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Thinking about itinerant servants and the church

Posted by on May 5, 2011 in missional, service, spiritual gifts | 22 comments

Thinking about itinerant servants and the church

Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, Peter, Mark, and many other people mentioned in the New Testament were itinerant at least for a while.

Itinerant, in this sense, means that they moved around from place to place proclaiming the gospel and strengthening churches. Itinerant also means that they did not intend to stay in one place permanently. Sometimes they stayed in one place a few days; sometimes a few weeks; sometimes a few months; sometimes even a few years. But, the intention was always to keep moving, as long as they considered themselves itinerant.

I’m using the term “itinerant” instead of other possible descriptions. For example, I could call these people “apostolic,” but that term has been misused and hijacked lately, I think. (But I do believe that being itinerant is related to the spiritual gift of apostleship.) I could also used the terms “emissary” or “representative” or “ambassador” but those terms have a governmental or political connotation today.

So, while I’m thinking about “itinerants” – and I plan to write about this more in the coming days – I have a couple of questions for you, my readers, to help me think through this topic.

1) Is there a better term than “itinerant” to describe a person who travels from place to place without the intention of remaining in that place in order to proclaim the gospel and strengthen the church?

2) How does the scriptural view of the “itinerant” contrast or compare with different types of servants (“minister”) today?

3) Do you think there is a place and/or need in the church today for itinerant servants? Why or why not?


22 Comments

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  1. 5-5-2011

    Perhaps a modern word would be “church planter”. As I see it, Paul and the others traveled around to areas procalaiming the Gospel and planting churches. The length of time varied, as you stated in your post, but then they would trust the Holy Spirit to guide the new church and they would move on to another area to procalim the Gospel. Also, they would occasionally check in with previous locations via letters or another vist to see how things were going.

  2. 5-5-2011

    Alan

    1) I think itinerant is an appropriate word but I am not sure many/most people know what it means. It sounds kind of like incontinent.

    2) I don’t think we see many people, at least not the “influential” Christians who fit in this mold. When we think of Christian leaders, we often think of the famous pastors, theologians, seminary presidents and increasingly bloggers. Most ministers today stay in one place until they find something better vocationally, rather expecting to move periodically to spread the Gospel.

    3) Yes! Increasingly the traditional church minister has become a caretaker of an institution. As the culture becomes less “churchy” we are going to need servants to reach the lost in setting where they are unlikely to “go to church”.

    I am all for temporary financial support of itinerant ministers as they relocate and get settled in.

  3. 5-5-2011

    How ’bout a good simple word: peripatetic. (Sorry, but I’m a Greek teacher!)

  4. 5-5-2011

    Chris,

    Most “church planters” that I’ve met plan to stay at the church that they plant as the senior pastor or one of the pastors. Have met church planters who move from place to place?

    Arthur,

    Thanks for answering all the questions! Do you think it’s possible for itinerants servants to work with traditional churches?

    Dave,

    I like peripatetic, but I’m afraid less people will understand that word than itinerant. :)

    -Alan

  5. 5-5-2011

    How about “roving”? :-)

  6. 5-5-2011

    Scott,

    “Roving”… interesting… like a roving reporter.

    -Alan

  7. 5-5-2011

    Okay. Just trying to help.

    How ’bout “rolling stone”– you know, as in the Bob Dylan song. (Do I hear you saying, “Who’s Bob Dylan?”)

    We’d call them The Rolling Stones (see 1 Peter 2:5).

  8. 5-5-2011

    Dave,

    “Rolling Stones” definitely fits some people that I’ve been talking to. And I, for one, definitely know who Bob Dylan is. :)

    -Alan

  9. 5-6-2011

    re:question 1. One of the reasons I like “itinerants” or some other general description for these folks is that, besides apostles, those who serve this way also include evangelists and prophets. For another, as Alan pointed out, the word “Apostle” has been as distorted in the church today as the word pastor has been. It is most often “restored” in terms of hierarchy and control, rather than through sacrificial service as lowly bondservants.

    re:question 3. The arguments I’ve heard against there being itinerants today include mistaking the requirements for the person replacing Judas as being the requirements for an apostle per se (which none of the several named apostles in the NT outside the Twelve met, including Paul).

