Is the Success of the Church Directly Proportionate to the Abilities of It's Members?

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.
 - Acts 28:11-15

Several passages in the New Testament support a concept called The Universal Priesthood - or The Priesthood of All Believers.

  • Jesus gave the Great Commission to all of his followers (Matthew 28:19-20). 
  • Paul teaches that the church is a body made up of many parts and that each one has an important contribution to make (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). 
  • Peter refers to them as a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).

As people think about how they could possibly live out such a high calling, many people turn to prominent New Testament figures like Paul as a model for their individual Christian lives and ministries. After all
  • He always had the right words (consider the epistles).
  • He has a proven track record (a successful string of church plants).
Is the answer really that we all just need to be more like Paul? I don't think so.  I would contend that this exemplification of Paul presents a rather lopsided view, which has more to do with our false notions of leadership than it does with Paul himself.

It has been called the Great Man Theory: the belief that the wheels of history turn by the actions of uniquely gifted people, and I think has been historically paralyzing to the church.
  • What if I can’t speak like Paul?
  • What if I can’t achieve the kind of things he did?
If this view of leadership is correct then the extent to which we don’t live up to greatness the church will suffer. If that's the case, maybe it would be best to leave the work of ministry to someone else.

If we take a closer look at Paul though, we find that this view has caused us to selectively limit our reading of him, to those traits that we think can explain his success. This over inflated view in turn eclipses the role that God played in the development of the early church.  I’d like to take a few minutes to examine some of these perceptions.

Myth 1 - Paul always had the right words:  When we think of Paul's communication abilities we immediately turn to the epistles. However, the epistles are carefully composed letters; they provide no evidence that Paul was a gifted speaker.  In fact we have testimony to the contrary.  Paul himself admits that he does not come across as wise or eloquent (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).  And in his 2nd letter we find out that the Corinthians agree (2 Corinthians 10:10).  Paul asks the Colossians to pray that he might be able to speak his message clearly (Colossians 4:4). And Peter tells us in his first letter that Paul is often hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). In reality, Paul gives the credit for his persuasiveness to the power of the Gospel – which itself is living and active and is at work in the world. He tells the Colossians that the Gospel is growing throughout the entire world (Colossians 1:6) speaking of it as a force in and of itself.

Myth 2 - Paul’s success record: Many people have perpetuated the myth that Paul was responsible for single handedly evangelizing the entire Roman Empire, which simply is not true. While the book of Acts focuses on his ministry, if you look a bit closer you see that God did far more through the  collective contributions of average people than He did through any one individual – including Paul.

Before Paul even set foot on the mission field God had used ordinary men and women to spread the Gospel throughout the empire. Jews who had traveled to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost had heard the Gospel and taken the knowledge of Jesus home with them. Parthians Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt and Libya, Cretans Arabs and Visitors from Rome (Acts 2:5-12). These Jews had homes in far off countries established during several historic and strategic exiles in Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Rome. These pilgrims traveled from their home countries to Jerusalem because they were Jews, but they returned home as Christians - and brought the Gospel with them.

This brings me to the purpose of my passage.  It says when Paul arrived in Rome he was greeted by followers of Jesus who belonged to a pre-existing Christian Church, and that he was encouraged and thanked God at the sight of them. Why was he encouraged? Not just because he had arrived at the end of his journey, or because there would be people to look after him. He was encouraged because the Gospel had gotten there before him. The church Paul that greeted Paul upon his arrival to Rome was a beautiful example of how God had been at work all along, laying the foundations of the church, and supporting the contributions of all believers. The success of the early church didn’t depend on the abilities of exceptional people like Paul, but on the collective contributions of each of its ordinary members: a word here, a good deed there. No one person could take credit, or understand how it all fit together, but God was orchestrating it all to bring about His kingdom.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:20-31

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