Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
From time to time we all get involved in the selection of leaders. Not only for the different organizations to which we belong, but in respect to the people we want to represent us at the local council, in parliament, etc., etc.
And to choose a particular person to represent us, there are a variety of criteria we use. We choose someone we think has the right skills for the job. We choose someone who is popular or someone who we think we could get on with the best. We choose someone who is young, because the position requires youth, or we choose someone who is older, because maturity and experience are required. We choose someone who has a charismatic personality, and . . . Well, you get the idea.
Now some of these things may be important, and we can use them to weigh up the pros and cons—to get the right person for the job. But in the end, sometimes the person we have chosen gets through, and other times . . . Well, you just can’t win them all.
And just as that is true regarding the selection of leaders as a whole, so is it true of the church.
But in regard to the church, the selection criteria that we use elsewhere, may need to take a backward step. Because there are some very basic and essential criteria, which are far more important. And the passage from the Acts of the Apostles illustrates why.
B. CHOOSING A REPLACEMENT FOR JUDAS
Now the story is set between the Ascension of Christ—forty days after his resurrection, when he returned to his Father—and the Festival of Pentecost—the day that God empowered his people, by giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And in this transition period, what was on the Apostle Peter’s mind, was the need to choose a successor for Judas, who had committed suicide after having betrayed Jesus.
As far as Peter (and probably others) was concerned, the twelve disciples were to have a special function in the life of the early church. And there was a realisation that their work was only just about to begin. As a consequence, the twelve needed to be restored to their full number. And so a replacement for Judas had to be found.
2. The Need for A Replacement (15-17)
And the story begins with Peter on his soapbox once again, taking the initiative in front of a crowd of about one hundred and twenty followers.
Now the number of followers is significant. Because it was the minimum number required in Jewish society to make decisions about the setting up of inner groups or deciding about leadership.
And so we find Peter explaining, firstly, by reference to the Old Testament, that what Judas had done had been foretold. It had been prophesied that the betrayer would be part of the inner circle of twelve, and that it would be necessary to replace him (20). And, secondly (and the real reason for needing a replacement), was that the task was still before them. They still had to share the gospel with all nations, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). And that would require the full number of witnesses be restored.
3. The Selection Criteria (21-22)
As a consequence, Peter went on to outline the selection criteria, he thought was important, in order to find a replacement.
Now we might find it odd to note, that with the role of being one of the twelve apostles—and with the specific task of sharing the good news—that none of the criteria that Peter outlined, concerned being a good speaker, or having a loud voice, or anything else of that nature. No! Peter restricted his criteria to three ground rules, and three ground rules only.
The first was that the person had to have been associated with Jesus from the time of his baptism by John. The second was that he had to have seen the resurrected Lord. And the third was that the person had to have received a personal commission from Jesus to be one of his eyewitnesses to the world.
Now of course the people may well have considered the other attributes required—the ones that would help them more easily carry out the task. But they were not part of the essential selection criteria. There were only the three requirements.
4. The Selection Process (23-25)
And as a consequence, those in attendance nominated two candidates: Joseph Barsabbas, of whom we know nothing, except for a legend later in life where he was forced to drink poison and suffered no ill effects at all. And Matthias, about whom we also know nothing at all.
Then having selected two possible candidates, they then didn’t vote for them as it would be more normal today. Instead, they prayed to God that from these two, the person of his choosing would be made known.
And bearing in mind, at this point, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit—Pentecost was still to come—they then used the time-honoured Old Testament practice of casting lots. To which the result was that the lot fell to Matthias. And he took over from Judas as one of the twelve.
Now there’s are two very important points which shouldn’t be lost in this story. And both relate to the fact that apostleship was not a humanly ordained office.
And the first is, that even though the church were able to put forward candidates, only God could select Judas’s replacement. Those assembled could only pray that God would exercise his choice—for he knew what was in men’s hearts. In other words, the real choice regarding leadership was left to God.
And the second thing is, that the criteria for nomination for the position placed far more importance on the person’s spiritual relationship with God, than what we might consider to be the talents needed for the role.
C. FURTHER EXAMPLES
And lest we be tempted to think that Peter’s criteria were specifically targeted to a “special” event, which called for different guidelines to those we would consider normal, we have other examples recorded in the New Testament to which we can refer.
1. The Teaching of Paul
Because according to the Apostle Paul the qualifications for other apostles, such as himself, were that they should have seen (the resurrected) Lord. And that they should have received a commission in person to be his witness (1 Cor 9:1f; 15:8-10; Gal 1:16f). And again Paul provided no guidelines in regard to the talents and abilities such a person might need.
Furthermore, the instructions that Paul gave Timothy (1 Timothy 3) regarding church leaders were . . .
