I was already an adult when I discovered the Assemblies. I found some things immediately engaging. Other things I needed to see for myself in the Scriptures before I could internalize them. And I found a few things troubling. A big one was the “commended worker.”
Because of my denominational background, the whole commendation concept seemed like a contradiction. We say we don’t have a clergy class, yet we have this apparently-separated group of people called “commended workers.”
While I have come to see commendation in the Word of God, I still believe it’s an area we should approach with special care and attention to the Biblical example. The New Testament commendation we know the most about is the assembly at Antioch commending Paul. Here are three instructive observations about that event which we might apply today.
1. Education does not qualify you
Saul (Paul) was educated at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a teacher of great reputation. He had the First Century equivalent of a Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, University of Toronto…Oxford education. But this was not what qualified him. In fact, even with his academic credentials, Saul still believed that he was serving God by persecuting and killing Christians.
That is not to say that the Lord didn’t use Paul’s education and intellect; the Lord uses everything. But what qualified him to teach, evangelize, and write nearly half of the New Testament was his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, his salvation by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus, his Spiritual gifting, and time spent under the instruction of the Lord (Galatians 1:11-17).
No amount of education—Bible college, seminary, flight school, med school—will ever qualify you to do a work for the Lord, unless the Lord gifts you and calls you to that work. So if you want to be in the Lord’s work, start seeking the Lord’s will and obeying His revelation. Get whatever education you think would be helpful. But don’t expect education to qualify you. It won’t.
2. History sets the stage
After Stephen was stoned, things got dicey in Jerusalem for the followers of Jesus (Acts 11:19). Believers were scattered across the known world like a busted seedpod. Wherever the Lord’s people landed, they planted assemblies.
With the spread of the Gospel and planting of churches, a great need arose for teaching, evangelism, shepherding…all the gifts that work together to operate an assembly.
When the Christians needed help in Antioch, Barnabas went to Tarsus to get Saul, who the spent a year in Antioch—assembling with and ministering to the Christians (Acts 11:25-26).
Just as there were geopolitical circumstances in the days of the early Church—persecution, oppression…scattering—so are there timely circumstances in the world today.
If you want to serve the Lord, you need to know the Lord, His Word, His Gospel – these never change. But you also need to be ready to flex with the technology, opportunity, and circumstances that present themselves.
There was no publishing ministry before there were printing presses, no camp ministry before there were camps, no medical ministry before the third world need and first world technology escalated, no aviation ministry before there were airplanes, no broadcast ministries before radio and television.
The object and subject of ministry are always the same. The mechanisms of ministry change with the times. Be ready. Be flexible.
3. Practical experience and growth in the local assembly
Paul’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures, unique salvation testimony, particular gifting, and schooling in the Arabian Desert regarding the Gospel and the application of the Old Testament to the Church age only prepared him to START learning. Then he was given a year of practical experience and fellowship in the local church at Antioch.
The Acts account implies that the Lord had already decided to call Paul to be his messenger. But rather than just sending him out, He sent him in…to the local assembly.
Paul and the other brethren made themselves available to the Lord’s leading. As they worked—with prayer and fasting—the Lord put on their hearts to separate Paul and Barnabas to the work to which “I have called them” (Acts 13:1-3).
For his years on the mission field, Paul would be working with assemblies. Planting them. Encouraging them. Teaching them. Organizing them. Counseling them. Having fellowship with them. So it is with the Lord’s work today.
It makes sense that Paul would be asked to serve an “apprenticeship” in an assembly setting. Those who seek to serve the Lord today ought to function within the local assembly too. Whether or not you hope to be commended to a work outside of the assembly, you do well to learn and prove your gifting within the assembly.
If you take this approach, you’ll be satisfied with the work the Lord gives you, whether or not he ever puts on the hearts of the brethren to commend you.
Paul may or may not have been aware of the Lord’s calling. The Scripture doesn’t tell us that. What it does tell us is that when the time had come for Paul and Barnabas to be sent out, the Lord spoke not to their hearts, but to the hearts of their brethren.
They all sought the Lord together, with prayer and fasting. And the Lord responded by instructing them to lay hands on Paul and Barnabas.
To wrap this up, here are four things to consider if you want to serve in the Lord’s work:
- First, be sensitive to the fact that it’s the LORD’s. He does the gifting, the preparing, and the calling.
- Second, be reconciled to the likelihood that you’ll be trusted to do a work outside of the assembly only after you’ve shown that you can do that work inside the assembly.
- Thirdly, show yourself able before your brethren (without promoting yourself).
- And finally, seek the Lord’s leading urgently, diligently, and constantly, so that all of you will be able to hear when the Lord says, “separate ___ to the work to which I have called him or her.”