    Arguments against current itinerant servants also includes limiting the work of itinerants to planting new churches where there is none. Since there are very few areas in the world today where the church does not exist, there would therefore be little or no need for itinerants. For example, I would be surprised if you could find 5 cities or towns where there are no Christians in North America today.

    But in the arguments for them column, we could start with a more complete understanding of what they do. They were not only church planters, but also the traveling “seminary” (where rather than families uprooting to go to seminary, the seminary came to them, and the classroom was every day life working and serving together–OJT). They were not only foundation layers (planting new churches) but foundation restorers (going back in person and by letters to established churches to help them restore core truths, principles, functions, and values). They were “uber-concerned” with unity and with seeing saints become christ-likenesses). In “Body of Christ” terms, you could call them the white blood cells, rushing to the scene of intrusions and infections.

    If we see them in this light, and then look at Eph 4:7-16, we have to admit the work described to be done has not been completed, and so they are not yet done away. (“And he gave some…Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”)

    re:question 2. This is a major problem. There is no accurate correlation to workers today. Most missionaries are not church planters or restorers, nor usually–once in the field–are they any more itinerant than a pastor who leaves seminary or a current church for a new one. Seminary teachers teach by lecture, not on the job, and they are stationary, not itinerant. Just as many who frequent this blog are working hard to restore a more biblical understanding of the church and of elders, we also need to restore a biblical understanding of the work of itinerants.

    EVERY saint is gifted (discussion of pastors and itinerants is preceded by this affirmation in Eph 4:7). Some are called to be apostles, prophets and evengelists–itinerants. But how do they respond to those urges? Without they, and the church, understanding their work, they fit their passions as best they can into current models. Some become missionaries. Some write books. Some plant a church and stay there for years (which is highly promoted–founding pastors often being important to a church). Some become disgruntled troublemakers. ALMOST NONE fulfil the real work and calling of biblical itinerants.

  10. 5-6-2011

    Art,

    Your comments and posts about itinerants are always helpful to me! You’ve given me alot to think about. I may need to reformat the series I’m working on. :)

    -Alan

  11. 5-6-2011

    One other major role they play in a new church plant, in a church undergoing troubles, and in the lives of developing “faithful men:” they set an example. This is such an important key to how we learn (and teach) as Christians, seeing models and demonstrations in everyday life–examples we can follow and grasp.

    I especially like Paul’s descriptions in II Cor where he epitomizes his ministry with the word “manifest.” He describes his work seven times in this letter with the words “made manifest,” “manifestation,” and “manifestly declared.”

    Similar to how elders influence others, a major aspect is in being these sorts of examples. And, just as with elders, the fact that they come in multiples, means that they demonstrate between themselvs (as well as with others) things like mutual submission, mutual edification, deferring to others; even, maybe especially, when gathered–I love the picture I Cor 14:30 paints of prophets (and who likes speaking more than these?) deferring to others, etc.

    I know you’ve delved into these passages before, but they are worth underlining again in this context:

    “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know *what manner of men we were among you for your sake*.” -I Thess 1:5

    And notice the result:

    “And ye became *followers of us, and of the Lord*, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost. So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. ” (see I Thess 1:6-10)

    Again, we have Paul describing his work at Ephesus to the assembled elders, to whom he charges to do the same:

    “Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, *after what manner I have been with you at all seasons*, Serving the LORD with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house…”

    There are also passges like I Cor 4:16, 11:1; Philippians 3:16-17; I Thess 2:14; II Thessalonians 3:8-10; I Tim 6:12; etc.

  12. 5-6-2011

    Itinerant is a good word, but I usually prefer the term “worker.” It’s biblical, plus it lacks the misrepresentation and abuse that you’ve mentioned revolves around the word apostle.