Regarding the appointment of an overseer (or bishop) . . . They had to be a convert (but not a recent one), and that they needed to be a person beyond reproach (6). And regarding a person called to serve in any other capacity . . . They needed to keep hold of the deep truths of the faith (9) and that they were to be tested to see whether their claims were true (10).
In both cases, Paul said nothing about the skills and abilities required to carry out the task. The only issue was the level of faith to be considered for such positions, and the need for their lives to be beyond reproach.
2. The Practice of the Church (Acts 6:1-7)
But even leaving Paul out of the equation, we have the example of the selection of seven men to help in the welfare programme of the church (Acts 6:1-7).
For in a growing church, it was believed that a group of widows were being overlooked in regard to the daily distribution of food. But the twelve apostles, including the newly appointed Matthias, realised their dilemma: They just couldn’t continue to do all the things they had been doing, without some assistance.
So they called the other members of the church to put forward seven men to help in the care of the poor. And they didn’t specifically ask for people with the skills to do the job; they didn’t ask for a group of men who were good with the poor. What they did was to ask for men of faith, men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom.
And seven men were presented to the Apostles. And, after prayer, the apostles acknowledged that the men had been accepted by God for the task in hand. They then laid their hands on them, setting them apart for their role in the life of the church.
As far as the early church was concerned, the church was not a democracy, where people had the right to choose their own leaders. And leaders were not chosen based on their ability to do the job. Rather the church was a “theocracy,” where God chose the leaders. And leadership was based principally on a person’s relationship with God, not on any perceived ability.
And that, of course, brings us into sharp contrast with the practices of the church today. Particularly as church welfare and other agencies appoint board members and employees based on their abilities, not on their relationship with God. A practice that should be condemned.
But then in a world in which we are called upon to nominate and elect people for all sorts of roles, we have got used to using a range of criteria to assess the eligibility and the appropriateness of person to fulfill a particular role. But a range of criteria that is in sharp contrast to the criteria required by the church in New Testament times.
Now, of course, a person’s abilities and strengths may have been in the backs of people’s minds, even in New Testament times. But they formed no basis for the basic selection criteria. And by implication they should not be part of the basic selection criteria, in the church, even today.
Yes, we could say that times have changed. Because even in his time, the Apostle Paul recognised that times had changed (because of growth in the church, and because of the distance of time). Because it was no longer possible to choose leaders based on them having been with Jesus at his baptism. And the advent of the Holy Spirit had meant that visits from the risen Christ were no longer the norm for people who believed.
And yet regardless of that, the principals behind the decision-making process of the early church remained the same. And therefore are just as relevant today as they were back then.
So, when it comes to the decision-making processes of today—and in particular to all officer of the church (whether regarding the appointment of a Rector, the officers of the Parish Council, or whatever) the biblical principles remain sound.
1. Basic Criteria
And so the questions that should be asked of any person to be nominated for any position, should be: Firstly, does the person know Jesus? Have they committed their lives to their Lord and Saviour? Do they have the Holy Spirit living in their heart? Because if that is not true, then that person has no place in a leadership role in the church, regardless of their talents.
And, secondly, is the person committed to be a witness of Jesus? Are they devoted to telling others about what they have received for themselves? Have they a concern for others needing to hear what Jesus did in order that they might receive salvation? Because if they aren’t, then there is no place for them in a leadership role either.
If anyone fails one or both of those simple questions—the basic criteria essential for any leader in the church—then they are not fit to take on a leadership role within the church, regardless of any abilities they may have.
2. God’s Choice Not Ours
And having nominated people for a particular role—people who fit both criteria—it isn’t a matter of voting for the person and seeing who the majority choose. Rather, it’s a matter of putting forward that person or those person’s names, for the consideration of God. For his guidance, and for his choosing.
You see the church is different. It’s not like any other organization or institution. It is God’s church, not ours. And as a consequence, the people chosen to be leaders must be people of God. They must be of his choosing not ours.
Because, whatever a person’s talents and abilities, even if we think they would do a terrific job, that is not the basic criteria for a leadership position in the church. And if we don’t get that right, then the whole church structure is likely to fall flat on its face. Because it won’t be God’s church, it will our church. And, as a consequence, we won’t have God’s blessing upon our endeavours.
So today, yes, we are involved in choosing leaders from time to time—and it could be in club to which we belong, or for our local council or parliament. And, yes, we use different criteria to select our leaders. And in our church, we may be involved in the selection of our leaders too.
But in church, even if some people have good voices, good listening skills, or whatever—and we may like to take all of those things into account—none of those things should be part of our basic criteria.
In the church there are three basic and essential criteria when it comes to choosing a leader. And these are: That the person must be a person of God; that they must be committed to the mission of the church; and they must receive the approval of God to exercise their particular office. Because without those three things, whatever their skills, we have a recipe for disaster.
Posted: 18th January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis