“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3, ESV).
This episode in Acts is the clearest example we have of what today is known as a sending church. Of the five prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch, two were called by the Holy Spirit to mission work, and the church is said to have “sent them off” (v. 3). By instigating this commissioning, the Holy Spirit is also said to have “sent out” these two men. Perhaps as a result of this episode, the two men—Barnabas and Saul (also known as Paul)—are also said to be “apostles” (Acts 14:14), which means those who are sent out as official representatives.
What is a sending church?
Specifically, how much authority does a sending church have over the missionaries that are sent?
For conscientious churches and their missionaries, this question cannot be avoided. For example, must a missionary receive the approval of a sending church for a change of field or focus? Does the sending church have the authority to call a missionary home or to account for various reasons? Is the relationship between the missionary and the sending church one that demands submission, as a wife behaves to her husband, or as church members act toward their pastors? What can we learn from the biblical record?
Before answering, two cautions are in order. First, we must be careful of making one experience normative for all later occurrences. For example, even though the Holy Spirit audibly selected these men by name, most churches today do not expect Him to be so explicit, even though they do expect Him to call men to mission work.
Second, we must also keep in mind that Paul is an apostle of Christ; therefore, not all that Paul experienced as a missionary would be true for all missionaries.
With these cautions in mind, let us consider the following observations.
First, it appears from the book of Acts that the relationship Paul and Barnabas sustained with the church in Antioch changed at the point of their commissioning. Before Acts 13, for example, we see them directed by the church to take a gift to care for the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 12:25). We also see them serving in the local church as teachers, even as Barnabas had initially recruited Paul to do (Acts 11:25-26). On a par with the other leaders, they were under the direction of the church as a whole. However, when the Holy Spirit called them by name, He told the church to “set apart for me” these two men. In other words, they were no longer leaders in the church there, and under the direction of the church, but were now under the direction of the Holy Spirit Himself. Subsequently, we see Paul making decisions in the Spirit, and even being hindered by the Spirit from going in a certain direction (see Acts 16:6-10; 19:21).
Again, is this leading of the Spirit due to Paul being an apostle of Christ, or is it due to both men being sent out by the Spirit, even as missionaries today would be sent out? Perhaps both men are said to be “apostles” in the book of Acts because they were sent out by the Holy Spirit, even as Jesus is said to be an “apostle” because He was sent out by the Father (Hebrews 3:1).