    Like you’ve already pointed out, Alan, first century workers moved about from place to place; none of them settled down to be the resident priest (or pastor) over a particular congregation. There is good reason for this.

    The need for such workers is no less today than it ever has been. The church I gather with has recently been blessed to find one such brother, and the benefit of his ministry to our assembly has been substantial.

  13. 5-7-2011

    Art,

    Thanks again for the fascinating comments. I’m learning so much while studying this topic.

    Josh,

    I think that “worker” is a good term. But, I think it would also cover those who do not travel from place to place. What do you think?

    -Alan

  14. 5-7-2011

    You’re probably right, Alan. Perhaps “itinerant worker” or “travelling worker”, then?

    I find it interesting to see the different labels used in various church movements and streams. There’s always that tension between desiring to be faithful to the original pattern/expressions and yet seeing the need to find new expressions based upon the problems of abuse or simply the irrelevance of older terms. At any rate, I believe we are free to move and experiment as the Spirit of the Lord leads us.

  15. 5-8-2011

    Paul refers to those who were itinerant with him by several terms. Some examples include:

    Epaphroditus “my brother and fellow labourer, and fellow soldier, but your apostle” Phil 2:25

    Timothy “brother” II Cor 1:1; “apostle of Christ” I Thess 1:1, 2:6; “evangelist” II Tim 4:5

    Phoebe “sister” “servant” Rom 16:1

    Aristarchus “fellow prisoner” Col 4:10; “fellow laborer” Philemon 1:24; “travel companion” (Lukes description) Acts 19:29

    Tychicus “beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant” Col 4:7

    Titus “brother” II Cor 2:13; “partner and fellow worker” II Cor 8:23

    Apollos “minister” I Cor 3:5; “brother” I Cor 16:12; “apostle” I Cor 4:6-9

    These are not generic terms to describe “these sort of people or giftings.” They aren’t titles. These are descriptions of friends with whom time a deep bond has been formed in the field from laboring together under difficult situations. Something akin to those who have been in battle together.

    It probably isn’t unreasonable to conclude there is no one biblical term that we must use to describe those given gifts of apostles, prophets and evangelists in general. The only unique thing about these folks is that they labor itinerantly. What they do is what all saints are privileged to do where they live and work (just as what elders do is what all saints are to do).

  16. 5-8-2011

    It seems in the NT days an apostle (or missionary) would go to an area and preach the gospel. As God drew in converts they would stay and teach and lay a foundation. When it was apparent that God had put Hand on and Spirit in some, they (the apostle/missionary)would recognize them and charge them with shepherding responsibilities. Then they (the apostle/missionary) would move on and replicate again elsewhere. This seems a far cry from our modern day pastor coming in, building up a church organization, raising up ministries (which are then usually sent out to the “mission field”), and then settling into a long-term position followed by retirement. All forms of church governance’s usually lean on the “Pastoral Epistles” when they justify their methods. I wonder if they know that term wasn’t even popularized until 1726 when Paul Anton, a theologian from Halle, Germany wrote it in his commentary and it caught on.

  17. 5-9-2011

    extralocal worker is another term I have heard used. I don’t have much time to comment my thoughts fully but I have found them to be very helpful in the beginning stages of a group coming together for Christ alone and for help if needed when those problems that arise will arise. Somehow it is highly helpful to have someone that is respected that has poured their lives into the group and can provide a counsel and a view on the problems from outside the group. This is invaluable indeed.

  18. 5-8-2012

    Please tell us when you’ve nailed this down. We’ve been mobile for the past 12 years and have yet to find a word that describes it.

  19. 5-8-2012

    Eric,

    It sounds like you should be writing this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    -Alan

  20. 5-8-2012

    I’m sorry… I was in error and I think I just posted what I said because I wanted to commiserate.

    What I should have said is, “I would call those people ‘Christians’ or ‘Christ Followers.’ In one way or another I think it is what we’re all called to do and by making a distinction dismisses it to the role of a few.

    Not to self-promote, but I just wrote of this in an open response to one of our readers in a post “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”

    Sorry for the double comment. Even a year out, love the thoughts and comments. Thank you.

