What is the New Testament’s pattern for commending a person for the work of the Lord?
Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, from which they had been commended to the grace of God for their work (Acts 14:26). The details of that commendation give us a New Testament precedent to follow. The leaders of the Antioch assembly fasted (13:2) due to a spiritual burden. The outcome indicates they were burdened about the spread of the gospel “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (1:8). The Spirit identified the men He had called for that work (13:2). The leaders continued their waiting on God through prayer and fasting. The assembly then expressed its identification with Barnabas and Saul when the leaders laid their hands on these two. The assembly had not acted on its own but was the vehicle through which the Spirit worked, for the two were “sent forth by the Holy Spirit” (v 4). Their later report (14:26) in Antioch implies they were accountable to the assembly.
In summary, an assembly’s commendation expresses its concern for the work of God. The Spirit of God uses the assembly to send out those whom He has called and now intends to use in the field. Assembly leaders guide the assembly’s concern for the work of God and for specific areas of labor. This should characterize every assembly, whether or not suitable young men are part of that assembly.
What features would mark a person for this work?
Tracing the development of Saul of Tarsus provides a helpful profile. His spiritual life began with submission to the Lord: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). His baptism expressed this also. A first mark in his life was prayer (Acts 9:11). From the beginning, Saul had a consistent interest in gospel work (vv 20-22). He had experience with God, getting to know Him and His truth (Gal 1:11-12, 17). The assembly was the center of his interests and gospel activities (Acts 9:26-29), although he spread the gospel in other places where no assembly existed (v 20). He had earned the confidence of more experienced workers, because Barnabas brought him to Antioch (11:25-26). Saul was able to work under the shadow of Barnabas (9:27; 11:30; 12:25; 13:2, 7) – and with others (13:1) – until God moved him to the fore (compare 13:43, 46, 50; 14:12, 15; 2, 12, 22, 25, 35). This fosters continuity of testimony from one generation to the next (2Ti 2:2).
Because preaching the Word is deacon service, the qualifications Paul outlined for deacons also apply to those commended by an assembly. As to their character, they have dignity (ESV for “grave”), honesty, and self-control (1Ti 3:8). As to the truth, they have convictions and are consistent with it (v 9). As to their work, they have experience by which they have gained the confidence of others (vv 10, 13). As to their family life, they are commendable (vv 11-12).
If God calls a brother to preach the gospel, how would he approach commendation?
Early in his Christian life, Saul knew he was called by God to preach the gospel. It appears that he knew what the Lord communicated to Ananias (Acts 9:15; Gal 1:16). He returned to Jerusalem after three years (Gal 1:18) and, while praying, received confirmation that God was sending him to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21). He continued to be active in this work, exemplifying, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Eccl 9:10). He was able both to work with his own initiative (in Tarsus, Acts 11:25) and also to work under the guidance of others (v 26).
His responsibility was to do the work the Lord had laid on his heart. He awaited God’s timing on his commendation. The initiative in his commendation, under the Spirit’s guidance, came from the leaders of the Antioch assembly (Acts 13:1-3).
Gideon knew these principles (Judges 6:36-40). His two requests regarding his fleece provided personal assurance that God had called him and a confirmation of that in the unity of others in following him.
A man does the work the Lord gives him, looks to his God for personal assurance of his call, and waits on the Lord to make that evident through the insights of responsible believers. If a brother (or his family) has to promote his own cause in order to be commended by the assembly, he is either moving ahead of God or against God.
How would elders approach and communicate this decision to the assembly?
Elders encourage spiritual growth in the flock entrusted to them (Acts 20:28). They will therefore look for those whom the Spirit has gifted for service. Further, as did the leaders in Antioch (13:1-3), so elders promote a concern for the work of the Lord locally and further afield. Others gave Paul a good report of Timothy’s activities, so that elders could well encourage a trusted worker to mentor one of their promising young men.
Having encouraged a younger brother, elders unitely seek the Lord’s will (13:2, 3 – fasting, prayer) for that brother. When they are together convinced that God has called him and that he is fitted and sufficiently mature to be “sent forth” (13:4), elders consult with him to determine if he is already convinced of God’s call. Having thus determined the will of God for this brother, they guide the assembly in commending him.
Does the assembly have a say in the decision?
An assembly is not a democracy. Elders guide the assembly in its decisions; they are guides (Heb 13:7, mg.) they “stand before” (1Ti 5:17, “rule”) the flock as examples and leaders. Not having omniscience, either individually or collectively, they will benefit by input from the flock. For that reason, those in the assembly ought to respectfully and honestly communicate to the elders any concerns they may have about a person whom the assembly plans to commend. Having communicated that concern, the matter must be left with the Lord and with the overseers, who are responsible to fairly assess what has been said.