Set them apart
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting,
the holy Spirit said,
"Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul
for the work to which I have called them."
Then, completing their fasting and prayer,
they laid hands on them and sent them off.
It is a wonderfully evocative scene, but it can also add fuel to the fire of ecclesiological controversies.
The frustration (and the fuel for controversy) can be found in the lack of certain details. Did the Holy Spirit communicate miraculously out of the open air? Or was it a prophetic utterance? Was it a sudden consensus? Or, to use a term found elsewhere in the New Testament, was it the presiding spirit of the church there?
Who laid hands on Barnabas and Saul? Was it everyone in the congregation? Was it an ordination or just a blessing or “praying over”?
The answer that one gives to these questions and one’s interpretation of these verses may be linked with one’s view of the Church, of Church structures, and of Church leadership.
People with a “grassroots” view of Church may tend to depict this scene as a wholly communitarian and egalitarian dynamic: everyone in the community discerned and everyone in the community ordained.
Other people, with a different view of Church, might look at these verses and depict them as a slight spiritualization of a much more ordinary ecclesiastical scene.
Whether one is an ecclesiological conservative or an ecclesiological liberal, there are important things for all of us to remember:
First, the scene begins with worship and fasting.
Our life should be centered on worship and worship should provide the ground from which we make our decisions in the spirit.
Also, detachment (exemplified by fasting) is an important element of discernment.
Second, decisions in the spiritual life and in the Church ultimately come from the Holy Spirit: not from the will of individuals or groups.
Third, not everyone can do everything: diversity of ministries is a key element of our Christian life. We as Christians are not only set apart from the world, but we as individuals are set apart – while remaining in communion and in unity of faith, love, and truth – to unique tasks and sometimes even life paths in the Lord.
Fourth, even though we may each be set apart by the Lord, we are nevertheless connected closely to the community as a whole. Even hermits come from the community and lift the community up in prayer.
Liberal or conservative, may we worship, pray, fast, discern, walk the paths set for each us, and say in communion with each other in the name and the truth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.