  21. 5-8-2012

    I caught this from Eric’s share/post on Facebook.

    Very interesting thoughts. I agree with what everyone is saying here, although I admit only skimming parts of the comment thread.

    It seems to me that right now in the western church there is a diverse mixture of many different things going on in this area. There are established, traditional churches who invite “itinerant” preachers to come in and give a sermon/teaching to build up the church. From what I’ve seen the itinerant preacher is higher profile than the church pastor, or a mentor to the church pastor. Either way, the itinerant is considered a guru.

    I’ve also seen churches pastor swap for some short period of time (maybe just one sermon).

    In the house/simple/organic churches, itinerants are more like what I see of Paul/Barnabas/John-Mark/Apollos/etc, moving from place to place to equip and raise up a church in a local area and then moving on when the church is ready or they are forced out of town or called to move on to other things.

    Eric suggests that Christians should be itinerant in general, and I absolutely agree, but I hesitate to make that an absolute. I’m guessing there are many Christians around the world who never leave their village/town, and certainly the duration that someone feels led to stay/go will vary widely.

    But I think Eric brings up a great point that in general, Christians should be less tied to some tangible thing (house/job/preference) and be more tied to the leading of the Spirit, wherever and to whomever that might lead.

    Is being itinerant for a special class/calling of Christians? I tend to think no, we’re all equal in Christ and it is he who decides how/when to call and use any of us. However, it would seem that there are some Christians who have made themselves more available to the Lord, and are thereby recognized as able to be trusted to lay a foundation of Christ alone to a group of believers and equip them to know him and meet together with him as Head of the body. So I think it may be less of a special calling and more of God’s timing coupled with our cooperation with him and yielding to him.

    I do think the itinerant role is important, in that the extra-local worker is able to address issues that those more enmeshed in the daily life of the church find harder to approach. They are able to bring something new and fresh to the local body, and thereby breath new life into a group of believers that might be struggling and refocus them on Christ. For a new group, they are able to lay a foundation and then leave the group to function in the Spirit without a set human leader.

  22. 5-8-2012

    Ive met a few itinerants.
    Each was very different from the other.
    Two were married women with families, who left their homes seasonally to
    travel around a circuit of the more charismatic churches, tent meetings and small rural fellowships like ours.
    Both brought a kind, mother hen like softness to our midst, offering homely wisdom, laughter, prayer warrior faith and down to earth discipleship advice.
    Two were older men, married, who spent weeks or months parked in one place, each setting themselves in to see where they could help out, and
    nurture. One was an 80 yr old carpenter who came back to us for several consecutive years, sublimely teaching the Lords ways, building or repairing our homes, and training a few of us younger fellows in hands on skills. His wife came a few times. What a pair of Gods jewels.
    The other brother was more of a teacher, deeply focused on our relationships with God and each other. Holiness, love and humility oozed from him, and he was a father to most of us, especially given that none of us was older than 25.
    God has His treasure in some pretty cool, but unorthodox vessels.
    He sent them when no one else would come.
    Of course they don’t fit into most orthodox paradigms, and if they had, they would not have helped us get past some pretty rough spiritual terrain still believing in the love of God.
    Once in a while, when we were hit with reflective moods, we would try to find our convoluted experiences in scripture, because we were told often that we were in danger of error and apostasy.
    Still cant find a pattern that matches our trajectory, but I found one that matches the whole body of Christ.
    Its Jesus.
    If anyone was the original maverick, anti establishment, hippie, cool dude it is Him.
    And he broke most of the social and religious rules without ever sinning or hurting anyone un-righteously.
    Looking over 2 millenia of the church, we also have a really messy macro trajectory, with very little scripture to back up anything we have done or built. And yet, histories pages are filled with the love and leading of Gods people, and His blessing on all of us.
    And today, I’m genuinely jealous of my children who I suspect are going to see the glory of God like few generations in history.
    Itinerant indeed!
    blessings
    Greg

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