When pastors leave

Have you ever been a member of a local congregation that went through a transition from one senior pastor to the next?

I have.

And I’m happy to say it went extremely well.

That’s not to say that everyone was pleased with the changes in program and personnel that followed. Some church members voted with their feet. And even among the vast majority who stayed, there can be the occasional bout of nostalgia: Gee, remember the good old days?

All of this is normal and to be expected. People, even Christian people, tend to resist change. You may have your own story of a much more difficult and tumultuous transition. Some pastors leave abruptly, either by their own choice, or (if we’re being honest) because they’ve been maneuvered out. It can throw a congregation into crisis. Divisions and factions arise. Matters of church politics — Who’s really in charge here? Who should be? — that simmered just below the surface before can boil over into outright conflict, contaminating the pastoral search process.

Pity the new pastor who unknowingly steps into that hornet’s nest. It happens. And it ain’t pretty.

(Side note: whenever I mention “church politics,” most of my students at the seminary understand immediately and intuitively what I mean. But I remember one student who wrinkled her nose in confusion. “Church politics?” she asked, incredulous. “That’s a thing?” I sighed and thought, Hoo boy. I hope you don’t have to go through too rude of an awakening.)

Were similar social dynamics true of the early church? Who knows. But I don’t see why not. One could read the story of the church down through the centuries as driven by conflict — not just conflict with the “outside world,” but within its own walls. The history of Christian doctrine isn’t just the logical development of ideas, considered in the abstract. Doctrine develops in the context of people arguing with each other and defining the boundaries of who is and isn’t a heretic.

This, then, is what I imagine as I read Luke’s account of Paul finishing up his time in Corinth. He and his friends Priscilla and Aquila had faithfully served that congregation for a year and a half. The congregation had been birthed in conflict, as a disgruntled Paul left the synagogue and immediately turned aside into the home of a Gentile. The synagogue leader became a believer, and a new one had to be found; the new leader was later beaten in public (possibly for becoming a believer himself).

Not exactly your suburban, religious country-club kind of church.

Right? Now imagine that the three senior members of the pastoral staff leave at the same time. That’s the reality behind Luke’s simple statement that Paul sailed away to Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila in tow (Acts 18:18).

And that’s the context in which Apollos is introduced into the story. Here’s Luke’s description:

Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus. (Acts 18:24-28, NRSV)

With the exception of a brief mention in the next verse, this is all we see of Apollos in Acts. Everything else we know about him comes from Paul’s letters, primarily First Corinthians (there’s also one brief and rather uninformative mention in Titus 3:13, but that’s it).

At the beginning of First Corinthians, Apollos seems to be part of an ongoing controversy in the Corinthian church. Moreover, by the end of that letter, we read this: “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but he was not at all willing to come now. He will come when he has the opportunity” (1 Cor 16:12).

Apollos, apparently, was no longer in Corinth. And though Paul tried to convince him to visit, the man was unwilling. We don’t know why. But to me, Paul’s statement that Apollos “will come when he has the opportunity” almost sounds like wishful thinking: Don’t worry, he’ll be there. Just be patient.

We’ll unpack what Luke says about Apollos in the next post. But then we’ll need to come back to First Corinthians to round out the story.

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