Acts 1 begins to explore the recurring theme of how leadership in the Church is meant to look. It challenges us to reassess our own relationship to authority and power and also to discern our own vocation to minister in Christ’s Church ever more carefully and prayerfully.
Acts 1.15-20: The Reality of Leadership
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,“Let his homestead become desolate,
and let there be no one to live in it”;
“Let another take his position of overseer.”
Who is in charge in the Church? It is a difficult question for all Christians: all of us feel strongly about who should or should not be in charge. All of us have a strong sense of when the wrong person is in charge. And we may feel profound discomfort about at the notion that any is in fact in charge at all. For many queer people, in particular, the overtones of dominance and potential for abuse that the notion of leadership can bring makes us more suspicious than most of the idea that anyone should be in leadership at all.
But in even the smallest communities, whether or not it is intended, leaders begin to emerge. Even the most democratic of Churches ends up being dominated by particular people and groups when certain issues are at stake. And that means that Christians have to take the reality of human leadership and power dynamics seriously, however uncomfortable we might feel about it, or however much we might believe that human leadership and dominance would not exist in an ideal society.
The first thing to note about this passage is that Acts 1 does not offer us a leadership model for the modern Church. Peter stands up “among the believers”… but “together the crowd numbers about one hundred and twenty” (v.15). The Church was tiny. When people point out that the earliest Church did not have leadership structures like the modern Church, all the priests, deacons, bishops and administrators and missioners in between, I have to agree. For the Church of the disciples was indeed not like ours. It was far more top heavy! Of one hundred and twenty believers, about 10% were the apostolic disciples. That’s not to mention the many women who were administrators and resource managers for this early group of believers! In the apostolic Church, as it prepared for its most succesful period of mission, 1 in 10 were clergy. That is a salutary reminder for those of us in the Church of England as it prepares to reduce clergy numbers in many of its dioceses.
But, in any case, it is clear that the Church of the apostles was profoundly different to the Church we inhabit today. What is most interesting about this excerpt, however, is Peter’s mindset when it comes to leadership. For Peter, the maintaining of a full apostolic mission to the world is nothing less than a scriptural imperative: “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (v.16). The integrity and importance of the office which Judas served does not seem to have been destroyed by his betrayal of Jesus: “for he was allotted his share in this ministry” (v.17).
This is because, Acts argues, Judas is not in himself the apostolic disciple. Judas has a “share” in an apostolic ministry which is far more fundamental than the individuals carrying it out. For it is not the apostolic ministry which is abolished by Judas’ failure, but Judas himself who, as Luke adds with a dark sense of irony in his editor’s comment, uses the “reward of his wickedness” (v.18) to purchase a field in which he immdiately trips, dying a gruesome death by disembowelment (vv.18-19). Judas’ downfall is not portrayed so much as the failure of an apostolic disciple as of a disinheritance, a demotion and a dismissal from apostolic discipleship. For his death is portrayed as a fulfilment of a psalm about disinheritance: “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” (v.20). On its own, this might be read to suggest the end of his apostolic ministry. But another verse makes it clear that the office continues, even when the incumbent has fallen: “Let another take his position of overseer” (v.20: “καί Τὴν ἐπισκοπὴν αὐτοῦ λαβέτω ἕτερος”, if you are a Greek geek!). This, as v.25 will tell us, is the “ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”
And this is Peter’s theological reasoning, as reported by Luke. Peter seems to take the reality of leadership within the Church as a given, and perhaps even as scripturally mandated. There is no sense in which, once the initial disciples have died off, the whole people of God will become a shapeless identical and democratically self-regulating mass. Protestant traditions emphasise the importance of order whilst Catholic traditions emphasise apostolic inheritance (there is not time here to go into all the ins and outs of that particular ecumenical debate). But what is clear is that leadership is something we have to take seriously. We can’t simply turn our noses up at it and ignore it, however egalitarian we may think our churches are. We have to think carefully about what leaders in the Church are meant to look like, what they are meant to do, and so what qualities they must possess and have nurtured in them by the rest of the Church. If leadership is something that exists in the Church, and has always existed in the Church, let it be good leadership, done well and for the right reasons.
Acts 1.21-26: Prayerful Discernment
[Peter continued], 21’So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
So how were they to choose a new apostle?
I am tempted to say that they didn’t have a clue. But I don’t think that would be fair to the text. Acts gives pretty clear criteria for choosing the new apostle, and they are wise.
Firstly, they must not actually be new. They must be “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (vv.21-22). The apostle must be experienced, must know the story of Jesus, the Gospel, if they are to be able to witness to it. For the apostle is called nothing less that to be “a witness with us to his resurrection” (v.22). Although I have said that this passage is not a model for leadership in the modern Church, I wonder how much dissatisfaction with some leaders in the modern Church has, at its root, the fact that many leaders are inexperienced and lacking in the knowledge they need to be able to do their task really well. I am always encouraged by preachers and pastors who have well thumbed bibles and well stocked bookshelves. I begin to get nervous when people in the Church say, ‘I don’t need to study.’ The basic subject matter of the Gospel is relatively small, but being able to administer and nourish the Church which it has birthed requires training and study if we are to be effective and faithful.
On the basis of this criterion Joseph and Matthias are chosen. But a second criterion is revealed in the disciples’ prayer. They do not simply pray, Lord, “show us which one of these two you have chosen” (v.24). They pray also, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart” (v.24). The deepest integrity and fittingness of a person for a particular office is a difficult thing to discern. The Church of England has an extended process of discernment for those wanting to enter ordained ministry, and discernment pathways also for those wishing to take up many of the many lay (non-ordained) ministries in the Church. But whilst the church of the disciples seems a little simplistic in discerning this by casting lots (v.26), the point Luke makes here strongly is that the discernment of the heart is hard work. It must be done in the Spirit, or it will not be done at all. And so such discernment must be done in prayer.
I have encountered many people who are exploring ministry within the Church, but whom I can’t quite describe as discerning. They are honest and genuine in their self-examination and submission to Church processes. But they aren’t praying it. Leadership at any level is not something which we are called to campaign for. It is not something we make happen by our own endeavours, either to put ourselves in positions of authority or those we support or particularly like. Leadership and apostolic authority within the Church is to important for that. It must be prayed about. And prayed about earnestly.
Matthias “was added to the eleven apostles” (v.26). Maybe you might be as well, one day, a particular apostolic office within the Church. But you are and will always be fundamentally a believer, whose task is prayerful discernment. And, remember, even if 10% of the Church in Acts 1 were official apostles, 90% of them weren’t. And the 90% are just as much saints of Christ’s Church.
As Acts progresses, the question of the shape of apostolic leadership will be a recurring them (this book, after all, recounts the Acts of the Apostles!). But as it explores that theme, Acts will have salutary reminders for us to evaluate our own interaction with Church authority and power, and to discern ever more carefully our own vocation to our role in the Church (for all of us have one!). But Acts, like the Holy Spirit, teaches us discernment slowly, and in many instances. Stick at it. Discernment, wisdom and a fulfilling ministry within the Church will come.