From an Outreach Work to an Assembly

Theophilus must have been greatly encouraged while reading through Dr. Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles. As you may have noticed, there are six progress reports interspersed throughout the book: the Lord added, 2:47; the number of the disciples multiplied, 6:7; the churches … were multiplied, 9:31; the Word of God grew and multiplied, 12:24; the churches … increased in number daily, 16:5; mightily grew the Word of God, 19:20.

The growth was not only spiritual but also numerical. Like Joseph of old, assemblies in the apostolic era were fruitful boughs whose branches were running over the wall, and the map of the Roman Empire was being dotted with lampstands shining in testimony for God. The number of those in each assembly was growing and the number of assemblies as well. So much so, Luke began with an arithmetic progression (addition, 2:47) but soon had to adopt geometric progression (multiplication, 9:31). Both in quality and quantity, this God-empowered movement was very impressive.

The devil, on the other hand, must have been quite upset and did not take long to see to it that these testimonies for God be marred by sins of covetousness (ch 5), racism (ch 6), legalism (ch 15), division (ch 16), and other conditions that Paul’s epistles also bring to light. In 2 Corinthians 11 he makes it obvious that the false teachers were part of a well-planned satanic strategy to ruin the local church in Corinth.

We are surprised to see that, though the Spirit of God tells us of first-generation assemblies (i.e. the first church established in a locality), very little is said about outreaches that would become autonomous churches themselves. However, in chapters 8 and 11 of the Acts we find principles that can guide in your country and mine, even now.

Look first of all at the commencement of the work in Samaria. We know from Acts 9:31 that what God began doing through Philip resulted in the formation of full-fledged churches. In the sovereignty of God, Stephen’s death resulted in gospel blessing in Samaria. It was immediately after that event that Philip went to the city of Samaria and preached Christ, many believed, and were baptized (Acts 8:5-13). Philip was a deacon in the Jerusalem assembly. First he proved himself (1 Tim 3:10) in things temporal (Acts 6) and then grew into a spiritual deacon: preaching the gospel, no doubt in Jerusalem, then in Samaria, then on the road to Gaza, over to Azotus and up the coast to C�sarea (8:40), where some twenty-five years later he is described as “the evangelist.” (Luke identifies him as “one of the seven,” emphasizing the progression in this man’s service.) The fact that Peter and John went to Samaria is very important. Obviously, in Jewish minds there would be much doubt as to God’s accepting these Samaritans. In a general way, the interest and presence of the apostles would confirm Philip’s ministry and also the new work. It also reflects, more specifically, the fellowship between the established Jerusalem assembly and this outreach work begun by one of its own.

The formation of assemblies in the New Testament seems to always be connected with initial blessing in the gospel. God, of course, can save souls in a new locality without apostles, preachers, or outside “rank and file” believers. If that is the case, it would not be an outreach work in the strict way in which we are considering. Nevertheless, those situations should be eagerly and earnestly followed up by the closest assembly, and “if it be of God” those saints should do everything possible to help.

Assemblies, as far as I can gather from the New Testament, were never the result of disgruntled or rebellious breakaways, or even holier-than-thou groups that became uncomfortable with conditions in an existing assembly. (The Lord did not recommend, in Revelation 3, commuting from Laodicea to Philadelphia to enjoy a better environment there.) A new assembly should not be the result of a surgical procedure, a dismembering, or a selection of names on a list. The Biblical pictures of assembly formation are planting, building, etc. A sizeable group of Christians in a certain locality does not in itself call for the formation of an assembly. A local church is not simply a group of Christians, as we shall see in a moment; it is much more. Seeing the great commission carried out with the progressive results of salvation, baptism, and teaching (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 18:8, 9), seems to be the clearest indication of divine purpose regarding God’s “placing His name” in a certain locality. He could hardly sanction attempts to avoid or fast-track the New Testament pattern.

That pattern is evident as to those that would be used to lead an outreach work: service for God begins “at home” and then moves farther afield. This was true in Paul’s case, as Galatians 1 makes clear. This was true in Timothy’s case, as we learn in Acts 16. Mark’s gospel ends with the command to go into all the world, but let us remember that in chapter 5 the Lord also tells a man to go home. The sequence in Acts 1:8 is Jerusalem first, then Judea, then Samaria, then the farthest part of the earth. It is strange when believers who really never showed exercise in their home assembly, maybe even having been problematic, all of a sudden are supposedly being used by God to establish an assembly elsewhere. There are exceptions, and God does not necessarily work the same way in every case, but neither time nor space allows us to consider all the variants.

If God were to use some to start an outreach, these deacons might associate themselves for an extended period or even permanently, with the new assembly. Their movements and exercises should be in fellowship with the original assembly and its overseers. The Biblical ideal for them would be to work themselves out of a job and see God furnish the new assembly with “raw materials” from within. They might return to where they were previously, or God might lead them on to another area. We do not know for how long Philip remained in Samaria, but he seems to have settled long-term in C�sarea (Acts 21:8, 9). Barnabas and Saul helped the new work in Antioch for a “whole year” (Acts 11:26). Paul remained eighteen months in Corinth (Acts 18:11), but he stayed in Ephesus for over two years (Acts 19:10).

To be continued