Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 5: Unity in Diversity)

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Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 5: Unity in Diversity)

The first two articles in the Unity in Acts of the Apostles series emphasized unity in diversity within the context of two divinely orchestrated meetings (between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, and between Peter and Cornelius’s household).

 

The third and fourth articles underlined the aspect of unity in diversity in the context of church councils, wherein leading apostles defended their work among Gentiles, which engendered important discussions about the integration of foreign nationalities and cultures into the newly-formed Christian church.

 

The last article in this series tackles the aspect of leadership diversity. To this end, I will survey the leadership roles in Acts, noting how they work together in unity towards accomplishing the mission of the church.

 

Apostles

The word apóstólos (apostle) is mentioned 29 times in the book of Acts, and refers to fourteen individuals: the twelve disciples (with Matthias in Judas’s place), Paul, and Barnabas. Their main task is to preach the good news of salvation in new territories, and thus in this sense they perform a primarily evangelistic role.

 

Aside from this, they are engaged in a variety of activities intended to support the proper functioning of the church—both in terms of organization, spiritual nourishment, and doctrinal accuracy. Thus, they lay on hands (6:5-6 & 8:14-17), work towards conflict resolution (15:6), maintain communication with churches they have helped establish (15:22-29 & 16:4), fast and pray (1:13-14, 10:9, 13:2, & 20:36), and perform miracles (2:23 & 5:12).

 

The work of the apostles unfolds in close connection with the Divine will, with the apostles oftentimes receiving communication directly from God or the holy angels (9:3-6, 10:9-16, 10:19-20, 18:9-10, 22:17-21, 27:22-24). They embraced their task and shared God with the world despite the suffering and persecution arising from their ministry (5:17-18, 5:41-42, 8:1-4, 9:20, 16:20-24, 20:19-20, 20:24-27, 21:30-33, 22:24-24, & 23:2).

 

The apostles formed close relationships with those they ministered to, as is evident in the graphic episode of Paul departing from the church in Ephesus (chapter 20).

 

Prophets

Several prophets are mentioned in Acts of the Apostles: Agabus, five prophets in Antioch, four virgin sisters who were prophetesses, Judas, and Silas. Agabus foretold a widespread famine (Acts 11:27-30), which prompted the disciples to help their brothers in Judea. He also visited Paul in Caesarea, where, in a symbolic gesture of binding his hands and feet with Paul’s belt, he foretold the apostle’s arrest (Acts 21:8-11).

 

Judas and Silas accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch after the Jerusalem council, carrying with them the letter of the church for Gentiles converted to Christianity (Acts 15:30-33). The five prophets and teachers mentioned in Acts 13:1-4 received a divine command to lay hands on Saul and Barnabas. They prayed, fasted, and obeyed the instruction as received, anointing the two apostles as a mark of divine choice.

 

The other group of prophets in Acts are Philip’s four daughters, although the text does not elaborate on specific acts they performed (21:8-9). As can be seen, prophets in Acts are both men and women, act individually or in groups, and are involved in the immediate needs of the church, as well as the spiritual leadership of Christianity.

 

Elders and Overseers

Elders are mentioned four times in Acts: in Acts 15 (the council of Jerusalem), in 14:23 and 11:30 (general statements referring to Paul and Barnabas appointing elders and, respectively, bringing them help during a famine), and once in conjunction with overseers (episkop) in 20:28 (Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians).

In Acts 20:28, the elders and overseers are encouraged to practice personal accountability to God before guiding the church. They must be always aware that the church is God’s, who purchased it with a high price at the cross, and therefore they must serve in humility, placing themselves on equal footing with those whom they serve (they are to be “among the flock,” not above).

Acts 15 portrays elders in conjunction with the apostles as the group that received Paul and Barnabas well, manifesting a genuine interest in hearing their ministry stories, and coming together to decide on the matter of circumcision through respectful dialogue under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Deacons

The role of deacons is somewhat unique in Acts, being a ministry that arose from the specific needs of a church growing in numbers and diversity. Concretely, the ministry of deacons was a result of the apostles and congregations seeking a solution to ensure that all those in need received assistance.

 

The leaders had to be of good reputation, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” (6:3) and chosen from among themselves. Seven individuals are initially selected and anointed for the ministry of giving and table service (6:6).

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As is evident from this brief description of the four primary leadership roles in Acts, leadership diversity is essential for the unity of the church. Different ministries work together to ensure the numerical and spiritual growth of the church.

 

God is the One who bestows spiritual gifts upon each individual as He sees fit, and the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to recognize those gifts and put them at use in the proper context, and in conjunction with all other gifts. The early Christian community, as portrayed in Acts, embraced the principle of unity in diversity.

 

This principle reflects the close Trinitarian relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Several passages in the book of Acts indicate the harmonious working-together of the three Persons of the Godhead. For example, in Acts 1:2, Jesus gave His apostles commands through the Holy Spirit. In 1:4, Jesus discloses to the disciples that the sending of the Holy Spirit is a promise of the Father – a concept repeated by Peter in his Pentecost sermon (2:33).

 

Before his death, Stephen, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, saw Jesus standing by the Father (7:55-56).[1] The close relationship between the Trinity is also emphasized in 5:30-32, where the apostles share Jesus, who stands at the Father’s right hand, and of whom the Holy Spirit testifies.

 

The enthronement of Jesus at the Father’s right hand inaugurates a new kingdom[2] unlike any other kingdom the world has ever witnessed, or will ever witness. This kingdom is of Divine origin and bears the mark of divine purposes: the salvation of mankind from sin, and the reconciliation of humanity with its Creator God.

 

In Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit is deeply involved in bringing together the members of this kingdom: Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free. What enables anyone to become a member of God’s kingdom is the acceptance of the gift of Christ: His sacrifice, His love, and His promise to make all things new—not only our sinful hearts, but also the diseased earth that has been our home since the fall.

 

Through the ministry of the Spirit, the unity of the Godhead, a unity of purpose, would ideally come to be reflected by the Christian church. It is this Divine relationship, this unity in diversity as exemplified by the Divine Trinity, which our church should strive to model in our desire to fulfill the Great Commission.

 

Because of our sinful nature, such a perfect unity can only be achieved partially, yet it is to be both our goal, and the basis of our fellowship—not to seek a place above others, but in humility and love to serve each other and manifest mutual support and encouragement in the spiritual journey towards the better future Christ has promised to realize.

Click here to read the rest of this series

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Notes.

[1] George K.A. Bonnah, The Holy Spirit: A Narrative Factor in the Acts of the Apostles (Stuttgart, Germany: Verlag Katolisches Biblewerk GmbH, 2007), pg. 97.

[2] Allan J. Thomposon, One Lord, One People: The Unity of the Church in Acts in its Literary Settings (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2008), pg. 64.

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.

  • Seth Greenberg

    Beautiful article! Very well researched. Salvation is through grace. Not by works. But the book of Acts never mentions the Jewish believers abandoning circumcision or other Jewish practices. It Only says they wouldn’t impose Jewish practice on the Gentiles. That was the decision of the council. Did the Apostles abandon Jewish practices?