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1). And so on, facing opposition in city after city and founding churches in Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium (Konya today). At last they sailed back to Antioch. “On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:28). It was a report. The church leaders did not hold Paul accountable. On other occasions, Paul did feel accountable to report to a church, especially the church at Philippi, because the Philippian church helped finance his ministry. There is no record that the Antioch church gave money to Paul. No surprise here; it was not Paul’s sending church.
Therefore, I believe there is adequate data to disagree with critics who hold the idea that the Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas. Nor is the Antioch church a model for a church’s authority to govern missionaries today. The work of the church is praying and fasting and hearing from the Holy Spirit and releasing missionaries for the work God has for them to do. Churches should discern what the Holy Spirit is saying. In this way, the way of listening and discerning, churches today may properly see themselves as “sending churches.” If a church is not discerning God’s call to send missionaries, it is doubtful whether the Holy Spirit is active in the congregation.