In the New Testament, the framework for itinerant service is found in Jesus’ example and instructions in the Gospels. The book of Acts describes how Jesus’ followers eventually begin to live out this framework. As we read through Paul’s letters to different churches and individuals, we get an even better picture of how itinerant servants worked among the churches.
Throughout all the letters, we see the love and compassion and concern that Paul had for all the believers that he had met (and for some that he had never met – for example, the Colossians). When we think about how little time he spent with some of these people (and, like I said, the fact that he had spent no time with some of them), it is amazing how deep a connection they were able to form. Whether his recipients were living according to the gospel or not, Paul was concerned about their life and their growth in Christ.
They were able to maintain these relationships in spite of the fact that they were separated by many, many miles. Because of modern transportation and communication, it is difficult for us to understand how separated (physically) they were. However, they remained connected spiritually in a way that many Christians today would also find difficult to understand.
The personal (and particular) nature of Paul’s letters demonstrates something else that is very important for itinerant servants to consider: while there were basic similarities between all the believers that Paul had met, their needs differed. He did not treat them all the same, but instead dealt with them where they were and in the struggles that they faced. (This is particularly important in the modern church where traveling speakers tend to offer the same speech wherever they go. Of course, this probably has to do with a lack of relationship between the speaker and the audience.)
We can also see how Paul worked with the other members of his itinerant team. He trusted these men and women to deliver letters as well as remain among the believers for a time as living letters – examples of the truths that Paul wrote about. From Timothy and Titus, to Epaphras and Epaphroditus, to Phoebe and Tychicus, Paul sent these itinerant men and women to continue the work of proclaiming the gospel and strengthening the churches – the same work that they carried out while with Paul. (This is very similar to Jesus sending out the 12 and the 72 to continue the work that he had been doing.)
From these letters, we can also see that believers in one city – where Paul had already visited – occasionally (or often, it’s hard to tell) sent support to Paul and his teams. Paul was very appreciative for the help, but he was even more appreciative for the apparent work that God was doing in the lives of these Christians. Also, in terms of support, we read how important it was to Paul that believers in one city or region help out others in another city or region who may be struggling.
Paul’s letters must be read in the context in which they were written: a traveling servant to other believers intended to continue the work of strengthening the church. (Yes, this would include Timothy and Titus, who were also itinerant servants, not bishops or elders or pastors.) We even see that Paul intended to travel to Rome in order to carry on his itinerant service by traveling into the western part of the Roman empire toward Spain. (We don’t know from Scripture whether or not this happened.)
What other important aspects of itinerant service can we learn from Paul’s letters?